Traffic is clogging a neighborhood in western South Bethany, and according to Cat Hill residents, they feel increasingly unsafe living on the narrow roads that have become a shortcut to the beach.
That’s why the South Bethany Town Council will discuss a traffic committee and a new speed hump at the April 8 council meeting, at 7 p.m.
Mayor Pat Voveris will propose creation a Cat Hill traffic committee composed of several council members, Cat Hill residents, other western South Bethany residents, the police chief and town manager, plus a DelDOT staffer who’s agreed to attend when invited.
“Now, it’s a matter of having a formalized process … where people sit around a table,” rather than debate details at council meetings, Voveris said. “I think we’re headed toward a good conversation.”
She’s also started a list of topics for discussions with DelDOT. The committee would take it from there.
The committee discussions could alleviate the public-relations issue that arose at recent meetings.
Residents have seen the problem, and they want answers now. Traffic volume and speed can seem dangerous in the pedestrian-heavy neighborhood that lacks sidewalks. It could only get worse, as thousands of new homes are slated for construction just west of town. Cat Hill is an increasingly common shortcut for beach-bound drivers aiming to avoid the intersection of Routes 1 and 26.
Council members have recognized the problem, but they want an official study for the best plan of action. They’re held accountable by the owners and residents of 1,400 properties across town, Voveris said. “This has to be sold to the whole community,” based on professional data.
Traffic studies have been scheduled for the first week of April, last week of June and first week of July.
But some residents said they think that will take too long.
“We’re asking for something concrete this summer,” said resident Margaret Jacobs on March 11.
“It doesn’t feel like you guys are our advocates,” George Rosenburg said on March 24. “Yes, we do need data, but we also need people on the town council and the police to be out there advocating for our safety.”
Tempers have flared into raised voices and swearing among some residents, and Voveris has had to constantly tap the gavel to maintain order during council meetings.
“We want to make an informed decision … not because you come to the meeting and pick on us,” said Voveris, who, at the residents’ request, had squeezed the traffic issue into an already lengthy budget meeting on March 24. “We really are trying to be as responsive as possible,” she added.
The residents had formed a committee to bring the topic before the council, and they’ve asked repeatedly to be part of the everyday discussion, not just at council updates. Voveris originally wanted to wait for the data before beginning that dialog, but Council Members Tim Saxton and Wayne Schrader had backed up the residents who wanted “a seat at the table” now.
Some residents requested immediate installation of features that could slow traffic, such as stop signs, more speed humps, painted lines and more enforcement.
“The first three things on this list are being addressed,” Councilwoman Sue Callaway said on March 11, referring to a list of ideas, ranging from modest to extreme, from radar signs to de-annexation from town, so residents could decide their own rules.
With professional traffic planners coming to help, Callaway asked what other remedy is too pressing to wait for official data.
“We’ve got data. … The real problem is people find our shortcut more desirable than any other,” said resident Dennis Roberts.
The residents counted 12,000 vehicles passing through in November, so Roberts said he could only assume that 40,000 will pass in July.
“Something’s gotta be done, because it’s getting worse every summer,” Roberts said. “My solution is to make it as inconvenient as possible, to keep people from riding through our quiet little neighborhood.”
Residents who didn’t want DelDOT’s summertime study suggested installing a stop sign immediately, to slow traffic down, and study that instead.
But South Bethany could be held liable for installing a stop sign that doesn’t meet state requirements, Crowson said.
The council has relied heavily on DelDOT’s instruction on the matter, partly they receive State funding for roads. That’s why the Town’s road can’t become privatized, the council has argued. Moving too hastily or independently could put the Town at risk.
Actions for improvement
The Town recently ordered several electronic radar signs, aimed at encouraging drivers to be more aware of their own speeding habits. Extra electronic data recorders will collect traffic data 24/7, to help South Bethany build its own body of data.
They’ve agreed to augment or replace Cat Hill speed humps that don’t meet DelDOT standards, with DelDOT approval in April.
They’re also considering adding a speed hump near 420 and 421 Black Gum Drive. Residents said that is a popular idea, based on their own research. But the town council will vote April 8 to send an official survey to the 47 affected residents nearby.
Voveris told the Coastal Point that DelDOT requires a 15 percent response rate for such a survey to be considered (although that detail is not mentioned in the DelDOT flyer that the council reviewed). Within that response, a two-thirds majority must approve the new traffic feature for it to be built. By that logic, if only eight residents respond, new speed humps could be approved with six votes.
A permanent road sign always forbids Kent Avenue traffic from entering Black Gum Drive from 7 to 8:30 a.m. But residents lambasted the suggestion that the existing movable barricade be removed to ensure accuracy in the traffic studies, saying the barricade is vital to their safety. The council voted, 4-3, to leave the barricade in place (with opposition from Callaway, Voveris and Councilwoman Carol Stevenson).
Meanwhile, Stevenson said she was looking for any ideas to improve pedestrian safety, from building sidewalks to moving trashcans away from the road. She also gave a plug for the Assawoman Canal Trail as a safe walking path.
Crossing the highway
Pedestrian highway crossings are unsafe, too, said longtime resident Willis Hoch.
“People — they’re walking in the middle of the highway. They put their hand up. They think they have the authority to stop the traffic, Hoch said.
“If there’s somebody engaged in the crosswalk,” that pedestrian has the right-of-way and cars must stop, Police Chief Troy Crowson clarified. However, pedestrians must wait to cross if they approach a crosswalk when cars are coming. “If they’re standing at the side, waiting, [vehicles] don’t have to stop.”
“I think there’s a lot of confusion, state to state… There’ll be one lane stopped, and the other will go forward. We haven’t had a fatality yet, but we’re dangerously close,” Crowson said.
“Your concern is mirrored across the state,” said Crowson, after 35 pedestrian deaths in 2015.
Hoch suggested posting signs with crossing rules at each intersection. The Town will ask for DelDOT’s advice when they perform the April traffic studies. Both entities have shared responsibility for signage, based on location.