Bethany Beach gets input on future of Church/Neff property

Ideas offered for the final shape of a park planned for the northwest corner of the intersections of Routes 1 and 26 were varied this week, when citizens turned out in Bethany Beach to offer their opinions to town council members.

“The council is in listening mode today,” explained Mayor Tony McClenny at the start of the meeting. “We will later discuss the information during a workshop and council meetings, and later we’ll make some decisions. I am pleased so many of you have come together today to bring us your thoughts and ideas.”

The effort to get citizen input comes amidst criticism of recent action by the Town regarding the former Christian Church and Neff properties that entailed the removal of a substantial portion of the trees on the property, and that criticism was voiced again at the Sept. 22 public meeting.

“At least to date, many people believe that level of communication, in terms of what’s going on here, has been lacking,” said Lawrence Caviola. “Many people are concerned. We’ve been spoiled, in the sense that many projects that are undertaken by the Town have had a very open, transparent process that’s gone on with them. In this case, we don’t have much of that.

“We’re being told this is an incremental process,” he continued. “I think that concerns a lot of us because we don’t know what the endpoint is. People are left to think the worst. My plea to you here today is to create avenue for citizen input, a citizen’s advisory council. This is a large piece of property that sits right at the end of our town. We as citizens have an obligation here to make this the best we can going forward.”

On behalf of John Himmelberg, president of the Bethany Beach Landowners Association and the BBLA board, resident Tracy Mulligan offered both praise and caution to the council for the handling of the park thus far.

“The BBLA supports a deep public participation process prior to any final decisions on a final design for use of the property,” Mulligan said, speaking for Himmelberg. “The board appreciates the efforts to clean up the overgrown property but believes additional communication to the citizens about that work was desirable and still needed.”

Despite that, Mulligan said, the BBLA appreciated that the removal of a majority of the trees on the property provided “a cleaner canvas to visualize whatever ultimate uses and design are decided upon for property.” On the group’s behalf, he urged continued participation by the public in the project and its financial aspects.

Graviet offers clarity, perspective

Town Manager Cliff Graviet kicked off last Saturday’s meeting with a review of the history of the park project and the purchase of the land by the town, tracing it back to the 2005 meeting at which the town council discussed uses for the newly acquired property and a potential charter amendment that would have mandated a higher level of legislative control over its use, by requiring a supermajority of the council to change that use in the future.

He noted that council members at the time had identified features they felt were appropriate for the property, including walking paths, gardens, an open pavilion, benches and a small playground area — the latter likely to replace the existing town playground on land on Garfield Parkway that is leased from the Christian Church.

Features they found unacceptable, he recalled, were basketball and other sports facilities, including soccer fields or a skateboard park, any building requiring HVAC, parking garages or any large parking lot.

The proposed charter amendment was not approved, though, eventually failing on a 3-3 tie vote, and has not been taken up again, nor has any measure regarding use of the park — except the council’s unanimous approval this summer of a contract to remove trees from the property — been formally taken up by the council.

In August of 2008, Graviet noted, he had asked the council for the resources to develop conceptual plans for a park containing the elements the council agreed upon in July of 2005.

“A number of concepts were created but never considered by the council,” he explained on Sept. 22. “I had hoped to create an incremental path forward in using town staff to clean up the property.”

The property, he said, had been left untouched during that time, except for annual contracts with outside vendors for work to contain invasive plants in the “manmade bog” and regular application of mosquito-control chemicals by DNREC and town staff.

“Since the downturn, the Town has not initiated any significant capital projects that were not already in the works,” Graviet noted. “The park has not been a town council concern since the 2006 meetings.”

While the council itself has not addressed the property, Graviet said, “The condition of the property has been a concern for town staff for quite some time.”

He noted that the Town had been sending official notice to owners of lots that caught and retained stormwater, those overgrown with scrub trees and invasive plants, and lots that were deemed a breeding ground for mosquitos — but, he said, the Town had been “ignoring similar conditions on property it owned in one of the most visible locations in Southern Delaware. I told the council I would like to move ahead, but with cleaning and clearing the property in a way that would upgrade its appearance.”

At some point in the future, Graviet said, he had planned to ask the council to consider a water feature in the low-lying portion of the property — approximately the eastern third of the acreage, which is at or near sea level, in contrast with other portions that lie 4 to 6 feet higher in elevation.

“The staff believes creating a water feature would be the best use, versus filling or excavating another area of the property for a stormwater retention pond,” Graviet said, noting that a final stormwater management plan would have to be approved by the soil conservation district before any work can begin on such a feature and that a stormwater management system would likely be required before development of the property could take place.

Graviet said such a water feature would include freshwater native vegetation and might involve the creation of a freshwater meadow, as well as involving a state-of-the-art filter cell to keep the feature healthy, vibrant and natural.

With all of that on the horizon, Graviet said he’d moved this summer to bid out a contract to remove some 60 to 70 percent of the trees on the property — those that had been identified by the town arborist and landscape architect as needing removal, some 80 to 90 percent of which, he said, were growing in the boggy area, were not healthy and were problematic. A grant from the Urban Forestry Service would help the Town plant replacement trees that he said would be healthy and not problematic.

But, Graviet emphasized, “The Town is not working to create a park at this time.” Instead, he said, the focus had been on cleaning up the property, planting grass and developing a comprehensive stormwater plan that could include a water feature. Any of that work, he said, would require council approval and funding.

“The staff believes the work being done on the property has created an open, well-maintained and … green space that is inviting without any additional features,” Graviet added, also acknowledging that, “Regardless, the cleaning and clearing has brought renewed interest” in the property and the concept of a park there.”

Wetlands, water feature among concerns

Resident Robert Collins first thanked Graviet for “clearing things up.” But he said he would disagree that the wet area on the property is a “manmade bog. By any reasonable definition of wetlands … it is a wetland and it should be preserved as a wetland,” Collins added. “As long as that’s part of the plan, I’m all for any improvements to it,” he said, arguing that while the area may not be classified as a wetland under federal jurisdiction, “it would be classified best as a flats wetland” under the standards of the Center for the Inland Bays. “It is important for these wetlands to be preserved and enhanced to serve as a nutrient sink.”

Christina Edgar, who has lived near the property for decades, said, “The reason I was so surprised when the trees came down was because I thought it was going to be like the initial work there,” she said, referencing the removal of saplings and brush, “when they were removed so the grass could grow. There were 60 to 70 percent that were to be removed,” she continued, arguing that she felt it was closer to “80 to 90 percent that were. I wish they could have been more carefully selected. I heard they were dead or not good or whatever. But it was a shock to see people walking along a road I didn’t even think about before.”

Edgar said she was concerned about the impact of a water feature, or any areas of standing water that might be left on the property, and that she felt the construction of Coastal Highway might have resulted in the boggy areas.

“The less standing water the better,” she said.

Additionally, Edgar reminded the council of a previous call for creation of a dog park in the town, though that was one use the council rejected at the time.

“Twenty to 30 people spoke for a dog park,” she noted.

Pat McGuire said he had met with Graviet and Public Works Director Brett Warner to take a tour of the property and had come away with some perspective.

“There are small ponds of standing water. They truly are small. None are bigger than 10 feet, and they’re mosquito breeding grounds. They need to be dealt with if anyone is going to want to walk on or use that property in the near future.”

“Everyone I’ve talked to agrees this is a focal point for the town — a crown jewel, if you will — and the most memorable part of the town for the average visitor,” McGuire added. “It’s taken years to get where we are. There’s no need to rush to judgment on the uses and a final site plan. I suggest we take the time to make an interim use of the property and continue the same kind of work that’s being done.”

He suggested filling in the low-lying areas to eliminate ponding and mosquitoes.

“Possibly, those interim steps would guide you in what water feature you want in the future,” he added. “You may be able to get away without a pond. … You would have a green space that Public Works could mow and keep clean and attractive, that people could walk on without poison ivy and mosquitoes. Let the Town appoint a committee to look at all of the potential uses.”

McGuire also suggested the Town conduct surveys of citizens about the development of the park, as well as consult land planners and professional landscapers. Have a committee present that to the town council, and the town council can take whatever steps they think are appropriate.”

Ocean View park held up as an example

Resident Carl Stitch said he would recommend the town look at Ocean View’s John West Park as a model for the park, noting the presence of an open pavilion, picnic tables, barbecues and a gazebo, as well as playground equipment.

“It’s largely treed, with lots of grass area. There are some concrete and paved walkways. Otherwise, it’s wood chips. It would be a very nice model for this property.”

To deal with the low area, Stitch said he would encourage use of a stormwater retention pond.

“I would go further and make it into a fish pond. In Florida,” he said, “they stock the stormwater retention ponds with fish. … I think you should have a small restroom … and a public drinking fountain.”

Resident Sherry Dorfman said that, as a Master Gardener, she was interested in the beautification of the town.

“I’m very excited that we’re contemplating making a lovely park in our town at our entrance,” she said, encouraging the Town to involve an architectural consultant and a horticulturalist in the project, and to combine native and ornamental plants to beautiful the town.

Dorfman said she was concerned that a water feature might encourage geese to congregate in the area, but she said she would encourage the Town to do as it has with past projects and create a citizen committee which might be able to visit other garden and park areas to get some ideas for Bethany’s.

Charlotte Frye said she was similarly excited by the possibilities of the park.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to consider,” she said. “This is one of the last remaining green spaces in Bethany Beach, and it needs some help and attention.” She, too, recommended formation of a committee to work with the Town “to research, design and implement some kind of walking garden that could be a tremendous asset to the town.” She said features such as a rain garden or extensive water features could be considered and decided upon “after a long time of study and input from the community.”

Resident Bob Bradley was also enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“I’m very, very excited for the opportunity we have on that corner,” he said. “It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance. There’s not another town or community that has an opportunity like this.”

Bradley said he was fine with the idea of a steering committee but that he recommend they not “waste a lot of time on the design.” Instead, he said, the town should hire a professional to do a plan, incorporate input from citizens, “And when the money is available, that could be implemented.”

He added that he, too, would like to see a dog run of some sort in the park.

“If New York City can do it in their parks, we can do it here,” he said. “I’m looking forward to whatever happens over there. It’s going to be nice.”

Resident Bob Cohen said he supported a more extensive and active use of the property, noting that he feels the Bethany Beach Nature Center property is not being heavily used.

“I would like to see a recreational facility there, directed toward senior citizens. … It could be mixed-use, with natural areas, as well as facilities for pickleball, bocce, horseshoes — something to get the people into the park. We don’t need to have a walking trail. People walk on the streets here. I don’t think they’re going to go over there to walk. I don’t want it to sit there and be not used by the citizens,” he added, suggesting that the park could even incorporate a “summer theater.”

Tree removal sees support from some

Scott Beal said he was one citizen who had been pleased by the removal of the trees from the property.

“I’m happy you’ve done it. It looks much better already,” he said. “I’m happy with the idea of replacing them with other trees more suited to environment, that were placed there rather than spread by birds.”

Beal said he was very concerned about the property’s potential to impact flooding and emphasized that whatever the Town does with the property, it should help alleviate flooding rather than add to it. He supported the idea of gardens on the property.

“The gardeners that work here are extraordinarily talented and I would be pleased to have them take on that property, too,” he said.

Martha Hill said she disagreed about the removal of the trees, though.

“The key thing is to resolve stormwater runoff before you move forward with any other plans for this garden,” she said. “Taking those trees down — those roots absorbed a lot of water. I feel this is a wonderful opportunity to create a parkland of native trees, rain gardens,” Hill added, suggesting a variety of native plants that could be put there. “They’re low-maintenance. These are the plants that were meant to go here, not specimen trees.”

She added that she felt the Town should create no additional parking for the park. “It should only be accessible by foot,” she said, adding that she would like to see a plan “before we move forward, before we put any more dirt on the property. Before anything else is done to that property, I would like to see a plan.”

Former councilman Don Doyle stepped forward to champion the Town not waiting too long to develop and implement a plan for the park.

“If the council that bought this was here today,” he said, “they would tell you they felt it was something that, when we had the funds to do it, we should move forward to finish it off in a reasonable period of time.”

Doyle said he was in agreement with involving professionals but that he had concern about giving citizens too much control over the final design for the park.

“Citizens, as well-meaning as we are all, have biases from our past,” he said. Referencing the notion that “a camel is a horse put together by committee,” he said he felt a citizen committee could have too much input and that the Town might not get much benefit from it.

“The council has been very patient,” he said. “It’s been on a priority list for quite a while as something we’d get to after other things were reached, such as the water tower. It is something that council dreamed about — keeping that openness and that gateway to the town;”

Next, Mulligan — speaking for himself this time — agreed with earlier comments that labeled the park “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” But he disagreed with Doyle that there could be too much citizen or committee involvement.

Referencing the comments of Joan Neff, who sold part of the property to the Town, he said, “She sold this to the town citizens, not just to the council. The council needs to have a much more extensive participation process in this than is the standard.”

Mulligan said he recommended sending out information to citizens first, then doing a series of surveys to get their input before formation of a committee involving citizens and some type of professional input.

“Then the town council can make the best-informed decision on behalf of the citizens and also find the money,” he said.

A neighbor of the park property said she wanted to offer a personal plea to the council, “because this park is literally in my back yard: Please keep in mind that this is in our neighborhood and if it were to bring in barbecue pits and basketball courts, that impacts on the privacy and intimacy of our neighborhood. It would be lovely to have it a woodland area where people can walk through, little benches and such, just a quiet area with indigenous plants, that all can enjoy and walk to and contemplate.”

Former mayor suggests supermajority rule needed

Finally, former Mayor Jack Walsh urged the council to again consider the issue of a charter amendment that would require a council supermajority to change the designated uses for the park property.

“That was a legitimate process this council could use, to establish a control,” he said. “It might take a year, two years, but they would need a supermajority if they wanted to put a parking lot in. I would suggest we revisit the charter amendment and see if it applies to this particular situation. I think it does.”

McClenny closed the meeting by stating that he fully expected the Town to hold additional meetings on the issue.

“The council will consider — what is a very good recommendation, I believe — for a committee,” he said, promising to convey the praise offered for the Town’s gardeners.

“I hope people are a lot more comfortable about how things are going to move forward,” added Councilman Lew Killmer. “There are no plans. This is about making this a more useful piece of property and meeting our own code. We make sure people clear their properties of brush, and we’re making sure our properties are in the same state. We have a history of always working with our community,” he said.

McClenny encouraged citizens to offer their input to the Town, including via email to “You are encouraged to send us a message,” he said, noting that the emails received go to all council members. “We are very interested in what you think about this project.”