Bethany council discusses tower, park project

As work gets ready to start on one new project in Bethany Beach, a process for another is also being determined.

Bethany Beach Town Council members on Monday, Oct. 15, discussed both the impending construction of a new water tower and the process by which the Town will determine how the former Christian Church and Neff properties are developed.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet told council members that the Town had that very day received the documents related to the loan voters overwhelmingly approved in a referendum last month, which would provide funds for the water tower project at a low interest rate from the State’s drinking water revolving fund.

With the documents in hand and ready to be signed, he said he also expected to be able to provide a tentative schedule for the construction of the new tower in his town manager’s report at the council meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 19.

Graviet said he expected the first portion of the project would be the construction of a new mineral retention pond at the existing facility off Collins Street. The pond will be above ground, he said, with earthen barriers at the sides. The tentative design and location will also be forthcoming, along with the tentative dates and schedule for the construction of the pond and the water tower.

He noted that the retention pond will be similar to what is there now. “But our intention is to make it look much better than it does today.” Graviet said he would also have for council consideration on Friday a list of residents of the area who might become part of the promised committee that will be kept updated on the progress of the project and be able to offer input from the community as it proceeds.

Councilman Joe Healy asked Graviet for more details of how the loans would work, now that the papers had arrived. Graviet said he hadn’t yet had a chance to review them but that, “Nothing has changed.” He did say that the interest rate the Town will be playing on the loan is 2.6 percent, with loan repayment not scheduled to start until 2014.

‘Path forward’ for Church/Neff park proposed

Also on Oct. 15, the council discussed what Graviet called “the path forward” for the Church/Neff property. Referencing a July 25, 2005, meeting at which the council had discussed plans to develop the property as a park, he noted that four members of the current council were also sitting council members at that time, when the council majority voted to move forward with the creation of a park on the property.

“Since the majority has not changed,” he said, “we’re going to move forward with this discussion, unless the council is interested in changing the use of the property.”

Council members discussed whether they should begin the process by reaffirming the council’s support for use of the property as a park. The council consensus on Monday was that it should come up for a vote at their November council meeting. Mayor Tony McClenny said he was hearing a consensus that the property “should be a park, and only a park.”

The council was asked by one resident present at Monday’s workshop whether it should better define the word “park,” since a variety of elements have been both suggested and opposed. McClenny again referenced that 2005 meeting, during which the council members had said there were “some things we said we would want and others we would not want.” But he was told that “some people think the park is just a green space and not multi-use” and was asked to further clarify what the council has in mind, so that everyone will know what they do and do not wish to include.

The mayor noted that the 2005 list of what the council members wanted on the site included a pavilion and a playground (possibly relocated from the leased location on Garfield Parkway), as well as a new water tower and multi-purpose building, both of which were later removed from the list, the former due to the decision to construct the tower off Collins Street and the latter due to opposition to an enclosed building.

The 2005 council had also noted their opposition to construction of sports courts of many varieties, enclosed buildings with HVAC, a parking garage or large parking lot, or a skate park.

McClenny said an example of what he considered a “park” was the small town park next to town hall, which features plantings and tables and benches where people can eat, for example.

Graviet said on Monday that he felt part of the process of affirming the council’s choice of use as a park should be for the council to affirm elements they would like to be in the park, as opposed to the existing list from 2005.

McClenny said he had no problem with that, noting that it was important to know the history of the issue, but also saying that the council should “not get back into the history.” He also pointed out that the Town has a long-term lease with the Christian Church for the playground and that, as a member of the church, he had observed no sentiment from them that the playground needs to be moved from the current location, where he said the access and parking were better than they would be if it was relocated to the planned park.

However, Graviet clarified that the Town has a one-year lease for use of the playground property, which renews each year until the church terminates it.

Returning to the subject of how the Town can move forward on the park issue, Graviet offered a detailed process he said he felt would do just that. Under the proposed process, the Town would:

• Develop and publicly review a comprehensive and objective public survey in consultation with the University of Delaware and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control;

• Mail the survey to all Bethany property owners for completion and return to the Town;

• Receive and collate the answers and have a public meeting to review the responses and findings;

• Advertise for the services of a landscape architect and publicly select the architect based on credentials and presentations;

• Publicly meet to discuss and decide what features and elements a plan for a park should contain, based on the survey results, and do so in consultation with their landscape architect;

• Task the landscape architect to develop multiple concepts based on features and elements previously decided on by the town council;

• Mail concepts to citizens in the town newsletter and solicit comments; and

• Review concepts in a public forum and decide on them, or have the concepts further refined based on council suggestions and then publicly review them again for a council decision, in a process that would repeat itself until the council selects a concept on a majority vote.

The landscape architect would then be tasked to create a request for proposals based on the approved design.

Council members expressed support for the proposed process, and the consensus was to vote on approving the process at a future meeting.

However, there were a variety of opinions among council members as to whether a timeframe for the project should be decided and how short or long that timeframe should be.

Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon questioned leaving the timeframe open, asking whether it would run a year, or five years, and whether the council would be looking at financing the project in their upcoming budget cycle.

Graviet said that, if the council found the recommended process acceptable, he would start working on the funding issues, such as possible sources for funding.

“I would like to tighten that up, if we can,” Healy noted of the potential for a five-year timeline.

Graviet said the Town could begin the survey step of the proposed process very soon, using very little in resources, possibly in the next budget cycle or even with a supplemental budget item, if the council wished to proceed sooner.

“People need to understand — whatever the timetable — that the property will be maintained as a very nice, grassed area,” Councilman Lew Killmer put in, offering a less urgent tone. “It’s not going to be waiting to be developed,” he added, saying it would be handled much like the Town has with another corner of Routes 1 and 26, which has been heavily landscaped.

McClenny also noted that the Town survey prior to an update of its comprehensive plan had taken just a few months. Graviet said his idea had been to go UD and DNREC to ask them how to proceed with a survey, using DNREC’s expertise on surveys about park projects, and, if there were concerns about objectivity, rather than a contract out the work, to ask UD for guidance.

He also noted that he had already asked the Sussex Soil Conservation District for a baseline on the property’s needs for stormwater management, so that the Town could do the least needed for the property and maintain it until the project moves forward.

“I share your concerns about how long it might take,” McClenny told fellow council members.” But this is not a roadblock. These are concerns we will deal with.”

Councilwoman Carol Olmstead said she, for one, was not so concerned about the timeframe for the project. “I’m more concerned that we do it property. If it takes a couple years, it takes a couple years. I don’t want to take it off the table for a number of years,” she added.

“We want to get it right,” Councilman Jerry Dorman said.

“Part of getting it done right is proceeding in an orderly fashion,” Healy replied, saying they shouldn’t put it on the back burner but should make “an attempt to keep moving it along as best as we can. Two years doesn’t sound like it’s a long time to me, but it could slip to five years again.”

Resident Bob Bradley, who has a background in landscape design, reiterated his comments from last month’s public meeting on the subject, again calling the park “the most exciting opportunity we have in Bethany Beach. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to create a gateway project right at our front door.”

Bradley said he felt the park “should be strongly a contemplative space,” as an alternative to the beach, and a strong botanical example of native species in Sussex County.

McClenny said he was ready to move the proposed process on to a vote at the council’s November meeting.

But resident Mike McGrath asked how many votes the process, or affirmation of support for development of a “park” on the property, would be needed for it to be adopted. That harkened back to the 2005 discussion of a proposed supermajority requirement for future councils to overturn the use of the property as a park.

McClenny noted that there had been support for the supermajority requirement among the council back then, but that, in the end, it hadn’t been passed.

“This could become a football,” McGrath said, suggesting that future councils could swing back and forth on support for the park use.

McClenny, however, noted that with four remaining council members from 2005, there was a consensus on the current council to develop the property as a park.

“This is something we all,” he said of the council members and Graviet, “have an interest in.” He reiterated the council’s desire to have citizens communicate with them on the issue of the park, via phone, mail and email, as well as in person.

Signage for hidden businesses discussed

Finally, council members on Monday discussed a proposed amendment to the Town’s signage code that is hoped to improve visibility of year-round businesses.

Killmer, who is the chairman of the planning commission and the non-residential design review committee and who also works with the downtown business forum as a council liaison, said the idea of allowing a limited amount of temporary semi-off-site advertising had been raised as a way to improve business for the year-round businesses that aren’t right on the street in downtown locations.

“We want people to look at the commercial areas within town as more of a year-round enterprise,” he said. “But there’s always that Catch 22, where people don’t come because places aren’t open and, if people don’t come, places don’t stay open.”

Killmer said it had come to his attention that there were four locations where year-round businesses don’t have any street access. Under town code, that means they can’t place signage near the streets that would indicate that they’re open during the slower seasons.

“We’re working to create the ability for someone who wants to stay open during the off-season to say that, ‘Hey, we’re open!’ Right now, if it’s off-site, it is illegal.”

Killmer said his proposal was for the Town to permit up to two signs, up to 8 square feet total, for such businesses that could be placed off their immediate premises but in the general area where they are located, near the business but visible from the street.

Graviet voiced some concerns about the idea, noting that some of these areas have several businesses located in one area and that multiple signs could “create a little bit of visual blight.” He suggested that the council look at encouraging an external placard-type signage for all the businesses in such an area, where the placards might slide to indicate whether each was open or closed.

Olmstead said she understood the appeal of sandwich-board-type signs, that they do bring attention to the businesses, and that perhaps a combined sandwich-board sign for all the businesses, indicating whether they were open, would solve the problem.

“I agree — we don’t want three or four sandwich signs out there, no matter how small they are,” she said.

McClenny said he did have aesthetic problems with the sandwich boards, especially when they block steps and other access areas. He said he found the slot-type signs more attractive, acknowledging, though, that “the sandwich-board signs we have for town parking are atrocious, but they get people’s attention.”

“We’re trying to be as helpful as possible to these businesses that are trying to stay open,” said Olmstead, who has also worked with the business forum. “Bringing attention to the fact that they’re open, we not only help them but help ourselves in bringing people to Bethany more year-round.”

Graviet said he could work with a local signage company to design a suitable sign, even if the Town was involved in the initial purchase of the sign.

“These are businesses that are actually open all year ’round, but they have no way to advertise that,” Killmer reiterated. “I’d like to focus on that [area first]. If we’re going to become a year-round community, we’re going to have to develop businesses that are open year-round.”

He said he would rework the proposed ordinance with the new concept of multi-business signs in mind, in preparation for further discussion and possible introduction.