Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Many in Pender living on private, unpaved roads left without debris collection services

Local governments are taking on the responsibility to pick up debris from Hurricane Florence and FEMA will likely provide reimbursement for some expenses accrued, but Pender County residents living in gated communities or down gravel streets are left to fend for themselves.

Debris is piling up in Pender County along Highway 53 in Burgaw (Port City Daily/Contributed)
Debris is piling up in Pender County along Highway 53 in Burgaw. (Port City Daily/Contributed)

SURF CITY — Throughout the region, counties and municipalities are working diligently to collect the debris and help their residents return to normalcy, but not everyone is treated equally when it comes to debris pickup as one Pender County neighborhood has found out.

The residents of Creek Estates and Cedar Landing II are no strangers to conflict. This past summer residents fed up with traffic using the private Cedar Avenue as a cut through to Surf City made an impromptu toll booth to collect funds from those traveling down the private route. The toll booth measure was not just to collect funds from unsuspecting drivers, and many of the residents actually want visitors to be able to use Cedar Avenue as a shortcut — they just want the North Carolina Department of Transportation to take control of the road and be responsible for repairs.

Now, residents are once again facing challenges due to their private road’s unpaved status.

“The final stand is that Pender will not pick up debris on gravel roads. This is leaving around 226 taxpayers in our community alone, out in the cold with nowhere to go. I Wonder how many miles of gravel roads are in Pender County and how many thousands people are expecting pickup? Our situation has not changed but the pile of debris has. I can find nothing from New Hanover or Onslow counties that indicate any restriction on gravel roads,” Jeff Conerly, a resident of the neighborhood said.

“The people on gravel roads in Pender County pay taxes like everyone else but are getting no support in the debris pickup. It almost seems like open legal discrimination, we are being singled out because we cannot afford to pave our roads and the developer is long since out of the picture,” he said.

A different story in different counties

In Brunswick County, a press release states that FEMA-funded contractors are able to pick up debris on private roads, providing they are open to the public.

“Brunswick County’s debris contract includes unincorporated areas of Brunswick County, including state-maintained roads and private roads which are open to the public. It does not include debris in gated communities at this time due to FEMA regulations,” the release states.

It is a similar story in New Hanover County.

“Gated communities must provide permission to enter or a gate code to Environmental Management by emailing JSuleyman@nhcgov.com. Private roads will be serviced as long as a large truck can enter and have space to turn around to exit. Those who live on small private roads are asked to consolidate debris piles with neighbors at the front of the road,” according to New Hanover County’s website. 

Pender’s response

Pender County has been steadfast in its position that debris on unpaved private streets or gated neighborhoods will not be serviced.

“The debris contractor will be picking up debris in the NCDOT right-of-way. Debris will have to be brought to the right of way at the subdivision entrance if this is a private subdivision with private streets,” Pender County Public Utilities Director Kenny Keel said in an email to Conerly.

When asked why the county would not be picking up any debris off private roads, County Commissioner J. David Williams said it was a FEMA regulation — not a county preference.

“FEMA will not authorize the pick up of storm debris on Private Roads. We will lobby again but they gave never done that it the past and have told us that yet again. Not a Pender County Preference. We will have a debris site opening soon in Eastern Pender for folks to take things there if they chose, or any contractor they hire,” Williams said.

FEMA doesn’t actually collect debris itself, instead, it reimburses counties who do the work or pay contractors. Keel said initially he was under the impression that FEMA would not reimburse any debris pickup from private roads, but that has since been changed to only exclude unpaved roads and gated communities.

Despite Williams’ insistence that FEMA would not authorize – that is, reimburse the county for – storm debris pick-up on private roads, FEMA will, in fact, reimburse debris pick-up on private roads, under certain emergency conditions.
According to FEMA spokesperson John Mills, “Debris removal from private property remains the responsibility of the property owner. However, when disaster-related debris presents a threat to public health and safety, a jurisdiction may act to abate the threat and ensure its economic recovery.”
In addition to requiring that debris present a public threat, FEMA does have other regulations for reimbursement, which include requiring that the county (and its contractors) have legal access to the property, and the general exclusion of using FEMA funds for pick-up on commercial properties.

For FEMA reimbursement of the costs, private property debris removal requires:

  • Approval from FEMA before money may be obligated.
  • Widespread debris that is in the public interest to remove.
  • Legal authority and processes to remove debris from the right-of-ways and private roads.
  • Indemnification of the federal government (i.e. releasing FEMA from liability if debris pick-up causes damage to private property)
  • Documentation and tracking of any insurance payouts to ensure FEMA funds do not duplicate benefits.
  • Debris removal, collection, and disposal methods must comply with federal, state, territorial, tribal and local environmental laws. Jurisdictions must follow health and safety rules and procedures to protect workers and the public.
  • In general, commercial properties are typically ineligible for debris removal.

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