Bethany takes a second look at holiday construction fines

By M. Patricia Titus

News Editor

They weren’t shopping for it, but six construction companies working in Bethany Beach on Black Friday got a little “gift” from the Town, and it came with its own bill: a ticket for doing construction work on a holiday, complete with a $150 fine.

On Monday morning, Builder Bruce Mears objected to the ticketing of his framing contractor the prior Friday, making a public post to his personal Facebook page, stating:

“So the town of Bethany must really hate business. They have a law which prohibits construction on holidays. One would think this rule would be easy to follow and abide by, right? Well, the Town of Bethany fined my framing contractor $150.00 for working on Black Friday, claiming we should know that when a holiday falls on a Thursday it automatically becomes a four-day holiday.”

Mears’ post garnered considerable sympathetic comment, and by Monday afternoon, the issue was the talk of the town, and beyond.

Contacted about the tickets and town regulations early this week, Town Manager Cliff Graviet initially defended the citations, offering pages from town code and portions of the building permit application contractors must sign in order to legally do work in the town as proof that the prohibition on holiday construction was not only present in the code but was on a document with which contractors should have been familiar.

“No construction, and no site-clearing, lot clearing, or earth-moving activities utilizing any motorized or powered equipment shall be done on any Saturday, Sunday or holiday as designated by the Town of Bethany Beach,” appears in both the building permit application and its supplement, as well as in the town code.

And the Town of Bethany Beach was, indeed, closed for the Thanksgiving holiday on both Thursday, Nov. 22, and Friday, Nov. 23, (a.k.a. “Black Friday”). The closure of town offices was posted on the Town Web site and even published in the Coastal Point and on the Coastal Point Web site. In fact, the town’s code enforcement officer was, like most town employees, not working on Nov. 23, leaving Bethany Beach police to enforce the apparent code violation when construction was found to be happening on six job sites last Friday.

“The Town code states that construction is not allowed on holidays,” Graviet stated mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 27. “Contractors sign a form acknowledging this information at the time they make an application for a building permit. They retain a copy of the form and it is also noted on the building permit that is displayed on the construction site.

“The ‘Black Friday’ holiday this year was both a State and County holiday,” he emphasized. “We use the County’s holiday schedule as a guide for our holidays and post those holidays on our Web site.” The prohibitions don’t apply to less intrusive activity, such as painting an interior room, nor do they apply to property owners doing minor work around their own properties — activity for which building permits are not generally needed.

But the Town has a history of complaints being made about contractors doing construction outside permitted hours, including too early in the morning, and Graviet acknowledged that police officers have been enlisted to help enforce the code when code enforcement officers aren’t available.

“We ask that our police officers assist with enforcing code violations, such as this, off-hours and on holidays,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “On this day, a Bethany Beach police officer issued six citations for this violation.”

Prohibitions on construction on weekend and holidays are common in the area, with the high value placed on peace and quiet in a resort area at those times pushing noisy construction work into the work week and the off-season.

“The intent of this legislation is to guarantee that residents and visitors enjoy some peace and quiet in their community while visiting or on vacation,” Graviet explained. “Beach communities are subject to far more construction than you find in comparable inland communities, and the smaller lots that you find in a beach community make noise from construction that much more intrusive.”

The sensitivity to construction noise is enhanced on longer holiday weekends, Graviet said.

“We know that our population increases substantially on four-day holiday weekends, and Thanksgiving weekends always bring a significant increase in that population. In helping to ensure that our residents and visitors had a peaceful holiday weekend this past Thanksgiving, the legislation does what was intended.”

While the code would seem to work to enhance peace and quiet on a long holiday weekend, the issue for Black Friday of 2012 seems to have been whether contractors were aware, or should have been aware, that the Friday after Thanksgiving was a holiday upon which construction is not permitted inside Bethany Beach town limits.

“We are all aware of the town code and do our best to comply,” Mears posted on Facebook on Monday. “Did you know that Black Friday was a holiday? Do you think showing up on job sites and issuing fines is appropriate?”

“No one woke up Friday and said, ‘Forget Bethany’s ordinances, I am going to work anyway.’ No one knew Bethany considered Black Friday a holiday,” he continued. “So what happens? Good hard-working people received $150.00 fines for working, trying to support their families. Why not just ask these people to pack up and go home? Why fine them?”

Bethany Beach town offices were closed last Thursday and Friday, and noted as such, but Graviet acknowledged to the Coastal Point on Tuesday evening that the list of construction-prohibited holidays available through the building inspector’s office and those posted in the police department weren’t the same.

“They were working off the schedule of holidays they work off,” he said of the police.

Graviet said that discrepancy had caused the Town to reconsider the citations issued to the six contractors on Nov. 23.

“We’re going to void those six tickets,” he said. “And we’re going to go back and do some research, and if any other tickets were issued on that day in the past, we’re going to refund those, as well.”

As of Nov. 28, the section of the Town Web site dealing with permitted construction hours noted that upcoming recognized holidays included Christmas and New Year’s Day. “Please call Town Hall if you cannot determine the recognized day for any particular holiday,” it requests.

Mears, mid-week, offered further suggestions to help avoid future questions about when construction is permitted.

“A couple months ago, I asked the mayor of Bethany to consider using rules and regulations job site signs to give contractors a tool to help inform workers of work hours and days work is not permitted,” Mears noted on his Facebook page on Wednesday, Nov. 28. “Maybe it is time to give my job site sign suggestion some serious consideration.”