Bethany council confirms Church/Neff property as future park

The Bethany Beach Town Council this week approved a resolution confirming the future use of the former Christian Church and Neff properties as a park, though what exactly that park will contain or look like remains to be determined.

Mayor Tony McClenny, at the council’s Nov. 16 meeting, noted a number of discussions among councils in recent years about the use of the property and consensus that it would be a park, but he also emphasized in making his motion to approve the resolution that discussion of the features to be included in the park will take place at a future time, with citizen input, following the completion of a planned citizen survey.

“We want to get as much input as possible,” McClenny said. “We will all be going past that property multiple times a day.”

Councilman Joe Healy noted mention of a playground as a possible use for the designated park area, emphasizing that the Town currently has a playground on land still owned by the Bethany Beach Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). With the expectation that the playground would remain there for the foreseeable future, designating a playground as a possible use for a portion of the park has been questioned.

“One day, we might not be able to have a park there,” Councilman Lew Killmer said. “It’s another possible place to place the playground in the event the church says, ‘We have another plan for that property. You can’t use it anymore.”

Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon also sounded a note of council restraint on Nov. 16, emphasizing that no specific uses had been decided. “These are just things that could be,” he said.

Killmer said he did have some concerns about the use of the word “citizen” in the resolution, speaking to those who will have input on the uses for the park, “where we have a large number of property owners who don’t consider themselves citizens.” Killmer said he’d prefer to see the resolution worded to include input from “members of our community,” to be more obviously inclusive of non-resident property owners.

Resident Tracy Mulligan also referenced past meetings on the subject of the park property and its future use, noting that at one meeting, in 2005, public input had not been accepted, while another, in 2006, had only lasted 34 minutes. At more recent meetings, he noted, many commenters had urged the council to accept greater amounts of public input, and additional requests for that input had been received by email since.

With that in mind, Mulligan said he felt the resolution to reaffirm the property’s future use as a park was premature.

“If you’re going to do public participation, it serves the council well by its actions that that survey go out first and the council come to their conclusions after that process,” he said. “I think it is a resolution ahead of its time.”

Resident Jane Richards said her concern was about the lack of a definition of a park.

“When I looked up the definition of a park, there were about 100 definitions, I believe some of which you would not want to be included,” she said. Other definitions, she noted, were “pretty broad.”

Richards said the resolution should make it clear that the property is not to be used for residential or commercial purposes, or that the council should make clear therein its exact definition of what a park is.

Gordon acknowledged the past list of possible features for the park. “I don’t know what definition of that anybody wants to use,” he said. “We all have our own ideas of what a park is. We want to confirm the idea that the council wants a park there. We don’t know what’s going to be on that park, but it’s going to be held for that purpose.”

Gordon noted that, as the result of a plan for developing the park laid out by Town Manager Cliff Graviet in recent months and approved by the council, “The town will be involved in deciding what a park is. We are confirming now that it’s going to be a park.”

Councilwoman Carol Olmstead noted that the resolution in question didn’t “accomplish anything other than what everybody has agreed to as far as I can see over the past years. We did pretty well define that when we said what would and would not be acceptable on the property several years ago,” she added.

McClenny clarified the meaning behind prior discussion of possible uses for the property.

“That was a brainstorming session, not a session where we were writing things on a piece of paper, saying this was to be cast in stone,” he said. “The council felt the council had bought the property a few years before and wanted to say it was not going to be developed as commercial, as a parking lot or as residential.

“We have had that feeling confirmed by public comment since that time,” he added. “I don’t believe that, as the person bringing this resolution forward, I want to specify what can or cannot be there at this time. We just want to say this cannot be developed as a commercial or residential area.”

For Councilwoman Margaret Young, the idea was simpler. “We want to affirm that this will be a park, a green space, an open space to be used by people, with specific features to be determined later. This would confirm that it will be a park, a green, open, relaxing place for people to come, rather than some kind of commercial enterprise.”

With the understanding that much discussion of the specific uses of and design for the park are to come, the council voted unanimously last Friday to approve the resolution affirming the former Church/Neff property’s use as a park.