It’s been eight years since officials in Bethany Beach began discussing the vision and potential uses for a piece of property that has been called the “gateway” to the town – the 6-acre former Neff and Christian Church property at the northwest corner of Routes 1 and 26. But the ideas that could determine its final shape are now close to going to citizens for their comment, support and suggestions.
At the council’s Oct. 18 meeting, Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon presented a draft of a potential survey on the issue, developed in collaboration with the University of Delaware, and asked fellow council members for their feedback on what changes, if any, might be needed before such a survey could be sent out to the public.
Gordon noted that, following along a nine-point plan for the development of the park suggested by Town Manager Cliff Graviet, the park land had been leveled, new grass planted and flooding-related issues worked in in coordination with the Soil Conservation District.
In fact, Graviet reported on Oct. 18 that manmade berms have also been created on the property to create a barrier on the west side, where residential properties are the park’s neighbors, and trickle irrigation has been installed. In addition, 47 trees paid for with a grant (and more to come) are being installed on the property to replace trees that were deemed unhealthy or otherwise undesirable and removed earlier this year.
“We’re ready to go to the next step,” Gordon said.
In the interest of reducing costs and for the convenience of responders, Gordon said, he was recommending the survey be conducted electronically, on the Town website, with a postcard to be sent to citizens, soliciting their responses online.
To accommodate those who cannot respond online or who simply prefer to go the route of paper and mail, the postcard, he said, would include a telephone number to call to request a mailed copy of the survey with a return envelope — which could also be requested via the website.
Gordon said respondents’ names and addresses would be required on the survey responses, and the responses would need to be made in a timely manner — by about a month after the postcards are mailed out. After the Town tallies the survey results, he said, the next step in the nine-point plan would involve the Town holding a public meeting to decide what features and elements the park should contain, based on the survey results.
Already, he noted, the Town has had at least two responses to the draft survey.
John Himmelberg, president of the Bethany Beach Landowners Association (BBLA) had written the Town on behalf of the BBLA board to urge the council to ensure respondents to the survey knew when answering it that the items they were recommending be included in the park were actually things they would use on a continuing basis, with frequency.
That, he said, would help determine which amenities’ inclusion would result in use of the park by a significant number of people. Gordon said Himmelberg had also asked that the Town make clear in the survey that the park could accommodate several of the amenities on the list of proposed options.
Finally, he said — in what proved to be a controversial suggestion for council members and others — Himmelberg had recommended the Town add a municipal swimming pool to the survey’s list of possible amenities. Himmelberg’s letter had said that, should a strong desire for a pool be demonstrated in the survey results, user fees and other fees could be used to address the costs involved.
Additionally, resident Tracy Mulligan had offered similar suggestions regarding determining respondents’ interest in particular amenities and how often they would use them, asking them to rate each in terms of whether it would bring the respondent and their family to the park on a regular basis.
Mayor Tony McClenny noted that the idea of an electronic survey response was something the Town felt it needed to try, with many towns and organizations doing so successfully for some time, he said.
But McClenny said he had recognized that the town has a number of “older folks — myself included” as residents and that “some of them still do not use computers, or do not wish to use computers. The option of sending postcard to encourage people to use survey, and having phone number in there … is a nice way to handle those who don’t wish to do that, or can’t, or who don’t have access to a computer.”
Councilman Lew Killmer said he was not especially concerned with the determination of what particular amenities would bring people to the park.
“I’m under the idea that, if we build it, they will come, much like with the Nature Center,” he said. “This is the gateway property to our town. It identifies who we are.” With a tone of sarcasm, he questioned what in the plan might be changed if use proved infrequent. “What’s the alternative, a parking garage? … This is a park that our community and our visitors can enjoy on a year-round basis,” he said, later adding with a laugh, “The only way I would approve of a parking garage is if it was underground.”
Councilwoman Margaret Young, while agreeing with the letters regarding the importance of the frequency of use element of the survey for individual amenities, expressed her strong opposition to the notion of a swimming pool.
“As a board member of the BBLA, when I saw ‘swimming pool’ — I don’t think in a public meeting I should use the language I responded to that with,” she stated.
Playground, restrooms on list to be nixxed
Gordon said he, too, had some items he did not want to see on the survey.
“We’re deciding what we want to put in there and what not,” he said. “I would like to exclude a playground for children. We have a fine playground right across the street. … If the church were ever to kick us out, we could consider that. [Now] it would be totally unnecessary.
“When I look at the idea of restrooms, I keep thinking town hall is close enough. We don’t really have restrooms for that,” he said of the existing playground on the Christian Church property. “I would prefer to keep the grounds-building-less, including restrooms, parking garages and everything.”
Also on his exclusion list were sports courts and fields.
“In 2005, when the land was purchased, at that time we eliminated sports courts and fields in order to keep the neighbors from complaining about that kind of use of the property. Plus, whenever you have that you have a substantial amount of parking. I know there were objections in the past to having more than a modest bit of parking for any park facility you have over there, so my comment would be to eliminate those three items from the survey that goes out to people.”
Young said that while she, too, did not favor including a big playground in the park, she felt a small play area for young children might be desirable.
“Something similar to that at the Nature Center,” she suggested. “There will be families who go there with small children who won’t go far from their parents. It would keep them from suggesting they cross the street. One of the considerations is the two streets involved,” she noted of the traffic-heavy Routes 1 and 26.
“I’m glad we eliminated the dog park,” Young added of that prior suggestion. “That would be trouble.”
Graviet said that he was sure UD consultants would go back and make whatever changes to the survey the Town asked for and that he didn’t feel the Town had enough of a final idea yet for the survey to proceed with it now on their own.
He said he felt Himmelberg’s letter called the philosophical question of whether the Town has interest in preserving and enhancing open space or an interest in developing the property.
“Six acres may sound like a lot of property, but when you talk about adding a bunch of municipal amenities… Is there interest in asking a question like that at the front end?”
McClenny pointed out that the town council in 2005 “was very much opposed to that kind of activities,” discussing things more along the line of green space with picnic tables. “That’s evolved over the years as we’ve listened to more people who have new ideas,” he noted. “I, too, disagree with having restrooms there. The limited parking is going to be a problem because there’s barely any parking there now, and two or three of those should be reserved for handicapped spaces.”
He said he envisioned the park as something a family might use by having one member drop the rest of the family off and then find parking elsewhere in town, as many do when they use the beach. “The idea of a swimming pool was the furthest thing from the council’s minds when we began discussing this,” he said.
Councilman Jerry Dorfman conjured up a vision of his childhood in the city and the positive aspects of having a park full of green space nearby.
“From the beginning, we always wanted a walking park with benches. I grew up in the city, and it was really nice to go into the park and walk and get into nature,” he recalled. “We have the beach, but we don’t have open space to just go into and sit down and dream or read a book. I just hope we don’t go too far from that.”
Protecting neighboring residents gets high priorty
The impact on neighboring residents was also key element of the Oct. 18 discussion.
“We have to remember the park sits in the middle of a residential zone,” Killmer said. “We have to be very cognizant that what goes in there is not going to have a negative impact on people who live here. It will have to be very subdued.”
Anything else, he said, “will just create too many problems. Providing parking has never been high on the list,” he added, and it had actually been something the council had discussed avoiding. “We have to be careful not to create something that is not what we intended to put there,” he concluded.
Councilman Joseph Healy said he agreed that playgrounds, restrooms and sports courts or fields were not what they were envisioning for the park, as well as that the residents of the area should also be considered. “We have to keep it as quiet as we can — useful, but quiet.”
Dorfman, too, supported that idea. “There are a lot of things we could put there that are going to have noise. But we have residents there, and that’s not fair to them,” he said.
Gordon noted that he hadn’t said he was totally opposed to the idea of the pool, but there was one aspect of the suggestion he did utterly oppose.
“I do not think that’s an appropriate use for the first thing you see when you come into town,” he said of the pool idea. “But if there was a fee, people would say they would go, but they wouldn’t if there was a fee. I’m totally opposed to that suggestion.”
With the floor opened to the public, the council heard first from BBLA Vice President Michael Horn, representing the BBLA board in Himmelberg’s absence.
“We’re not asking for a parking lot,” he clarified. “We’re not asking for a swimming pool. We’re not asking for restrooms, or for parking spaces for other people. We’re asking that the public be probed about what they will actually like and use. I suspect, as I think most of you do, there will be heavy weight in favor of walking paths, bike trails and greenery. They’re cheap and they’re easy, and people will say it’s a nice-looking spot. But if nobody uses it, it seems to me a very inappropriate development of the park.
“Why have a 6-acre postcard?” he asked. “We have flowers and trees all around, but a park this size in a small community…” He contrasted the area with Philadelphia or New York City, “where you need green space to break up the buildings. … We’re encouraging the council to probe what people want,” he emphasized. “Maybe you don’t think restrooms are appropriate, but what do the people think? I think you’ll find they agree with you.”
As for the pool idea, he said, there may be a few who want it very much. “But it would be very useful to show them a survey that says most people don’t want it. You’re not committing yourself to doing anything with survey. Your job, once you have survey results, is to decide what is best for the community.”
Horn suggested the council modify the survey so that it asks people what it is they really want.
“I don’t think this is a case of either/or. We can have quiet areas and some of these features. It’s a pretty big piece of land.”
The ‘do nothing’ option
Carol Seal Brigleb said she’d prefer if the Town included “the option of doing nothing,” in line with the notion that, as Graviet suggested, some may want essentially nothing further done with the property — “just green space with nothing. I think all the trees that … used to be there and are there now are lovely,” she added, also encouraging a space on the survey for people to write in other ideas.
“It’s important that people are not limited by the ideas the council has presented,” she concluded.
Killmer said a write-in section was to be included in the survey.
Resident Joan Gordon said she agreed with Brigleb that it was important to find out what people want. But, she said, “It’s also important not to offer options that you really have no intention of providing because they’re philosophically opposed to what the council has been talking about for years.
“The idea of a pool is so bizarre that it shouldn’t be on the survey,” she asserted. “People will say it’s a good idea to have a playground or it’s a good idea to have sports fields if they’re on the survey,” she added. “We have to respect the privacy of the residents, and we should not include options that are not wise, considering all the factors.”
Jane North said she liked the idea of a few sculptures in a walking-focused park. “It would be a way to attract artists to Bethany and have the Town commission some sort of sculptures. … It would bring excitement to the park,” she said, noting that large sculptures of animals in a Philadelphia park are very popular with children there.
Barb McNally said she shared Horn’s concerns about the potential for a beautiful but vacant park.
“I love the property over there. I think it’s beautiful. But as I walk downtown and walk past that beautiful Wi-Fi park next to town hall that sits empty at all hours… Is that what’s going to happen once we spend money putting all this landscaping in? Just a beautiful park that’s not used by anyone?”
Newly installed Councilman Chuck Peterson again voiced the need for the Town to respect the park’s neighbors.
“Whatever we do, we need to think about noise and the people who live around the park,” he said. “A municipal pool would have decibel levels I wouldn’t even want to think about if it was in my back yard. We need to respect the people who live around there, too.”
The next question for the council was how to proceed from the Oct. 18 discussion of the survey. Was the survey good as drafted or did it need changes? Dorfman said he was comfortable with it, the options provided and the ability to state on a scale of 1 to 5 how important each item was, as well as write in other suggestions.
Killmer said his views were mixed. “I don’t want to have to explain to somebody — if an overwhelming number of people want sports courts and fields, and we say no, people will ask us ‘Why did you ask the question?’ Certain things were there from the very beginning, and we had certain things we didn’t want there, so why ask the question? We have to be careful about the questions we ask,” he added, acknowledging that the Town shouldn’t be filtering out other ideas but also that “there are certain things we wouldn’t want there.”
McClenny said he would like them to bring the issue back as a council workshop item, where they could discuss the suggestions and make changes as desired before proceeding with sending the survey out to the public.