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Environmental survey shows some residents likely to move if bought out

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
A view of Hamilton Park from Route 9

Eden Park and Hamilton Park have been advocating for solutions to the environmental issues in their neighborhoods for years. Newly released results of a community survey show residents' perceptions of these issues—and thoughts on relocation.

Roughly half of residents in the two New Castle County neighborhoods have indicated they would be likely to move away if given fair value for their homes or financial assistance.

This is the primary result of the survey meant to help the county find solutions to environmental problems in Eden Park and Hamilton Park.

These two majority-African American neighborhoods have dealt with environmental issues—like airborne dust and and soil contamination—for years.

The neighborhoods are surrounded by industrial-zoned land. They’re nestled between companies like Keen Compressed Gas, Bruce Industrial and Diamond Materials, a paving and concrete contractor whose large, uncovered mounds of materials tower over Route 9.

The median annual household income in the two neighborhoods is around $32,000, according to the Wilmington Area Planning Council’s (WILMAPCO) mapping analysis of available demographic data.

In a class action lawsuit against local companies several years ago, residents unsuccessfully asked some companies to give them fair value for their homes.

Marcia Mason has lived in Eden Park her whole life. She told Delaware Public Media in September that 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.”

So the most highly anticipated result of this recent survey was an indication of how likely residents would be to move if they were bought out.

The county commissioned Dr. Victor Perez to design and conduct the survey. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware with specializations in environmental justice, health & illness, and the sociology of risk.

Perez presented some survey results to community members at a civic association meeting last week. He says the question about moving was front and center.

Because it was the one that was provided, sort of in the ethos of procedural justice, revised by the community leadership and provided by the community leadership, and also … the most germane to how they had conceptualized the opportunity to move out of the community, by being provided with, for example, the value for their homes,” he said.

The question asked homeowners how likely they would be to move out if given a fair value for their house - comparable to a similar home in a low-crime area. It asked renters how likely they would be to move out if given the financial assistance to do so.

Fifty-seven percent of households in the two neighborhoods participated in the survey.  “Which is in my opinion very good,” said Perez. “Response rates for survey research across the board now in internet, mail and phone surveys are at historic lows.”

Of those that answered, 87 percent said they’d be likely or very likely to move if given fair value for their homes or financial assistance.

But there’s more to those numbers.  

Some residents declined to participate

Perez says some residents raised concerns about moving. “People saying they like the community just not its environmental issues, people saying there is no noise and no crime, and some folks saying that they were too old to move, moving would be too disruptive, that they’d planned to retire in the community,” he said.

Perez adds homeowners were overrepresented compared to renters. He notes some households simply could not be reached— while some refused to participate.  

Perez says the refusal rate was especially high among Eden Park homeowners— more than 30 percent. “This high of a refusal rate doesn’t seem random to me.”

He thinks that group might not have liked the idea of moving. “We had heard anecdotally that we don’t want to do this survey, don’t want to move, thank you for your time, please leave,” said Perez.

Pastor Louis McDuffy is president of the Hamilton Park-Eden Park civic association, and a longtime community leader on environmental issues. He has another theory about the high refusal rate.  

“Or was it just that they didn’t feel it was going anywhere because they’re tired of getting surveyed?” said McDuffy.

According to county officials, it was roughly a year and a half between when they first approached UD about the survey and when results were presented. To some residents, that felt like a long time.

“It solidified the fact that they thought nothing was going to come of it,” said McDuffy.

New Castle County Director of Economic Development Tamarra Morris says she’s surprised the response rate wasn’t higher. I felt like when we had engaged with the community,” she said. “The individuals we heard from were all pretty enthusiastic, especially toward the end, that we were moving forward and got community members to participate.”

Director of Constituent Services with the County Kenny Dunn says residents at Monday’s meeting suggested Perez keep trying to reach non-participants and talk to non-resident lot owners.

Jim Smith with New Castle County Code Enforcement wonders if demonstrating the County’s commitment to the issue could encourage more residents to participate in the survey.

“Is there a way to make them comfortable so that they will entertain it? Because if they see the synergy, then they might feel comfortable in saying, well something really may happen this time after the thirty years that we’ve been talking about [it],” he said. “Now maybe I should participate because this may be my opportunity.”

Concerns about contamination, illness and government indifference

Other questions asked residents to think about two options—like relocation versus increased environmental regulation of nearby industry, or relocation versus revitalization. Perez says results for these questions were largely mixed.

The survey also allowed residents to talk freely about their environmental concerns. “Soil concerns, arsenic concerns, air, fugitive dust and dirt, smells,” said Perez.

Residents also spoke about health concerns, such as knowing other residents with cancer. "We tended to hear things like after people move here they’re just sicker,” he said. “There’s concern or generational health, so my grandchildren can’t play here.”

Perez also asked about residents’ perceptions of local government and surrounding industry.  “There were some overall themes regarding transparency, mistrust and fatigue regarding these issues.”

Residents indicated the specific sources where they feel environmental issues in the neighborhoods are coming from. “Including Diamond Materials’ dirt piles, trucks trucking, dumpyard, landfill, and just sort of past and present industries and being surrounded by industry," said Perez. 

What will the county do next?

Jim Smith with Code Enforcement says because the survey did not reach every resident, the County needs to gather more information.

“We’re sincerely trying to help these folks with their issues out there,” said Smith. “This just makes it so that we’re going to have to identify some additional steps. And if we’re going to reach some more people and get more feedback, that might help solidify in one direction or the other. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t start looking at all the options.”

Perez does not have a prescription for what the county should do with the survey results.

“I do think that the survey provides a good amount of evidence that people have environmental concerns, that there are large proportions of both communities that would be likely to move out if given financial assistance or fair value,” said Perez. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t aren’t potentially also large numbers of people for example the refusal rate in Eden Park, that feel differently.”

He also warns that the answers to a single question should not be over-interpreted.

These are extraordinarily complex issues. And so I would strongly caution against trying to make any decision that massive on a single question.”

Perez notes a lack of consensus within the community on a single solution does not mean the County can’t act.

“What number do you need in order to begin trying to do something, if the community feels like something needs to be done? Or at least a significant part of that community feels like something needs to be done,” said Perez.

For the time being, residents of Eden and Hamilton Park are left waiting on what that solution might be. 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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