Bethany comprehensive development plan discussed


Bethany Beach officials might have expected to hear at least a few complaints from those unsatisfied with elements of the final draft of an updated Comprehensive Development Plan for the town. But complaints from those who hadn’t yet seen the plan were something they really hadn’t anticipated.

Nonetheless, complaints about lack of knowledge of the plan’s content were the primary objections expressed at the town’s public hearing, set prior to a scheduled council vote on the plan on the evening of Friday, Feb. 18.

Despite having advertised the hearing well prior to its scheduled time, despite having made the plan available on paper in the town hall and in digital form on the town’s Web site, and despite at least one newspaper article discussing the content of the plan in the week preceding the hearing, a handful of property owners protested how little they knew about the content of the plan.

Part-time resident Lois Lipsett said it had been particularly difficult for non-residents and those without computer access to obtain a copy. She said many non-residents were unaware that it was even available.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet responded that public notice had been made, as is customary and required, and emphasized that the process of developing the plan had been a lengthy one. “This is nothing that just occurred,” he said.

The February 18 presentation by William J. “Billy” Fasano Jr., the project manager for the development of the plan with the University of Delaware’s Institute of Public Administration (IPA), focused on the format of the plan and how it was developed, with brief discussion of the extensive content.

Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesch noted that the update for the town’s Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) had been in the works since June of 2003, when the town’s existing five-year plan was heading toward expiration and a required update.

Boesh emphasized that an extensive questionnaire had been sent out to all property owners in the town, with an unprecedented response level of nearly 70 percent, in contrast to the 20 percent response such questionnaires usually draw, according to Fasano.

The responses on the survey were deemed to present a “good cross-section” of the feelings of town residents and property owners, and they were used as a guideline when development of the CDP began. Boesch thanked members of the town’s Planning Commission and a handful of concerned citizens who had made extra effort to help in the development of the plan.

Fasano detailed the development process, noting that additional emphasis had been placed on such plans due to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s Livable Delaware initiative, which focused on CDPs as a method to encourage development where it already had taken place, to support existing municipalities and to reflect their desires.

The CDP process in Bethany Beach took approximately 16 months, Fasano said, compared to the normal range of 12 to 24 months. He pointed to the major role played by public participation and citizen input, though a series of workshops and the survey. After the collection of that input, the document went into its writing phase, being fine-tuned by Fasano, the Planning Commission and town staff from March of 2004 until January of 2005.

The final plan comprises 75 pages of text, maps and images. It preserves the existing forward of two previous CDPs, which Fasano said reflected the ongoing desires of the town to maintain a family-friendly resort town with no plans for annexation and a focus on improvements and similar land use within its existing boundaries.

Topping the list of concerns for the town were water issues, from the town’s fresh-water supply to ongoing problems with flooding. Transportation issues also topped the plan’s issue areas, focusing on traffic congestion.

The point was made plainly, Fasano said, that the town believed the state was not investing enough in a solution to its transportation problems, additionally stating a need to focus on inter-governmental cooperation on a regional and statewide basis as part of the solution.

Environmental concerns centered on beach replenishment as a method of protecting property investment and the ecosystem, while economic concerns were focused on the town’s push toward a year-round economy with increased retail and recreational opportunities.

Those highlights established, Fasano outlined the expected timetable for progress toward formal adoption of the CDP. The required hearing having been announced and in progress, the next step was for the town council to vote on their approval of the plan at the meeting immediately following the hearing. (They did so, on a unanimous vote with Council Members Harry Steele and Wayne Fuller absent.)

With approval from the town council, the draft plan proceeds to state agency review in March, with a hearing scheduled for March 30. Should the plan receive approval from state agencies, the town can expect a state letter of response, complete with any recommendations the state believes should be taken into account by the town before final adoption.

The town is, however, under no obligation to comply with the state’s recommendations if approval is given, Fasano noted.

If the CDP receives that state approval, April would see final changes to the plan, as well as its formal adoption by the council and publication as part of the town’s library of official documents.

It has repeatedly been noted that the final CDP, once adopted, has the force of law. But Fasano emphasized that the language of the plan has been tailored to have to force of law only in its broader strokes, such as areas regarding zoning. The details, and the wish lists included therein, are still up for decision by the town as time passes.

The town would not be locked into the preliminary plan for its Streetscape project on Garfield Parkway, for instance, despite the mention of that plan in the CDP. Graviet said areas of the plan that said the town would “consider” a project or idea obligated the town simply to do just that — to consider it.

Mayor Jack Walsh pointed out that areas such as zoning, despite their force of law in the plan, could still be changed in the future, especially as the regular five-year updates of the CDP take place. The clause “based on the town’s ability” also exists in the document, leaving another loophole from what some might perceive as requirements. None of the plans were deemed to constitute a “self-imposed unfunded mandate.”

It was noted that Ocean City, Md.’s plan focused on protection of infrastructure, people and property, but Fasano said he believed the language in the Bethany Beach plan was even stronger than that of its neighbors. “It’s worded in such a way that if they (state representatives) sign it, it’s akin to a promise to help,” he said.

That was a key point for Boesch, who also noted that state acceptance of the plan was tantamount to accepting its premises regarding needs for state and regional assistance with beach replenishment and traffic issues, in particular.

The Rev. Sir Walter Scott, representing the camp committee of the Disciples of Christ Christian Church, had a few objections to the details of the plan, on the committee’s behalf. (The Christian Church owns a large parcel of property in the town, as well as the leased land upon which the town’s playground resides.)

Scott noted that the plan contained a reference to the town’s two-year lease on the playground lot, but he objected to the inclusion of that reference on the basis that the lease is nearing the end of its term, as well as the church’s ability to terminate any lease with six to nine months of notice to the town.

The church, he said, is in the process of planning significant upgrades to the camp, with updates to all existing buildings and plans to place another building on the current playground location.

Even the oldest building on the property — often pointed to as an inspiration for the town’s desired architectural theme — is part of the planned renovation, Scott said. And he further objected to its mention in the CDP in any sort of historical terms, seeking to prevent any possible obstacles to the plan to tear that building down in favor of a more modern structure to better meet the church’s needs.

Fasano noted that while specific references to existing lots and buildings are made in the plan, it was really “a broad plan for the town, not specific plots of land.” The references, he said, were included to give ideas regarding the existing character of the town. Boesch emphasized that plans for an architectural review board or zoning overlays that could affect historical properties were still being worked out.

Former Mayor Joseph McHugh requested that the town remain open to discussions with the Christian Church, specifically as related to its plans to develop the property for future use. He noted that he had, during his term, discussed with church representatives the possibility of a change to commercial zoning for the property on Garfield Parkway, with their tentative idea expressed for a hotel or motel to garner income for the church.

That idea, McHugh emphasized, had been responded to as “no chance” at the time; but he said he personally gave credence to the church’s argument that it was restrictive to zone one side of Garfield Parkway as commercial and the other as for only non-commercial use.

Boesch and Walsh quickly stepped up to note for all in attendance that no such zoning change was currently under discussion or consideration in any form. Town officials were adamant that any rumors about plans to rezone the property for commercial use, such as a hotel, be quashed as entirely unfounded, regardless of any conversations McHugh might have had with church representatives in previous years.

Boesch said any discussion of rezoning was new to him, adding that, if the church had such long-range plans for significant change, such as commercial areas, representatives should talk to the town about them as soon as possible, because the town’s stated desire has flatly and emphatically been in “the other direction,” away from additional commercial development.

McHugh asked only that discussions with the church on its plans be held as needed. “After all they have done for the town, the town should listen to their ideas,” he said.

Graviet offered to discuss specific details of the CDP and the church’s plans with Scott outside of the hearing.

Despite the controversy over the church’s plans and the apparent lack of information obtained by a segment of the town’s property owners, there was quiet support from the plan from most of those in attendance.

Boesch and other town officials expressed their confidence that the plan was a solid one that reflected the town’s desires — particularly those stated by the large percentage of respondents to the 2004 survey, which has also been the root of a number of initiatives for town council, committees and the Planning Commission.

The town council went on to accept the final draft of the CDP on a unanimous vote, with two members absent. It will now be forwarded to the state as the adoption process progresses. Copies of the plan are still available through town hall and on the town’s Web site at www.townofbethanybeach.com.