The smell is the least of their concerns.
Residents of Donovan Smith Mobile Home Park in Lewes say the untreated wastewater surfacing above an older septic system in the center of the park affects the environment, their safety and their quality of life.
“This place started out as travel trailers and weekenders. They didn’t need a big septic unit,” said resident Samuel Saunders. “Now people live here full time and these tanks won’t hold that. It bubbles up and it’s bad.”
The park owner, Donovan-Smith MHP LLC, was issued a notice of violation from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control on July 8 for unauthorized discharge to groundwater. According to the notice, the park never renewed their septic system permit after it expired in 2008 and has been operating without one since.
The department continued to inspect the system annually despite being without a permit, the notice states. DNREC declined to provide inspection records, citing an “ongoing investigation.”
Kenneth Burnham is listed in New York state records as the CEO of KDM Development, also known as KDM Acquisitions, the company that manages the park. Burnham, who is also listed as the contact for Donovan-Smith MHP in DNREC documents, did not respond to calls or emails. Neither did his lawyer, John Paradee of Baird Mandalas Brockstedt.
Park manager Clara McNichols, when reached by phone, declined to comment.
Exposure poses ‘significant’ health and environment risk
DNREC inspectors noted “compliance concerns” multiple times over the past several years at Donovan Smith, according to the notice.
“Most recently, on January 15, 2021, the Department’s Senior Environmental Compliance Specialist inspected the park’s (septic system). The inspector observed alarm lights flashing and untreated wastewater surfacing above the pressured dosed bed,” the notice says.
The site was inspected monthly thereafter, through at least April, each time documenting the surfacing of untreated wastewater.
DNREC also noted several residents’ complaints about “surfacing wastewater and other issues” with separate community septic systems that service other areas of the mobile home park.
“The exposure of untreated wastewater to the public is a significant public health hazard and risk to the environment,” the violation notice states.
Darrin Gordon, Lewes Board of Public Works general manager, said the funds to connect Donovan Smith to the Lewes sewer system have been available for about a year now.
“The state, the county and Lewes Board of Public Works and the city have worked very hard at trying to make this happen.” Gordon said. “The real hold up has been the trailer park owner.”
How wastewater issue affects residents
Ebenezer Branch, a creek that flows from Roosevelt Inlet and the Delaware Bay, is near Donovan Smith Mobile Home Park. The creek comes within feet of several Donovan Smith homes, including that of Samuel Saunders.
He pointed toward the site of what he identified as surfacing untreated wastewater.
“When it rains,” he said, shifting his arm to point to the creek, “it all flows down here.”
Sixteen-year-old Lillianna Berkey lives in the park and babysits a child who lives in one of the homes closest to the surfacing wastewater.
“She doesn’t listen well and she gets way too close,” Berkey said of the child. “And it just keeps getting bigger.”
Rem Miller has lived in the park for more than 30 years and used to manage it. He has a sinkhole with a diameter of about 3 feet in his yard, overtop what he said is a septic tank. He covers it with a piece of wood.
Miller said he was working for the park when the septic system that’s now leaking was installed.
“It was working perfect till they cut a couple trees down and backed a Bobcat up on top of it and sunk it in,” he said. “Then they pulled a truck along the edge of it on the other side, which caused another leak. And that was a couple years ago — it’s been leaking a year or more.”
Multiple park residents, like Joyce Horney, said they don’t drink the water that comes from their taps. It comes from wells and they worry it’s been contaminated by sewage, though DNREC said the water meets state standards.
Horney moved in to the park earlier this year and said she was never informed of the septic problems.
Her septic tank, she said, is in her backyard and is shared with at least one other home. It’s pumped once or twice a week, according to Horney, and she waits until then to shower or do laundry for fear of a back up into her home.
What happens next?
The notice of violation levies no fines and allows Donovan Smith to propose their own timeline for fixing the septic system.
It requires park owners to:
- Install a temporary fence designed to keep children and pets away from all areas with surfacing wastewater and post “keep out” signs.
- Pump septic tanks within five days of the notice and keep pumping at a minimum of every three days thereafter until the problem is resolved.
- Within 30 days, submit a plan to DNREC detailing the discontinuation and proper disposal of the park’s current septic systems and for the park’s connection to the Lewes sewer system.
Donovan Smith is listed as one of over 30 KDM Development properties in nine states on the company’s website, including seven other manufactured home communities on Delmarva.
In Delaware, that includes Briarwood and Scottsdale in Laurel, Mobile Gardens and Hollyview in Seaford and Homestead in Georgetown. In Maryland, KDM owns Lake Haven in Berlin and Stoney Chase and Rock Creek in Elkton.
Gordon said Lewes Board of Public Works has worked with the Donovan Smith park for several years.
“The current holdup is that the owner will not provide us easements inside the park,” he said. “We have a $5 million loan we’re prepared to move forward with and the state has a $5 million grant to go along with that. He says it’s an issue with his lenders.”
Shannon Marvel McNaught covers Sussex County and beyond. Reach her at email@example.com.