Rep. Trey Paradee has scheduled an Aug. 1 meeting to start looking for a solution

In five years, there have been four fires in the Old Town section of Cheswold. Buildings were destroyed and families displaced, but there were no fatalities until June 25; that day 53-year-old Lorraine Seaman died of smoke inhalation when fire broke out in an upper floor apartment at 179 Commerce Street.

Seaman’s death appears to have given new impetus to efforts to install fire hydrants in that part of town.

Only three hydrants

Rep. W. Charles “Trey” Paradee III, D-Dover West, has scheduled an Aug. 1 meeting, for legislators, town officials and representatives from Tidewater Utilities, including its president, Gerard Esposito.

Mayor Robert Sine is looking forward to getting some movement on the problem.

“It’s good that we’ve got people looking at this again, and maybe we can move forward on it,” he said. “It’s tough telling. I want to see this happen, but sometimes the money thing can be overwhelming.”

Tidewater services the newer residential areas and has a well and storage tank in the nearby Central Delaware Business Park. Old Town only is served by private wells, leaving its residents without fire protection.

The four fires there since 2012 have one thing in common: firefighters were hampered because the closest fire hydrant is about 1,000 feet away, in the Fox Pointe development. To it, firefighters need to contact a maintenance man to turn on the pumps.

A second hydrant at the town fire hall is about 1,200 feet distant. A third, owned by Tidewater, is about 1,400 feet away  The town does have a pumper truck, but it ran out of water during the April 2016 fire. Firefighters had to run a fire hose across the nearby railroad tracks, as they did again in June.

Money and regulations

Paradee’s planned meeting will be held at Legislative Hall. It is a first step in a long forestalled effort to solve a problem that’s dogged Cheswold for years.

In 2015, the town commissioned a study on its water infrastructure, with the goal of eventually installing hydrants in Old Town. The plan envisioned about 4,800 feet of new water main and four fire hydrants connected to lines installed by Tidewater.

But the effort stalled partly because of the $1.73 million cost, and partly due to state regulations governing water infrastructure.

“What some people do not understand is that regulated utility companies like Tidewater have a responsibility to their current ratepayers,” explained Paradee. Extensions to water, gas or electric systems cannot be placed on current customers, he said.

“The notion is that it’s not fair to current rate payers if they have to subsidize an unprofitable extension -- no matter how noble the cause may be,” Paradee wrote in an email.

“That’s why I think it will be necessary to find some funding that will offset some of Tidewater’s initial costs in order to get this project moving forward and not unfairly impact current Tidewater customers,” he wrote.

SUBHED No money

Simply put, the town doesn’t have the money.

Cheswold still is under a requirement to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars from a court settlement against the town more than a decade ago. In addition, those who own property in Old Town -- about 75 percent are absentee landlords -- simply don’t seem to want to invest in the properties. Many are at least a century old, said Town Administrator Theon “Sam” Callender.

That would include helping foot the bill for a hydrant system, she said. “It’s very difficult even to get some of these owners to pay taxes, it’s difficult to get them to keep their property up,” Callender said.

“The majority of them don’t live in Cheswold; it’s an income for them. But the interest that I believe they should have for their residents just doesn’t seem to be there,” she said. “Maybe it is, but it just doesn’t seem to be.”

Paradee contacted Esposito via email July 6 to discuss how to tackle the problem.

“We need to figure out a way to get fire hydrants installed in the old section of Cheswold and that may require finding some money somewhere, somehow, to offset the cost of installation,” he wrote. “I think this situation is going to require us to think out of the box.”

Paradee said he was heartened by Esposito’s reply, where he said he was “anxious” to work on a solution.

“I agree with you that there is a need and I believe that with the support of you and the others we can figure something out,” Esposito wrote.

Esposito said he would personally take part in that effort, beginning with the Legislative Hall meeting, and would ensure Tidewater personnel would work to develop a sensible plan.

“We will bring some of the past alternatives that have been considered to the table to get the discussions rolling,” he wrote.

“We’ll do whatever we can,” Esposito said Tuesday morning. “Now that we have a local legislator taking the lead, may that will give us the impetus to get over the hump. We’ve needed a focus and I’m standing by ready to help.”

Paradee also has Sine’s backing for the Aug. 1 get-together.

“I hope we do come up with something but we won’t know until we sit down and have that meeting,” Sine said.

Paradee said he’s determined to find some solution.

“I am leaving no stone unturned,” he said.