Citizens consider Assawoman Canal Trail at meeting


There is still much planning before the Assawoman Canal Trail can be built – and many concerns to overcome. More than 100 people attended a public meeting on Sept. 30 to review the Assawoman Canal Trail concept plan, which has been in development since 2009.

A committee of local citizens and officials partnered with Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) in early 2009 to gauge public interest and consider planning a pedestrian and bicycle path along the banks of the Assawoman Canal.

Citizens from Ocean View, Bethany Beach and South Bethany first broached the idea of a nature trail on the canal, which is 3.9 miles long and 90 feet wide. The State of Delaware owns an additional 60 feet on each side, for a total width of 210 feet.

“We first envisioned that this would be a trail system that would enhance active lifestyle and community,” said Carol Olmstead, member of the working group and the Bethany Beach Town Council. “We hope eventually that the sidewalk network … will lead onto the trail.”

Linear trails fit the recreational needs of many people: to relax with family and friends, to be physically fit and to be close nature, said Bob Ehemann, outdoor planner with DNREC’s Division of Parks and Recreation.

The working group also recognizes the importance of wildlife and resource protection, potential for land and water recreation, and the concerns of adjacent property owners, said Ehemann.

“If it wasn’t for that, this trail would probably be built by now,” he said.

In 2009, 200 people attended open house meetings, where 161 people completed surveys. Based on those questionnaires, the working group designed mock-up illustrations of a trail on both sides of the canal.

“This is long-term vision,” said Ehemann. “We’re not putting lines on the map and saying ‘Deal with it.’ Let’s see what the possibilities are.”

Those possibilities were discussed Sept. 30, as well as during prior public meetings at which the public was asked to comment on the notion of the trail and fill out survey forms.

“From those forms, we got a reassuring, overwhelming interest the trail, confirming that it would be utilized if it was built,” said Olmstead. “It also reinforced that there was a sensitivity, of course – the adjacent property owners and their concerns for safety and security. These are very important issues.”

The survey helped determine what would be the most acceptable route if the concept became a plan. It asked, “Would you use a pathway if it were built?”

The responses were: very likely (67 percent), somewhat likely (15 percent) or not likely (15 percent).

“The survey wasn’t ‘Are you for or against it?’ because, in my view, why be for or against something until you’ve explored it, until you know something about it?” said Olmstead. “It was to create a vision of what we’re doing, present the vision to the public and get input.”

The survey reported that 70 percent of people would primarily walk the trail; 56 percent would bicycle; followed by nature observation (40 percent), canoe/kayak launch (35 percent) and jogging (13 percent).

The most popular trail options were 10-foot wide (24 percent) earthen trails (33 percent). Ehemann noted that a successful trail often meanders. If it is narrow, it can wrap around trees and present pedestrians with a more interesting experience, rather than one straight road cutting the woods.

The most popular trail amenities were benches (50 percent), trail markers (48 percent), parking area (43 percent), information signs (33 percent) and a nature overlook (25 percent).

In this preliminary planning stage, the working group examined all opportunities and constraints.

Ehemann said some canal segments present difficulties. For instance, homes in Bethany’s Waterside community are built extremely close to the property line. Also, a bridge would be necessary to span the Bethany Beach Loop Canal.

The northwest and southeast edges are the least problematic sections for building a possible trail.

At the Sept. 30 meeting, citizens shared their concerns about the trail.

Frank Lesniczak of Ocean View said the community should not invest money the trail:

“We’re all retired. How many people here ride a bike in this room?”

At least 60 percent of the audience raised their hands.

“This is a requirement community,” Lesniczak continued. “We need a recreation park for our grandchildren. We don’t need something along the canal. … There’s a lot of things that are negative against this whole plan.”

As property owner adjacent to the canal, he also said he worried about the placement of restrooms or that hikers would be urinating in yards.

People had similar privacy concerns when the Junction and Breakwater Trail was built in Rehoboth and Lewes, said Patrick Cooper of Cape Henlopen State Park.

“In the 10-plus years it’s been up, the reportable crime has been three or four,” Cooper said. “I’m not saying it’ll be the same thing here, but thousands of people use that trail. Historically, if you look throughout the country at trails next to neighborhoods, it works.”

Cooper said property values can even increase because of the nearby amenity.

In the 2009 survey, 60 percent of respondents requested a vegetative barrier between the path and private property, while 17 percent wanted fencing.

Ehemann said that, under the plan, security would be similar to that of other state parkland: rangers would patrol the area and the trail would be closed dusk to dawn.

“I think you’re being a little bit naïve if you put up a sign at dusk and think that will keep people out,” said Pat Hanning of Bethany West.

Hanning also questioned the effect of a human presence on the Assawoman Canal, saying the ducks have not returned since the canal was dredged in 2010.

Depending on the response from the community, Ehemann said the next step is design and funding, to determine where the trail would best work.

Although there are no funding arrangements yet, Ehemann cited possibilities of the Delaware Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund, off-road bicycling improvement funds, transportation enhancement funds and other sources.

There may be opportunities for trail stewardship, through Adopt-a-Trail or Park Watch, which aim to engage the public and create a sense of stewardship. In the 2009 Assawoman survey, 50 percent of people were interested in such public service.

Citizens who did not complete a new survey at the Sept. 30 meeting may complete and return the form to either town hall in Bethany Beach, South Bethany or Ocean View by Friday, Oct. 14.

Residents of Bethany Beach are also being invited to a public hearing organized by the Town to hear comment on the Assawoman Canal Trail concept plan, at 10 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 17, at Bethany Beach Town Hall.

The entire concept plan and maps can be found online at www.dnrec.delaware.gov/parks/Information/Pages/Assawoman-Canal-Trail-Con....

The public can continue contacting the working group with future questions and comments. The group includes town managers from Ocean View, Bethany Beach and South Bethany, and representatives from Sea Colony, Waterside, Bahamas Beach Cottages, Salt Pond, Delaware Department of Transportation and the Center for the Inland Bays, with assistance from the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation.