South Bethany Mayor Jay Headman opened the town council’s Nov. 12 meeting with a statement appealing for civility and a lack of personal attacks in a town where heated words have become the norm over the issue of the proposed recreational area at the town park.
“We can disagree without personal attacks,” Headman said, noting, too, the heated rhetoric of national politics in recent weeks. “We can deal with the polarization of politics in our town. … I would ask you to listen quietly while others are speaking, and to limit yourselves to three to five minutes,” he added, leading into the traditional “property owners’ participation” segment at the start of the meeting.
But the appeal may have fallen on deaf ears.
“There was quite a performance put on by playground enthusiasts,” former council member Bonnie Lambertson – an avowed opponent of development of the wooded park property – of the council workshop during which several proponents of the project spoke and during which Councilman Robert Youngs resigned over whether Councilman John Fields has been biased against the project in his presiding over the town’s park committee.
“From our view, the committee was already biased by including two members of the original [South Bethany Property Owners’ Association] park committee,” she said.
Of Youngs, Lambertson said, “His behavior was unprofessional and disgusting,” charging that Youngs had used a curse during his comments on Oct. 28.
“You don’t need to make personal attacks,” Headman warned her.
South Bethany resident Tom Roach thanked Headman for his opening remarks, saying the issue had been “driving a wedge between a lot of the citizens of the town. This is the first time that I’ve been truly upset with the division that you have already described,” he added.
Roach proposed the council drop the controversial survey recommended by the town park committee led by Fields (on a 3-2 vote, with Fields as the swing vote) and offered suggestions for a way to offer information on the proposed project to citizens “without so much from the pro side and so much from the con side.”
But council members stuck to their positions on the survey as expressed at the Oct. 28 workshop, voting 4-1 in favor of sending out the simplified survey and its two options.
Pro-park Councilwoman Sue Callaway was the lone vote against sending out the survey packet as presented, with Youngs former seat at the council table empty and the expected nay vote of Councilman George Junkin unheard due to his doctor-ordered absence.
“I know there’s a sense of everyone wanting to get to a pleasant ending here,” Callaway said, acknowledging Headman’s earlier remarks. “But I’m going to vote against the packet presented. There are many supporters of the park, but on the council tonight I am a lone voice.”
Callaway said the finished survey packet was not something she believed was fair and unbiased. “The process has been biased from the onset and one that has even driven a respected council member to resign.”
Further, Callaway charged that park opponents had contacted and attempted to intimidate state officials over the issue but said proponents had decided not to further dwell on that issue.
“I have championed a multi-option survey,” she said, adding that she wanted property owners to know “the park design is not a done deal, and the council really wants to know what you want. It’s not a choice of spending $174,000 or not. No park advocate wants to spend $174,000 of South Bethany taxpayers’ money on a park. But we will now need to waste money to mail a second survey if the survey shows support for the park.”
Callaway said that, on behalf of Junkin and herself, she was asking that the council insert a statement in the package that, should the survey show support for the project, a second survey would be done to determine its scope.
Fields said he had accounted for that in the included financial statement, having added since the council workshop a line stating that the final design, staging and funding would be determined by the council at a later date, if the project was approved.
Last Friday, Callaway also said she had concerns about the recent addition of hand-delivery as an option for returning the surveys. Fields said he had added that, too, since the council workshop, at the suggestion of Councilman Bob Cestone, who said he was acknowledging past policies of hand-delivery for election ballots.
Callaway was a 4-1 minority on the issue of emphasizing the scope of the park in the cover letter or survey form, and it was not added. But she had support from Councilman Tim Saxton on the issue of hand-delivery.
Saxton said he wanted to make sure the town had the same level of independent verification of the sending of the surveys by the deadline of Dec. 10 that they would get from postmarks.
Fields said he believed town staff simply not accepting hand-delivered surveys after the close of business on Dec. 10 was sufficient, while Saxton said he would like to see late surveys accepted but time-stamped to indicate they were not valid, for tracking purposes.
Callaway also argued for requiring that the survey forms be sealed inside the envelope enclosed with the package, which would help prevent tampering and ensure the forms can be tracked by the numbering system already established to ensure only one vote per household is cast.
On that count, she received unanimous agreement, and on the issue of late ballots, council members agreed that town staff would be in charge of determining which ballots were received before the deadline. They will be kept in a sealed box until they are counted by election commissioners, which will be done at 9 a.m. on Dec. 16 with the public able to watch but not to comment or ask questions.
Saxton noted on Nov. 12 that he had been caught in the middle of the issue, asked to serve as a representative on the park committee of those who oppose the park, along with park opponent Andy Ross, but not himself strongly supporting either position.
“I have been in the middle of this all the way through,” he said. “I believe I do understand the facts. I can really say in my heart I’m in the middle of the road. I don’t have a dog in this fight.”
“When I vote tonight, I want to assure everyone in this room that it has nothing to do with that $32,000 purchase,” he added of the council’s decision to spend $32,000 to purchase a reversion clause that restricted the park property’s uses. “That was a separate vote, and it was all about, to me, that the town should control the property that they own – not to do something with it, but to control it.”
Saxton emphasized that the park issue had been, from the start, something proponents had said they wanted a yes/no vote on, which was initially planned for a referendum in May – subsequently canceled when council members decided the town was not yet ready for such a vote, due to the complexity of the issue.
Saxton said his vote to send out the simplified survey preferred by park opponents was in the vein of supporting that original goal of a yes/no vote.
Headman, Fields, Saxton and Cestone all voted in favor of that package, with Callaway the lone vote against it.
Property owners will receive one packet per household – a change from town voting regulations, which give each resident and property owner a vote, and a change to which some objected. The form will need to return it in person or postmarked by 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 10. The council will proceed from there based on the survey results.
Also on Nov. 12:
• The council held a second reading of an ordinance amending Chapter 145 of the town’s zoning code, to put into writing what Cestone said was the original intent of code regarding the application of a floor-area ratio (FAR), to not include low, open decks and other non-enclosed areas of a home in the calculation with its 71 percent limit but including some enclosed, non-living areas.
Property owner Keris Brown, who was the property owner who successfully challenged the town’s interpretation of the existing ordinance that would have put her home above that limit, said she disagreed with Cestone’s interpretation of the court ruling in her favor and said she felt the rule had been inconsistently applied over the years, contrary to Cestone’s suggestions. She said she felt the issue would have been challenged more often and sooner if not for the $10,000 it cost her to mount her case.
The ordinance is set to have its third reading and council vote next month.
• Town Manager Mel Cusick gave the final tally on a busy summer for the town’s beach patrol, with 85 major rescues, 31 cases of providing first aid, five emergencies requiring oxygen, seven ambulance calls, five spinal injuries, 30 lost children returned to family members, six weather-related evacuations and three police calls.
• Cusick also reported the town’s re-certification under the community flood rating system, which gives property owners a discount on their flood insurance. The town is one of only nine in the state that qualify, he said.
• Saxton reported that the town’s revenue was doing better than some had feared in the last month or two and looked to meet budgeted figures once all revenue is received. Transfer tax revenue remains well below former levels, but he said he expected to be at 80 percent of the budgeted amount by the end of December.
• Police Chief Joseph Deloach reported on a not-uncommon case of construction outside permitted work hours in which he himself had warned workers to stop work, only to see that they had gone right back to work. The case turned uncommon when, Deloach said, he subsequently realized that none of the workers on the site spoke English. That issue was resolved when the department’s newest officer arrived and spoke to them in fluent Spanish, he said.
• Headman reported that conclusion of the Assawoman Canal dredging project is expected to come by the end of November, though shoals under the Route 26 and on the Loop Canal in Bethany Beach will need to be dealt with. Crews are also expected to clean up trees that have fallen since initial dredging work, but Headman said he would have to check to see whether there were plans to deal with docks that remain on the canal.
• Callaway reported that two property owners had come forward to take part in the new adopt-a-canal and adopt-a-street-end beautification programs. She said new holiday decorations were also being purchased – including seven reindeer, each of which will represent a council member.