This story was originally published Sept. 14, 2018.
New Castle County has finished surveying residents of two communities along Route 9 about environmental conditions in their neighborhoods— and whether they might ultimately want to relocate, if given the opportunity.
Eden Park Gardens and Hamilton Park have faced more than a few environmental issues over the years—enough to make a step as radical as relocation worth entertaining.
Carrie Casey, manager of community development and housing for New Castle County, says the County’s goals for the recent Eden Park-Hamilton Park Community Survey are to gauge residents’ perceptions of the neighborhoods’ environmental issues, their knowledge of past mobilization efforts, “and then to see where the community is on relocation and/or cleaning up or doing other things around them so that they are in a good, healthy place to live.”
Hamilton Park and Eden Park sit off Route 9, just south of Wilmington City limits.
They’re majority African American communities, with median annual household income around $32,000, according to the Wilmington Area Planning Council’s (WILMAPCO) mapping analysis of available demographic data.
They’re nestled between companies like Keen Compressed Gas, Bruce Industrial and Diamond Materials, a paving and concrete contractor whose huge, uncovered mounds of materials tower over Route 9.
The neighborhoods are also located near the Halby superfund site— where a chemical manufacturing plant once stood.
Primary contaminant concerns at that site are arsenic and carbon disulfide, but according to the EPA, human exposure and groundwater migration there are under control.
Residents also complain of airborne dust from nearby industry, and emissions from the many trucks that drive through on their routes, and to and from the Port of Wilmington.
Issues like these led some in the community to raise the idea of relocation.
It was part of a 2004 lawsuit in which more than 250 Eden and Hamilton Park residents filed against roughly 30 local companies— such as Clean Earth of New Castle, Wilmington Chemical Corporation and Greggo & Ferrara.
The relief sought by the plaintiffs included fair value for their homes.
“We sued that either you move your industries or move us,” said Pastor Louis McDuffy, president of the Eden-Hamilton Park Civic Association and longtime community leader on environmental issues.
McDuffy says most plaintiffs received a check for property damages, but a buyout did not occur because the neighborhoods did not achieve the required consensus.
Residents report health problems
County officials say occupant homeownership is slightly higher in Eden and Hamilton Park than in many of the surrounding communities. According to the County, there are 32 vacant lots among the two neighborhoods. Less than seven percent of houses in the neighborhoods are vacant, and roughly 15 percent of units are rentals.
Marcia Mason has lived in Eden Park her whole life. She says for the last 15 years, she hasn’t wanted to.
“We’ve been trying to move for a long time,” she said. “But most of us cannot afford to just up and leave. And it wouldn’t be fair to sell the house to somebody knowing ... that this is contaminated land.”
Mason’s biggest concern with the environment in Eden Park is health.
“You have the allergy problems, the depression,” she said. “With my father, he had a massive heart attack, and my mom got cancer. I had a heart attack and cancer.”
And she says air quality in the neighborhood affects her daily quality of life.
“I caught the bus for maybe ten or fifteen years. And I had to stand out there, and on certain days I had to have a towel or something to cover up my face. The grit would be in your mouth.”
She says the neighborhood’s environmental issues have a constant visual presence.
“You can wash your car and within five or ten minutes, it’s covered. You’ll see a white film of white dust.”
Ervin Whitehurst grew up in Hamilton Park.
“When you look at the State of Delaware, and see how the housing development is set up mostly out in the rural areas, you don’t see no industrial parts like this,” said Whitehurst. “Where people have to live the way we live— put our health at risk.”
A new plan for the area
WILMAPCO Planner Bill Swiatek calls the area around Eden Park and Hamilton Park an example of bad zoning.
“You have residential communities that are located way too close to industrial zoned land,” said Swiatek. “In the case of Hamilton Park and the case of Eden Park, they’re completely surrounded by industrial land. You have cases where interstates cut through neighborhoods, the seaport is very close to the communities and so forth, so this area didn’t really develop with a plan it mind. It just sort of developed haphazardly.”
And Swiatek says the result is the ‘public health’ concerns residents face today.
“Concerns about dust that DNREC has detected in high levels, concerns about the truck traffic, all kind of tie back to the way the land was zoned,” he said.
In 2015, New Castle County tasked WILMAPCO with preparing a master plan for the Route 9 corridor.
One of the plan’s main recommendations is that incompatible uses— like residential and heavy industry— be separated wherever possible along the corridor.
It recommends the County look into the possibility of relocating residents of Eden and Hamilton Park and letting that land develop with more business or industry.
Swiatek says the idea of relocation came from discussions with residents.
"In terms of the people that we have talked to as part of the plan, I would say that the vast majority of them were interested in it,” said Swiatek. “So it’s not something where were trying to force this on the community, it’s really something where we’re trying to support the community in their efforts to have a better life.”
The County surveys residents
Last year, New Castle County government began to act on on WILMAPCO’s recommendations.
The County hired a third party to conduct the census-style community survey on whether residents want to relocate, or would prefer another solution.
Dr. Victor Perez is a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware with specializations in environmental justice, health and illness, and the sociology of risk.
“There’s a history of mobilization around these issues in these communities,” he said. “There’s currently ongoing soil remediation in Hamilton Park. There was also an air quality study in Eden Park that was catalyzed by resident concerns over fugitive dust and truck emissions.”
He developed the survey with the help of community members over several months— and put it in the field early this summer.
“Providing essentially a platform for an objective assessment of how people feel about these issues, today,” said Perez.
The survey was anonymous and voluntary. Residents were compensated $10 for their time. The survey was conducted orally and took roughly twenty minutes to complete.
Relocation was just a portion of the survey. It also asked about health, perceptions of pollution or environmental issues, and residents’ feelings on other hypothetical changes in the area— like revitalization, rezoning or environmental regulation.
But the survey did ask how likely residents would be to relocate if given certain financial assistance or the value of a home in a similar area. It asked about other barriers to moving too— like age or social ties.
It allowed residents to express their views in their own words, as well as using scales.
Residents could also answer that they think there are no environmental issues in their neighborhood.
Surveyors made clear to residents there is currently no funding available for relocation.
Relocation seen as a big challenge
Carrie Casey with New Castle County says the County has not made any decisions about what might happen if survey results say the community is overwhelmingly in favor of relocation.
Nor has the County done any calculations about how much relocation might cost, or studied what fair relocation might look like.
She says the County doesn’t even have a plan for next steps after survey data are analyzed.
“The first key thing for us is seeing what the community really feels about this,” she said.
Casey says the County intends to involve the community in any decision-making processes — and that the community will be the first to see results of the survey.
Joe Day manages Code Enforcement for the County. He says no other stakeholders have been consulted about relocation so far, but if the survey finds the community wants relocation, other partners would likely be brought in.
“With DNREC or with DelDOT or with the Port of Wilmington, maybe federal grants,” said Day. “I think there’s a lot of other factors, but we need to get the results of the survey before we even investigate those other factors.”
Jim Smith, Assistant General Manager of Land Use with the County, adds that private partners could be engaged. He points out that with 198 inhabited parcels among the two communities, lots of uncertainty remains.
“You’re dealing with two different communities with a lot of families inside each one,” said Smith. “We have recommendations that were laid out from a big group consensus, but now we have to see when you drill down to the individual families what do they really want and need.”
County officials stressed the survey is not leading — for or against relocation.
And they admit relocation would be a big challenge for the County.
“We’re going to work as hard as we can to meet the community’s expectations,” said Day. “By no means would we guarantee that that’s going to happen. But if that’s what the community wants, I mean we are here to work for the community. And we’re going to do everything in our power … to actually make this happen.”
Residents wait for answers
Perez’s team finished collecting survey data at the end of August. Perez sees his survey as just the first small piece of the research that needs to be done. He notes there are few precedents to follow.
"The idea of relocation predicated on perceptions of environmental burdens, embodied experiences of environmental burdens, lived experiences of environmental burdens, is relatively novel,” said Perez.
The Route 9 Corridor Land Use and Transportation Plan recommends that if residents request it, community relocation should be finished by 2027. County officials indicate that if relocation eventually happens, it will take much longer than that.
But at this point, residents are eager for answers.
Marcia Mason says the community is tired of fighting, and worries County government won’t move quickly enough.
“If they have it their way, they’ll probably be waiting for another 15 years,” said Mason.
“They need to go ahead and say what they’re going to do for us so we’ll know what we need to do,” said Whitehurst, of Hamilton Park.
Perez says initial data analysis could be finished by the end of the month.
Only then may the County decide what comes next.