'No other option': How Millsboro bypass will affect rare, threatened, endangered species

Shannon Marvel McNaught
Delaware News Journal

Editor's note: Chris Bason is the executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. A previous version of this story misstated his position.

The Millsboro bypass is set to be built across a valuable ecosystem, breaking up unique habitats and possibly endangering native species and introducing invasive species.

"There is no doubt that when you put a major highway through that area, right through it, it is going to have impacts," said Chris Bason, executive director of the nonprofit Delaware Center for the Inland Bays.

The bypass will cross Millsboro Pond on forests and wetlands that are part of a rare block of contiguous wildlife habitat. It's home to 15 species of flora and fauna that are already in trouble.

Yet it may be the most environmentally sound solution to traffic congestion that's only worsening in and around Millsboro. 

Sen. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, lives on Millsboro Pond.  

"It’s a beautiful natural area and I hate the idea of having any impact on it at all," he said. "Unfortunately, if you look at the map and you go up there, there really is no other option. I do think it’s probably the least impactful." 

Sweetwater Point in Millsboro.

The Federal Highway Administration approved the project after finding it would not adversely affect the activities, features or attributes of Millsboro Pond, according to a 2017 environmental impact statement. The town of Millsboro agreed.

The bypass is now in the design phase, according to the Delaware Department of Transportation, with construction set to begin in 2023. The two-lane road will start with a grade-separated intersection at Route 113 and Hardscrabble Road, cross Fox Run Road and northern Millsboro Pond and connect to Route 24 just west of Mountaire Farms. 

Throughout the design process, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and other groups are being consulted to determine how to best avoid or minimize environmental impact, according to DelDOT engineer Bryan Behrens.

The new Millsboro bypass and parts of Route 113 that will be widened are in bold black in this rendering, which is part of the Federal Highway Administration and Delaware Department of Transportation's final environmental impact statement.

“The problem is, there’s no other route for traffic to go through the heart of town," Collins said. "Obviously, we’ve reached a tipping point. It can only get worse as the area grows."

Millsboro's traffic problem

On top of Millsboro's ever-growing residential traffic, there’s tourist traffic and "chicken traffic."

Millsboro's website touts the town's issuing of more residential building permits than any other municipality in Sussex County over the last six years.

Notable new home construction includes Plantation Lakes, just west of Route 113. As of August 2020, about 1,100 of the planned 2,500 Plantation Lakes homes had been built.

Beach tourist traffic converges in Millsboro and not just in the summertime. Tourist season has expanded year-round.

"Millsboro is currently the choke point for almost all beach traffic that doesn’t use Route 1," Collins said.

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On top of that, Mountaire Farms' headquarters is located just east of Millsboro on Route 24. It is the sixth largest broiler producer in the U.S., according to WATT PoultryUSA. Tractor-trailers going to and from the chicken plant often travel through downtown Millsboro, not to mention Mountaire's 2,800 employees heading to and from work. 

The traffic problem in Millsboro has been on DelDOT's radar a long time. The bypass is the result of an effort that began in 2001, the U.S. 113 North/South Study.

DelDOT originally considered 10 options for the Millsboro area including concepts like mass transit and technology-based strategies, five different new construction routes, expanding current roads and not building at all.

It eventually pared the plan down to what it called the best option: the “blue route.” 

DelDOT's proposed new north Millsboro bypass connector between Del. 24 and U.S. 113 crosses Millsboro Pond on land (orange) that has become the focus of a multi-million dollar Chancery Court ownership fight between Delaware and a development company, Sweetwater Point LLC. Part of a state nature preserve (bright green) overlaps the disputed parcel. Red is another parcel owned by the developer that is not in dispute.

The blue route would have included more than 16 miles of new construction, bypassing Millsboro, Dagsboro and Frankford to the east of 113. It would have included bridging not only Millsboro Pond but the Indian River, Dagsboro's Pepper Creek and Frankford's Vines Creek.

It may have been the most economic plan and allowed for the most growth, but it was too much for the public to swallow and was met with widespread opposition. 

In 2015, DelDOT began to focus on the “modified yellow route,” the route now being designed. As part of the project, DelDOT will also widen Route 113 to six lanes from Betts Pond Road in Millsboro to Route 20 in Dagsboro.

"It’s been such a long, convoluted process to get where we are. It’s better than it was, but still not good," Bason said.

Rare, threatened and endangered species

View of Sweetwater Pointe in Millsboro.

Driving down Gravel Hill Road in spring and summer, one can see blue herons, double-crested cormorants and painted turtles on Millsboro Pond. Maybe even a bald eagle.

From a boat, you'll see a variety of dragonflies, largemouth bass, northern water snakes, and, if luck strikes, river otters.

The Millsboro bypass will be built across a boot-shaped piece of land that juts out into the north end of the pond. Thanks to a recent lawsuit over the land, it's come to be known as Sweetwater Point.

Background:How a fight over high-end development could cost Delaware more than $10 million

Court ruling:Long-disputed Millsboro land belongs to state, not developer, judge says

Fifteen rare, threatened or endangered plant, animal and insect species that live on or around Sweetwater Point could be affected by the bypass, according to a 2017 environmental impact statement. They include:

  • Birds: bald eagle, barred owl, red-shouldered hawk, yellow-throated warbler. 
  • Fish: ironcolor shiner, blackbanded sunfish, mud sunfish.
  • Insects: an underwing moth (catocala ulalume), Chermock's mulberry wing butt, a firefly (photuris frontalis), gray-banded zale.
  • Plants: water bulrush, bayonet rush, swamp pink, cutleaf water-milfoil.

The four insect species are listed as "extremely rare," Delaware's most critical wildlife listing.

The Millsboro bypass site shares a border with the 315-acre Doe Bridge Nature Preserve. Both properties are part of an unbroken swath of pristine forests and wetlands.

“It supports dozens of species of rare plants and animals and this globally rare Chermock’s mulberry wing butterfly,” Bason said. “It’s a testament to the value of protecting large areas of contiguous habitat. That’s why you have this diversity.” 

The impact of the bypass

In spring 2008, DNREC's "Outdoor Delaware" featured a piece by Lee Ann Walling that highlighted the value of Doe Bridge. Unknowingly, the article also highlighted some of the issues that would be raised about the future bypass.

"Throughout Delaware, biodiversity is lost because trees are felled right to the edge of wetlands — letting in too much light and opening the door to invasive species," Walling wrote. 

Chermock's mulberry wing butterfly is only documented at one other site in the world, in Dorchester County, Maryland, according to Walling. She said it had been collected outside of Bethel, Delaware, into the 1980s, but bridge work altered its habitat. Walling wrote it was phragmites (common reeds) that wiped it out.

Phragmites crowd out and diminish, if not eliminate, native plant species and the wildlife habitats they provide. They are one of Bason's biggest concerns related to the bypass.

"Once it gets started there's just no way to control it," he said. "There will be best practices and a lot of good intent, but over time it will result in species invasion."

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Former DNREC zoologist Brian Hecksher discovered Chermock's mulberry wing in Doe Bridge.

"The butterfly is the product of millions of years of evolution, and to think that we can wipe it out with a highway or a housing development is really disconcerting to me,” he said in the "Outdoor Delaware" story. 

Sweetwater Point in Millsboro.

The bridge design, which will comply with DNREC regulations, will include scuppers, or openings, to allow surface drainage to fall directly from the road to the pond. 

Typical pollutants from roadways include heavy metals, asbestos and engine oils, as well as de-icing salt.

Both heavy metals and oil and grease are toxic to aquatic life. They can interfere with photosynthesis, respiration, growth and reproduction, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. De-icing salt can cause fish kills.

As for noise issues, the environmental impact study found "mitigation was determined to not be feasible and reasonable for any noise-sensitive area."

"It's going to degrade that ecosystem," Bason said. "No doubt."

Collins said he wishes the bypass didn't have to be built.

"It does," he said. "That's all there is to it."