Fenwick moves forward with shuttle concept

Fenwick Island officials are looking to make getting around town a little easier for residents and summer visitors alike, with a proposal to establish a municipal shuttle service that would take people from their homes in Fenwick to local businesses or the beach, or between local businesses, and back home again during the summer season.

At a meeting of the Ad-Hoc Parking Committee on Jan. 9, committee members voted to pursue a bidding process for a shuttle vendor who would be dispatched from town hall, based on calls from customers, and split revenues 50/50 with the Town.

Town Manager Merritt Burke IV said he envisioned a service similar to the Jolly Trolley, which operates in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, and generates some revenue through advertising displayed on the trolley vehicles. He suggested the service could run from 8 a.m. — making available transportation for morning beachgoers — until 11 p.m., or even as late as 1 or 2 a.m., offering those drinking alcohol a safe and sober ride home.

In Burke’s draft request-for-proposals, the service area for the shuttle would include the unincorporated areas of Fenwick, running from the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce in the north to Route 54 in the south, allowing for pickup on the outskirts of town for those wishing to patronize in-town restaurants, for example, or those in the town’s center to easily get to a restaurant just outside town limits.

Burke said he expected there would be several companies that would be interested in providing such a service but that he thought the Town would want a multi-year contract, making the advertising element of the proposed service all the more important, since charging “a couple dollars per head” might limit revenue. He said a trailer-type vehicle, such as used by the Jolly Trolley service, would offer a chance to make more money, since more passengers could be accommodated.

“If it was reasonable and I was on the bay side and didn’t want to drive my vehicle, that service would be reasonable,” Burke said of its usefulness for beachgoers. “Each of us would probably have our own hours when, and if, we would use the service.”

Committee member Scott Mumford of Warren’s Station restaurant said an early start for the service, at 8 a.m., “would make sense. There’s only a few weeks during summer. You’d want to make the day as long as possible.”

Some potential snags were noted by committee members, with concerns expressed about the possibility that would-be shuttle customers might come into town and park at town hall to utilize the service. But town officials pointed out that parking at town hall is limited to those there for town business only. Police would just enforce that restriction, they said.

Councilwoman Diane Tingle stated that town code also prohibits shuttle drop-off and pick-up facilities in the town. Building Inspector Pat Schuchman explained that the code was designed to prohibit a dedicated drop-off spot or one with facilities such as restrooms, which might be desired by outside communities, or creation of such a facility in an existing commercial parking lot.

“The way I’m interpreting this, you cannot have a parking lot or parking spot dedicated to picking up or dropping off,” put in Police Chief William Boyden. “Pulling up in a parking lot is not a dedicated use. The whole spirit of this ordinance was to keep a dedicated shuttle service area out of town.”

Boyden said he felt the proposal for the service meant customers would call the service and be picked up at another location, rather than picking up and dropping off at town hall, so it wouldn’t be in violation of the code.

Councilman Gardner Bunting said he felt the ordinance would require some clarification to ensure the operations would be legal, “But I don’t think it would be that difficult to do.”

Bunting pointed out that a strict interpretation of the code would prohibit a tour bus from coming into town and discharging passengers to get lunch. “We can’t really prevent that,” he said.

Mumford said the shuttle would only help the town, because it would mean fewer people parking where parking space is limited.

Boyden noted that he hadn’t been in favor of the ordinance when it was passed but that he interpreted it to mean that a shuttle couldn’t have a designated parking area in a parking lot inside town limits, not that it couldn’t stop, or park, to discharge or pick up passengers in such an area.

He recommended that a clarification of the ordinance make it clear that a commercial property cannot be dedicated or solely used for a shuttle service. “If you have a restaurant and you have a group of people coming in on a bus that want to go to that restaurant, technically, that’s the way it’s written, but the parking lot is not dedicated for that purpose.”

Tingle noted that shuttle operations already exist in the town, offering trips to and/or from DelTech, the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum and medical appointments.

“We need to decide now if we want to have this shuttle for people in Fenwick to use,” she said.

Mumford said he felt there would need to be a push from businesses for customers to use the shuttle. Ropewalk restaurant already offers its own service from a satellite parking lot, and co-owner Mark McFaul said he supported the shuttle idea but that they would also need to look at how their own service would be impacted.

“It doesn’t solve the problem for me if I’m picking people up and taking them where they parked because the size of our lot,” he said, adding that he could support the addition of the shuttle service “as long as it doesn’t cut off the valet that we do.”

“I think this will help you,” Mumford assured him.

McFaul acknowledged that the shuttle would be useful to those who were going out to a restaurant and planned on drinking. “They’d be taking the shuttle instead of driving. … If part of the service is thinking we’re going to get drunk drivers off the street,” he said, it would make sense to run until 1 a.m.

“If it takes one drunk driver off the street, it’s worth it,” Bunting added.

McFaul said he was concerned that the revised ordinance still allow Ropewalk to offer its valet or shuttle service, as well as Nantucket’s, especially if the Town acquires (as is rumored to be under discussion) the former Libby’s lot that Ropewalk currently uses for satellite parking, to become a paid municipal parking lot.

Schuchman said she didn’t have an answer to that question.

Resident Buzz Henifin noted that existing shuttles already sometimes block the street and expressed concerns that shuttle patrons being picked up or dropped off might also block the street. He also pointed out that the walk from bayside homes to the beach is rather short, limiting the need for shuttles for beachgoers.

But Mumford said he felt the shuttle would help families, such as renters who have kids and are taking beach chairs and other paraphernalia to the beach.

Henifin said they would also have to ensure that a shuttle service vendor offered a type of vehicle that is legal to drive on Route 1, since they wouldn’t only be driving on east-west streets and briefly across the highway.

“It will have to be a regular vehicle,” Boyden said. “I’m sure we will find one vendor who will jump on this, and we’re going to probably say they have to have an enclosed vehicle for those reasons.”

Bunting said the only way to find out whether the idea would be attractive to a vendor “is to go ahead with the proposal. It will come back to us, and then we can kick that around. The sooner we get a move on, the better,” he added. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be summer before we know it.”

With unanimous support from the committee to go to bid on the shuttle service, Burke said language would also have to be reviewed by a lawyer and a performance clause for the vendor included. “We do have the right to refuse any and all bidders,” Bunting noted.

The next step would be for the idea to go before the council, which is anticipated to happen at the Jan. 24 council meeting. If approved, it could go to bid in early February, with bids opened in March and potential approval of a bid by the council on March 24.

A potential vendor would be able to get things moving in late March, Burke said, with early April being a time to line up vehicles and equipment, and a potential start date for the service of Memorial Day weekend, running until at least Labor Day weekend.

Burke briefly aired at the Jan. 9 meeting the idea of a shuttle that would bring non-residents into the town or residents to points outside the town, but there was a quick and decisive negative reaction from committee members, ending the discussion.

The committee also shelved discussion of enhanced provision of parking on north-south streets, with Boyden noting that the changes might only add three sparking spaces along the length of a long street, such as Schultz. He said those with overflow visitors needing additional parking generally call town hall when that happens, “and we try to help them out.”

Bunting said his opinion was to “let the issue die,” for which he received a consensus.

Simplified parking

permit structure discussed

Also discussed on Jan. 9 was the issue of summer parking permits. Bunting said there was a push to simplify the entire permit system, which already is fragmented into specific permits for lifeguards; daily, weekend, weekly, monthly and seasonal paid permits; resident permits; and special blue permits to allow parking on beach-side street ends. He also noted a push to offer permits for employees of businesses in the town.

“We might be able to save some money by making some changes,” he explained.

Mumford also asserted a need to move away from the standard plastic hang-tag permits, which don’t fit on many newer cars with included GPS and other types of expanded consoles. They’re also more expensive than a sticker-type permit, he noted.

Boyden put in that more than 50 percent of the permits issued to property owners don’t even get picked up each summer, resulting in wasted expense.

Bunting said he was concerned about how the new permits would be transferrable, so that visiting family could use them, but that a simplified system using stickers would simplify enforcement for police.

“I’ve been trying to get rid of hangtags since I became chief,” Boyden agreed. “It’s easier for the officer to enforce,” he said, with not having to walk around a car to check a tag on a car parked head-in or one that might be located elsewhere on a vehicle. “They have vinyl stickers that are transferrable. I would rather go to a sticker that’s not transferrable … for residents,” he added, noting the potential to lose or have stolen a transferrable one.

Boyden suggested the Town offer each resident perhaps five parking stickers. “If you don’t use them, you don’t. It’s going to cost 25 cents per sticker.”

Councilman Todd Smallwood asked how rental properties would be handled.

Boyden pointed out that the majority of lost or stolen tags have been from renters who never return them.

“You could have a sticker that could be dated, color coded, have an R on it,” he suggested, adding that the sticker could be placed on the back window of the vehicle, allowing the Town to narrow down the system to “one tag that’s good anywhere in town.” Jeeps or convertibles without a back window, he said, could be issued a sticker that would go on the back bumper instead.

Committee members suggested that property owners could perhaps be given 12 stickers, one for each week of the summer season, allowing those who rent to offer a sticker to their tenants for each week being rented.

Councilman Eugene Langan said he thought an ordinance change would be required to make the shift away from hang tags. “There’s no way to get it done for this summer,” he said. But Schuchman noted that the ordinance only refers to the permits being “transferrable.”

Bunting said he felt offering employee parking permits was something the Town could do for the summer of 2014, but how many should they issue and how much should they charge? “What are the businesses willing to pay for it? … It needs to be fair to everybody. A lot of these guys have a lot of employees.”

But Mumford said he felt they needed to simplify first, to define what they want to do with the permits first, before they got into employee permits. “Let’s simplify first and then go from there,” he said, getting a consensus to return to the topic at the committee’s next meeting.

Mumford said he also felt the Town need to reconsider the cost of a seasonal parking pass.

“There needs to be a very affordable seasonal pass,” he said.

Burke noted that the Town charges $400 for a seasonal pass, $200 for a month’s pass and $56 for a weekly pass, resulting in $18,540 in revenue last summer.

Mumford pointed out that the Town doesn’t provide a bathhouse or even restrooms for that cost. Tingle agreed that the costs are too high.

“I know they were looking for additional source of income,” Bunting said of the council that adopted those fees, “but they went out of the ballpark, in my opinion.”

Burke said the parking pass fees could be changed in time for the upcoming season, as the change only requires the council to adopt a resolution.

He also said the Town had seen a sharp increase in the numbers of street-end parking permits being purchased by residents last summer — up from five to 70 — after the Town had made it clear that they were an additional requirement to park there.

Boyden said the notion of a lack of beach street-end parking in the town was a myth.

“Never since I’ve worked here have we had all street ends at the beach with no parking spots left,” he said, noting that even when all of the spaces are taken in the preferred blocks, there are many left on streets farther north and south.

Mumford said he also felt the Town could offer better information on parking, including a map of parking areas, the rules and regulations, even opening the map to advertisers to help offset costs. Burke said the improvements to parking information had already been discussed by staff and were moving forward. “We’ll get to that before April or May,” he said, acknowledging that the Town needs more parking information on its website.

The Parking Committee will meet next on Thursday, Feb. 13, at 10 a.m. at town hall.