Residents of Cat Hill love their idyllic beach lifestyle. With winding roads, the South Bethany neighborhood feels very off-the-beaten-path. There are no sidewalks, so people walk their dogs, jog and bicycle in the narrow streets.
And those pedestrians share the road with sometimes 20,000 cars a month, Cat Hill resident and former mayor Jay Headman told the town council on Feb. 12.
Cat Hill is a popular shortcut for beach traffic looking to avoid the Route 26/Route 1 intersection. Drivers often shortcut from Kent Avenue to the highway using Black Gum Drive, Cattail Road, Tamarack Drive, Canal Drive, Russell Road and Evergreen Road.
Despite the secluded feel, “It is one of the most major intersections in our town today,” Headman said.
“Things have changed dramatically in the last few years, due to the increased volume using the roads, especially during summer,” which, Headman said, exacerbated the existing issues of speeding and rolling through stop signs.
Cat Hill includes the westernmost part of town, between the Assawoman Canal and the town canals. Development began there in 1985 with 144 homes (more were approved later on).
Headman gave a presentation created with Dennis Roberts, Bob Smith, Mike Trentadue, George Rosenberg and Gary Bergman.
Having talked to dozens of local property owners, Headman submitted letters from residents describing the near-misses they’ve seen.
“Our town has been lucky so far, yet how long will that last?” Headman asked. “Our community doesn’t want to wait until someone is injured” to address the problem, he said. “We’re asking for your help.”
Black Gum Drive processed 20,070 vehicles in May, then 10,153 in November, according to traffic data.
But the audience at the Feb. 12 council meeting was startled to learn that, in addition to the current burden on the roadways, thousands of homes have already been approved for development on roads that lead directly to Kent Avenue (including Millville By the Sea, Ocean View Beach Club and many more). There are only so many roads to the beach.
Using GPS, those people will likely discover the Cat Hill shortcut, too.
None of the speedbumps in the community are completely up to Delaware Department of Transportation standards, being too low, too narrow or inefficiently spaced.
Headman suggested that more painted striping to the road edge would increase the narrow feel, potentially slowing drivers down. He said a goal would be to make Cat Hill less attractive to those looking for shortcuts than Sea Colony’s eight speed bumps and four stop signs.
Resident Barbara Lazzati grew emotional as she described a traffic incident in her own South Bethany back yard. Her granddaughter was visiting in July of 2015, and the child had left some toys in the yard near the road.
A car was speeding so fast between Tamarack and Canal that it needed an extra-wide turn, swerving into Lazzati’s yard.
“The person swerved onto our property, ran over her toys, crushed these toys,” she told the South Bethany Town Council on Feb. 12.
“Many people turn right on Tamarack at a high speed,” Lazzati said. “It’s not the people from South Bethany. They know how to share the roads. … There’s no courtesy left.”
Lazzati and her husband are approaching their fifth summer in South Bethany, but she called the traffic in Cat Hill “a ticking time-bomb.”
“My concern is my children, walking our dogs, riding our bike this summer,” Lazzati said. “I think the speed bumps on Tamarack do little to nothing to slow people down.”
It may be an inconvenience, but “the safety of our residents is well worth” adding 30 to 40 seconds to the drive, she said.
Blocking the block
Speed is a problem, but so is volume, said Councilman Wayne Schrader. “We ought to think about the measures, like the barricade that we’ve had in the past. … In theory, you have to think about turning it into a cul-de-sac, or at least exploring it.”
But those are State-owned roads, so South Bethany can’t completely restrict access with a private gate. However, they could permanently separate Black Gum Drive from Kent Avenue with a cul-de-sac.
“It won’t cost us anything to close the road. The gate is what causes you to lose [funding],” said Councilman George Junkin.
Ultimately, turning the street into a cul-de-sac would make Cat Hill accessible only via Route 1 (Coastal Highway). That’s a long drive for residents and their guests, adding two miles to the drive if they cut through Sea Colony and 2.5 miles if they go to the next public street, Jefferson Bridge Road. A cul-de-sac must also be wide enough for emergency vehicles to turn around.
“It’s nothing shocking,” said Mayor Pat Voveris. “It’s a way of life, not just for us, but many communities across the country.”
Voveris chaired the former barricade committee when it was originally proposed to limit traffic. But Voveris said traffic volumes have changed, and the times need to be reconsidered to better impact beach traffic instead of residents.
South Bethany has begun planning a traffic study, and the council will consider the recent town survey results, Voveris said. Plus, Cat Hill will get two of South Bethany’s four new electronic speed-monitoring signs.
Some residents of Cat Hill bought their houses in winter, before seeing summer in a resort town. They were especially surprised at the deluge of beach traffic.
But “we all bought our homes and knew that” the neighborhood has no sidewalks, just one narrow road, said resident Barb Wise.
That said, she favored a gate over a cul-de-sac. Permanently losing one of their exits would be “a real problem,” Wise said.
“Whether we own a piece of property on the oceanfront, ocean side, canal side or Cat Hill, we’re all South Bethany,” said Sandi Roberts, a resident of Canal Drive. “Anything that improves quality of life in this town … really benefits all of us.”
She was also referring to complaints she’s heard about the Town spending thousands of dollars to appeal Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps, just for the ocean side properties.
Half of the audience left after the Cat Hill presentation, leaving the council to finish other business:
• The council adjusted Town finances in the 2016-fiscal-year budget.
Revenue is expected to increase by $190,000 (building permit revenue by $75,000, to a total $195,000; and realty transfer tax revenue by $115,000, to $420,000).
The Town received an unexpected transportation grant for $10,396 for electronic radar signs.
Expenses have increased by $44,000 (legal fees for the FEMA appeal, plus monthly fees of $37,000, to a total $62,000; the police chief’s $5,000 bonus, approved last autumn; and bank fees increased by $2,000 to $6,500.)
With $7,500 in unused beach patrol salaries, the Town will repair or replace lifeguard equipment.
The budget amendment was unanimously approved, with Councilwoman Sue Callaway absent.
• Although council members are “encouraged to be actively involved in the affairs of the Town and to express their individual opinions on Town matters,” the group unanimously amended Town Council’s Rules of Procedure.
“Unless a Council member has been authorized to speak on behalf of the Town Council, council members should always make it clear that any opinions expressed represent their individual positions and not the position of the Town Council.”
• Election staff were approved, including the 2016 Board of Election (Carolyn Marcello, Bonnie
Rae and Sally Baker) and election workers (Pat Spangler, Jay Headman and Lora Caputo).
The town council will meet Feb. 26 at 10 a.m. for a budget workshop and March 11 at 7 p.m. for a regular workshop.