Bethany adopts Mediacom franchise agreement

For nearly four years, the Town of Bethany Beach has been looking at its franchise agreement with cable television and Internet provider Mediacom, which was up for renewal this year. They began with a community survey in September of 2009, leading up to a June 2010 hearing, and, in the process, the Town heard many comments from the public, expressing concerns about the agreement and service provided locally by Mediacom.

Recognizing that they were dealing with many of the same issues as other local municipalities that were also due to renew their franchise agreements with Mediacom, Bethany Beach then joined with the towns of Ocean View, South Bethany and Millville, and collectively hired an attorney who specializes in cable franchise agreements, in an effort to get the best agreement possible for all of the towns.

The end result of that process was adopted by Bethany Beach this week, with officials there expressing less than total satisfaction with the outcome but assuring the town’s citizens that it’s the best they could get.

“There is no other provider interested in servicing our area,” Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon noted at the council’s June 21 meeting, adding that after a number of meetings and iterations of agreements, the final agreement was “an improvement. It’s not perfect,” he admitted, emphasizing that the new agreement has a shorter term — seven years instead of the usual 15 years — and offers better service guarantees for customers on complaints and work request responses.

“It has improved telephone answering response times built in,” he added, “and customers will be notified annually of their rights in dealing with them on customer complaints.”

Councilwoman Margaret Young asked Gordon if he felt the agreement had come out better because of the cooperation between the towns.

“It offers more protections, better information,” he said. “It doesn’t resolve a lot of the problems people have. … It is an overall improvement, but it is an improvement more in the communication between the customer and Mediacom. They will let the customer know what their rights are.”

Gordon said the agreement dictates how fast customer complaints and requests should be answered, with customer service available by telephone and a local service office.

“We had more leverage working with the other towns. However, we still don’t have a perfect agreement,” he acknowledged.

Gordon noted that requests for more or different channels, or improved sports availability — a common complaint from local customers — are hampered by FCC requirements that restrict origin locations for the channels shown locally.

“The Town doesn’t have any choice,” pointed out Councilman Jerry Dorfman, noting that infrastructure issues prevent the area from having much competition for the services. “We don’t have many full-time residents.”

Referencing a letter about Mediacom’s service from the homeowners association for The Canal, Dorfman said, “It’s sad when you read it. Most of them are changing over too,” he said of his own move to satellite television. “We have to vote for it because we don’t have any choice. So all I can say is, ‘DirecTV,’” he added to laughter from many of those at the meeting.

Councilman Lew Killmer also noted the lack of choice local residents have in terms of television and high-speed Internet providers.

“There’s no sense of competition in the whole process,” he said. “Getting down to seven years is the most significant,” he said of the changes in the agreement, noting that the Town needs to notify Mediacom two years ahead of time if they may wish to end the franchise agreement in the future.

Mayor Tony McClenny noted that the agreement was the end of a three-year process.

“During the negotiations, I, too, switched to an alternative,” he said. “I’m hoping that, at the end of seven years, there might be a change in technology.”

“Or a better company,” Killmer put in.

“The consumers’ guide rates cable companies every year, and at the bottom of the list is Mediacom,” Dorfman noted.

Resident Pat McGuire commended the town committee that had worked on the agreement, but he asked about rumors he’d heard that Verizon was offering its FIOS service in Ocean View — a rumor that is not true.

“When we made the inquiry formally several years ago, we were told [Verizon] had no plan to go south of the Indian River Inlet at this time,” Town Manager Cliff Graviet clarified.

Killmer said he had met with executives from Verizon and Comcast during the negotiation process. “They basically said we will never see FIOS or Comcast in this area. The main concern is ‘the last mile,’” he noted, referencing the infrastructure cost of bringing service to individual customers and how it has prevented the companies from expanding service locally, “because we don’t have a critical mass of people, and they feel people won’t pay higher fees to have FIOS in their community.”

Killmer acknowledged that the South Coastal Library has a fiber-optic Internet connection, but he said the service is provided on “black lines,” which are restricted to use by government facilities and can’t be accessed by the public.

Even with the cooperation between the local towns on the franchise agreement, council members said, there had been no success in getting other companies to offer their services locally.

“That was part of the reason we teamed up,” McClenny said, adding that he would be crossing his fingers that the town would have other options for service as the new seven-year contract reaches its end.

The council adopted the agreement on a unanimous vote.

Proposal to expand smoking areas gets lukewarm reception

The town council at the June 21 meeting also held a first reading on a proposal to expand the number of designated smoking areas along its beach from 10 to as many as 15.

Gordon said that the idea behind the proposal was that offering more designated smoking areas, spaced over the same distance, would help with the Town’s enforcement efforts for its smoking ban on the beach, boardwalk and in parks.

Recalling the controversy over the adoption of the ban — which has since been replicated in other local beach towns — Gordon said a compromise had been made at that time in allowing smokers to have someplace where they could smoke.

“The only negative comments I’ve had is when people have asked me where they can smoke, and I tell them they can smoke at that red can a half a mile away.”

The proposal received some criticism from citizens present at last Friday’s meeting, with several people commenting on the contrast between the Town’s recent honorable mention in the Delaware Healthy Communities program and efforts to increase opportunities for smokers to engage in the habit.

“I would think the smokers could stand to walk an extra block or two,” one resident suggested.

Resident Norbert Craig agreed, questioning why the Town would encourage “something that is a known non-healthy act and making it easier for people … to smoke in more places.”

He added that he felt the policy was difficult to get enforced, with a report from the beach taking 30 to 45 minutes for a response from a code enforcement official. “It’s not enforced now, and now you’re making it easier for people to smoke. It’s foolhardy that we’re even considering it,” he said.

“At the time the ordinance was passed, there was disagreement as to whether we should prohibit people from smoking on the beach at all,” Gordon said, noting that the council had been urged to compromise rather than allow the idea to fail entirely.

The compromise with 10 designated smoking areas was “probably the only reason the council was able to dig up enough votes to make the beach non-smoking during the summer,” he added. “A while back, we tried to make it non-smoking during the winter, and that one failed. We try to do the best we can.”

Graviet said the intention was to help gain greater compliance with the ban.

“We don’t really want to dedicate two, three or four full-time staff members to policing cigarette smoke,” he said, noting that many violators had immediately told enforcement officials that they didn’t know about the ban and didn’t know where the designated smoking areas were. “This was recommended by people on the beach who have seen the problem, as a way to handle enforcement.”

Craig said that, when he has asked people breaking the ban to stop smoking, they had “no concept that there is a no-smoking ordinance, because the signs are very non-descript and subtle. I think we need more awareness.”

The council does not generally vote on proposed ordinances on a first reading, and McClenny said the issue will be on a future agenda. “I’m not in favor of it, either,” he added.

Council adopts building fee reduction for non-profits

The council voted unanimously on June 21 to adopt an amendment to the Town’s Schedule of Fees, adjusting the fee schedule for building impact fees for 501(c)(3) non-profit groups.

After lengthy discussions during recent council workshops about which groups should be eligible for partial or complete exemption from the fees, the council had settled on two distinct categories for the exemption. The two non-profits that receive funds from the Town — the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company and the South Coastal Library — will be exempted entirely. For all other 501(c)(3)s, the fee will be reduced from 3 percent of the project cost to 1 percent.

McClenny noted that the Town had not been charging a fee for non-profits for years but that a minimal fee was necessary to cover Town expenses incurred during the building application and inspection process.

Council members also voted on June 21 to delay the adoption of the new fees until Jan. 1, 2014, to allow pending projects to move forward under the existing long-running exemption for all 501(c)(3)s.

Tempe Steen, secretary for the board of St. Martha’s Episcopal Church, thanked the council for that consideration and said they appreciated the trouble the council had gone to in accommodating them as their renovation project moves forward. “This will give everyone a chance to get started without having to get more money,” she added, noting that the church does use the space for public purposes, not just church use.

Replenishment set to begin later this summer, timetable unknown

Graviet addressed a number of potential concerns for beachgoers and rental property owners at the June 21 meeting, including the potential for beach replenishment to begin in the area as soon as this month.

Graviet reported that, while the replenishment was not expected to happen south of the Indian River Inlet until late August or September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had given permission for its contractor to begin work on the Delaware beaches as soon as July 2.

He noted that the presence of contractors working on the ocean outfall project in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach meant the Corps would not allow replenishment to occur there until that project is completed, leaving project areas in Fenwick Island, South Bethany and Bethany Beach as potential starting points.

Last week, beachgoers spotted the first elements of the project in Fenwick Island, with the landing of an anchor point for the project’s survey ship on the beach there. No start date for any of the actual replenishment work has been given to officials there, either.

“We hope they’ll work at the inlet first and push ours as far back as possible,” Graviet said.

He also reported that the second phase of the town’s Streetscape project is to begin in late September. But, he noted, the Town was in an ongoing dialogue with DelDOT as to whether that work could be pushed back until early October, “to spare the businesses in the 100 block as much as we might be able to do.”

Graviet said DelDOT’s schedule for the project mandates that contractors be off-site by mid-December, which will impact whether a later start date will be acceptable. “We’re working to see if they can accomplish it between early October and mid-December,” he said.

Graviet also reported on June 21 that public works staff were working on a plan to help reduce rainwater runoff and flooding problems in the area of Gibson Avenue, after “one of the rainiest Junes in history” for the town.

He said that the staff had been working on the flooding issues by keeping culverts, swales and pipes cleared, but that, “after a certain point, the ground is saturated and maintaining drainage becomes problematic.”

Graviet said that part of the recent problem may have been that the newly planted grass on the former Christian Church/Neff property hadn’t fully taken root, resulting in “more overflow than we had planned on.” He said the Town would be taking their plan back to residents in that area as they try to address the concerns about the runoff.

As the renovated park property begins to green up, Graviet said the Town had also met with consultants at the University of Delaware about the project. The UD consultants are to develop an “objective third-party survey” that will help the Town determine what the final form and uses for the park will be. He said he hoped to have that survey back to the Town this week.

Graviet acknowledged that he had previously said the resulting survey would go out to the public for a review before being conducted by the Town, and he said that if the Town received it back in time, it would go on the agenda for the upcoming council workshop. If not, he said, it would be placed on the Town’s website and sent out to its email list.

He emphasized that the review of the survey would not be to solicit additional input on the survey itself but solely for citizens to review it, as the Town had not “gone to the contractor and said which questions we wanted asked. We asked these professionals to give us a survey to solicit input from all citizens about the park and what they would like to see in the park. If the council wants to solicit a survey on the survey, let me know, but the intention was to put it out for review, with an open-ended question at the end, asking for ideas or thoughts not included in survey.”

Graviet also reported that the Town’s new Thursday-night bonfires have continued to grow in popularity.

“I wish we had done this a number of years ago,” he said, also reporting that the Monday-night Movies on the Beach were continuing to grown in popularity, as well, though they had been hampered by weather-related cancelations this year. “We’ll hope for a clear, beautiful summer the rest of the year,” he added.

Bethany sees 24 percent increase in transfer tax revenue

Bethany’s financial picture remains sunny, as Graviet and Dorfman reported at the June 21 meeting. Graviet said the Town’s general fund revenue is 2.8 percent higher than at the same point last year, with transfer tax revenue up 23.9 percent and permit fees up 15 percent.

He noted that the eight-day delay in implementing paid parking due to the late completion of Phase I of Streetscape had reduced parking revenue by 17 percent. Overall revenue, though, was up nearly 3 percent, he said.

Dorfman reported that the Town’s expenses to date are also below that of that same time last year, having spent 12.8 percent of its budgeted expenses, versus 14.3 percent last year. The Town’s revenue continues to exceed its expenses, he noted.

Also at the June 21 council meeting:

• The council unanimously approved a tax adjustment and the assessment list for the quarter.

• McClenny noted that the application period for council candidates has opened, with a deadline of July 24 for candidates to apply. The election was officially set for Saturday, Sept. 7, from noon to 6 p.m. The council also unanimously approved appointments to the Election Board and election officers, all of whom have served previously. They also set the council reorganizational meeting for 10 a.m. on Sept. 16.

• The council unanimously approved the appointment of Jerry Morris to the Board of Assessment, and as its chairperson, and Killmer offered thanks to outgoing chairman Donald Carmichael for many years of service.

• Councilwoman Carol Olmstead reported that the 2013 Seaside Craft Show had been “a tremendous success, with perfect weather” and that feedback from vendors had all been “very, very positive.”

• Killmer reported that a boom in new businesses and new business signage had continued, with the Non-Residential Design Review Committee having received 12 applications in the last two months and having approved new signage for a boutique, a restaurant and an accessories store, as well as modifications to the plans for the Disciples of Christ conference center, to accommodate the possible future installation of solar panels.

• Finally, resident David Limeroth recommended the Town consider prohibiting future installation of semi-permeable surfaces, such as pavers, to avoid problems with flooding. With the maximum lot coverage set at 40 percent, Limeroth said he felt most or all of the rest of the properties were getting paved in one form or another and that pavers were impervious to water, despite the fact that many people choose them over asphalt because of their higher permeability.

Limeroth said he had, after the big storm of 1992, dug 11 3-foot-diameter holes around his house, down through a layer of clay, and had filled them up with big round rocks to the level of the ground, then filled them in with pea gravel and placed pea gravel around the drip line of his home.

“I do not have a water problem there,” he said, contrasting that with water coming an inch below his foundation in the 1992 storm.

Limeroth said he felt putting a prohibition on pavers and similar materials on the 60 percent of non-covered lot for new construction or renovation would be a more effective solution to the flooding problem than $60,000 spent to have the Corps show that the problem doesn’t have a solution. “I think we can do something about this,” he said.