South Bethany council looks at lattice, taxes

The South Bethany Town Council has been looking under people’s houses lately. But homeowner’s should get upset over privacy concerns — the council is researching a new ordinance, which would affect lattice and boards around the open space under houses.

The April 10 council meeting revolved around houses’ floor-area ratio (FAR).

FAR is a ratio of a property’s floor area to the total lot area. The FAR calculation does not include attics, crawlspaces, ground-level decks and unenclosed ground-level spaces among pilings.

But some people surround those ground-level areas with lattice or boards, and in dealing with proposed Ordinance 179-15, the council needs to decide how much space goes between those boards.

The first thing the council did was reduce the Charter & Code Committee’s recommendation of a minimum space between slats, from .75 inches to .25 inches, giving homeowners more flexibility.

“Ground-level spaces are not included in FAR unless they’re enclosed. So the code said there must be a gap between boards in order to tell it’s not enclosed,” Councilman George Junkin said.

The council debated how small the gap can be before the area is considered enclosed.

“The purpose … is aesthetic, as far as not making the house seem as bulky,” chimed in Bob Cestone of the Charter & Code Committee.

“It was at the request of the code enforcement official, because people are asking ‘How much space is allowed?’” and he needed something to enforce, Cestone said. “He personally didn’t care what it was.”

Councilman Tim Saxton said he would happily eliminate FAR altogether.

“There’s been a lot of the discussion around the bulkiness,” Saxton said. “I argue, if you take away the FAR, you can make it solid, as long as you vent [properly, according to FEMA standards]. … Let the people decide if they want slats or not.”

Currently renovating his house, Saxton said he would like to have a workshop or storage on his ground floor, but “People can now look and see what I store on my first floor.” He’s confined by a code that demands slats, so it doesn’t look enclosed.

Councilman Jim Gross agreed that FAR is not needed, but he said that was a discussion for the Charter & Code Committee, not for that night.

Currently, South Bethany properties are allowed to be built to a livable-area ratio (LAR) of 60 percent of the lot area and FAR of 71 percent.

Saxton and Councilwoman Sue Callaway opposed the quarter-inch minimum on April 10.

The ordinance still has two more readings and opportunities for debate, part of South Bethany’s three-reading requirement.

“Which is a damn good process,” Gross said.

Ordinance 179-15 would also clarify the definition of “Substantial Damage,” in which “Market value shall be determined in accordance with FEMA P-758, Substantial Improvement/Substantial Damage desk reference, Section 4.5 Determining Market Value.”

Are canals safe for swimming?

One resident asked on April 10 about the safety of swimming in town canals.

“You may swim in the canal,” Junkin said, noting that he had jumped in in the past to fix his boat or retrieve a fallen tool.

It’s not illegal, he said, but he doesn’t recommend spending too much time in there.

“We also monitor bacteria. Quite often, our canals have a bacterial level that’s higher than is recommended for swimming,” Junkin said. “The [bacteria] they measure is not the one that makes you sick … but it’s an indicator that other things are in there, too.”

Readings can vary, even from dog waste or ducks nearby in the canal. The canals have worse water quality the farther they are from the main water bodies that feed them, including the Little Assawoman Bay.

Even the Little Assawoman has signs that warn people to swim only at their own risk, Junkin said, and a local man’s leg got very infected after he cut his leg underwater, he reported.

Life jackets are recommended, too, because it’s a navigable water, added resident William Bombright.

Budget for 2016 fiscal year approved

Tax rates are going unchanged again in the 2016 fiscal year. Property tax rates will remain at $1.30 per $100 of assessed valuation. The rental tax rate will remain at 8 percent of total gross receipts for each residential and commercial property.

When questioned as to why the rates aren’t being increased, council members said they didn’t see a reason to.

Saxton cited the Town’s insurance and reserve funds.

“If you up all our surpluses, we have 12 months total. … It would be very difficult to justify raising taxes when we have surpluses,” Councilman Tony Caputo said.

Meanwhile, the tax base is increasing as people move to and build in South Bethany.

Town-owned bulkheads are already covered by financial reserves, and the State of Delaware owns the beaches. The Town’s largest responsibility is its roads.

In a truly catastrophic event, the town wouldn’t be alone in having major needs. The whole coast would be affected, said Caputo.

Plus, FEMA and insurance would likely chip in, Junkin said. He said he didn’t see the value of saving millions of dollars for something that only might happen.

The town council has the power to levy taxes anyway, in case other funding fell through, Councilman Al Rae said.

In other South Bethany news:

• South Bethany was awarded a $10,000 Coastal Management Assistance Grant for a sea-level-rise vulnerability assessment. South Bethany will contribute an equal match to the grant funding, but mostly as in-kind measures and labor.

Although the consultant has done work in Lewes, Junkin said he wasn’t aware of neighboring “communities looking as closely as we are.” (Fenwick Island has also received grants for sea-level rise studies and is looking at raising one of its streets as a result.)

• The Town received a beach wheelchair from the Rotary Clubs of Southern Sussex and Ocean City/Berlin (Md.).

• Treasurer Tim Saxton said he expected the Town’s revenues for the 2015 fiscal year to come in “way over budget,” as the Town had $216,000 above the projected transfer tax revenue and 33 percent more in building permit fees than expected.

• Police Chief Troy Crowson gave a presentation on the CodeRED emergency notification software for council’s consideration.

The Town Council’s April workshop was set for Thursday, April 23, at 5 p.m. The next regular Town Council meeting is Friday, May 8, at 7 p.m.