Citing soil concerns, Wicomico nixes land deal

The Wicomico County Council this week finally rejected the offer of 234 acres off Connelly Mill Road, based on results of soil and water testing there.

The decision not to accept the donation was made at their meeting Tuesday morning, after hearing results from a preliminary, Phase I environmental study on the land, appraised at $1.6 million.

The council has spent much of this fall debating whether to accept the property. Concerns about whether there might be pollution within the soils prompted an environmental evaluation.

Adjacent to the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex, the land, zoned for residential use, is owned in part by Salisbury lawyer Steven Smethurst.

Assistant County Administrator Weston Young told council members that firing range backstops were found on the property, from a range located there more than 50 years ago that was not always contained.

Aerial photographs identified a cluster of farm houses on the site, but no underground tanks were on file as having been registered.

Two monitoring wells were located, one with an official registration and other apparently used to measure for groundwater levels.

A high concentration of lead was found in the soil, but the source wasn’t determined.

“Knowing we have a very high level of lead, I think we should look into this, even if we do not accept the parcel. If we come across source, if you can prove your neighbor is the one causing pollution, they can be required to clean that up,” Young said.

Debris was encountered, from household trash to a burned-out car, burned-out boat and dilapidated recreational trailer. Weather stripping and electrical wire were found buried.

Water samples were taken from the east, central and western areas from ponds dug down to groundwater level. They were exposed to the elements, so also included rainwater, Young said.

Tests were completed for elements including volatile compounds, pesticides, herbicides and pollutant metals. Trace amounts of metals were found. Arsenic was discerned, but can occur naturally, Young said.

“Further studies would be needed. Liability would have to be determined. This wasn’t the news we wanted to hear. The results of Phase I and limited Phase II studies have made the executive’s office hesitant to accept the offer,” Young said.

A more detailed study would take 30 to 45 days to complete.

Young said ground penetrating radar, used during more detailed testing, would show what else is in the site, especially around the old houses.

Councilman Marc Kilmer asked about the process, time and cost to clean the area.

One of the experts accompanying Young said that can’t yet be determined.

When the land was offered, donors set a deadline of Dec. 29 for the county to accept the property, so they wouldn’t have to pay 2018 taxes.

Young said the donors offered to extend the deadline, if the county waived their $18,000 tax bill, drawing chuckles from some council members.

Cannon asked each councilman if he would agree to waive taxes and the majority said they would not.

Council Vice President Larry Dodd asked County Executive Bob Culver, who was in the audience, if he wanted to continue spending money for studies or to stop the process and reject the land.

Culver said his purpose was to determine how council members felt.

Dodd suggested tabling, but Cannon said that would be the same as voting not to accept it.

He asked each member if the matter should be pursued and the majority voted not to, with Councilman Matt Holloway said, “Walk away.”

Cannon, too, voted not to accept the land.

Councilman Joe Holloway, who seemed skeptical about the land offer from the beginning, said the exercise showed that government works well when it takes its time and considers all of the ramifications of an issue.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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