S. Bethany to purchase park reversion clause

An issue that has divided citizens of South Bethany in recent months also divided the town council on Friday, Aug. 13. The council voted 4-3 last Friday in favor of purchasing the reversion clause in the deed to Tract II – the Richard Hall Memorial Park – from the Hall family’s heirs, for $32,000, clearing the way for the town to do whatever it would like with the park property, be that to develop a park and playground or to leave it in its current, naturalized state, or even something else.

Councilman John Fields painted the purchase in the context of American history, relating the story of the purchase of Manhattan Island for $24 in beads and of the purchase of Alaska – a decision so seemingly absurd to the common man at the time that it was labeled “Seward’s Folly,” after Secretary of State William Seward’s signing of the agreement to purchase that eventually valuable land from Russia for about 2 cents per acre.

“We may have the opportunity to do something like that,” he said, “to purchase a very valuable piece of land for very little money. They had no idea what the value of that property would be many years later. We have no idea what this property will be worth. But it would be foolish of us not to hand it down to the future for this small amount of money.

“This opportunity will never come again – not for this amount of money,” he continued, saying that time was of the essence because the offer from the Hall heirs was due to expire at the end of August. “If we don’t act, this opportunity will be lost to us, at least for this amount of money.”

Fields further said he felt those opposed to the purchase didn’t have all the information about the situation and that the council members therefore had to act in the citizens’ best interests, since they did have that information.

But Councilman Bob Cestone opined that the town didn’t need to purchase the reversion clause to the deed in order to develop a park and/or playground there, or even to build a modest amount of municipal buildings, as the reversion clause in the deed to the property given to the town by Elizabeth Hall, in memory of her husband, only required the town to use it as a park and even permits 10 percent of the property to be covered by structures.

“I was against it then, and I’m even more against it now,” Cestone said on Aug. 13 of the evolution of his stance since the idea was first introduced earlier this summer.

Cestone acknowledged a near-even split between supporters and opponents of the purchase in e-mails he had received, with 20 individuals in favor and 19 opposed. But he said the unsolicited comments he had received in person had been unilaterally opposed, 29 against and not a single comment in favor.

“I don’t think we need to purchase it in the near future. The only proposed use is for a park, and if the referendum that the town’s going to have shows people do want a park, and if this council agrees to put a park in … there’s more than adequate space.

“I don’t think it’s a good value,” Cestone added, noting that the valuation some had considered was based on residential zoning, when the property is zoned as for municipal use. “As long as that restriction is not violated, [the reversion clause is] not worth anything.”

Cestone said he also felt there were other projects that were of higher priority for the town, such as constructing additional handicapped access ramps to the beach and railings to help people get over the dune, as well as the Mobi Mat system the town has been testing to help improve beach access. At $4,000 each, the town could buy eight mats for the price of the reversion clause, he noted.

“Spending it on any of those would benefit about all of the owners and renters this year and next,” Cestone said. “Buying the reversion clause would only benefit the four heirs, by lining their pockets with $8,000 each.”

Cestone chided council members who might favor the purchase of the clause, saying that they had run for election with emphasis on fiscal responsibility. “I don’t think purchasing this is fiscally responsible. There are too many other things we could purchase,” he added, noting that the council had withheld raises from employees in this year’s budget as a cost-cutting measure. “I’m adamantly against this.”

Councilman Timothy Saxton presented a report from the Budget & Finance Committee that confirmed the town did have the money available for the purchase, thanks to revenue being at or above budgeted figures thus far in the fiscal year.

“The only other advice on this decision from the committee is that if you vote to approve this, you are moving this to No. 1 on the capital expenditures list, skipping over everything else on that list,” he advised fellow council members.

Personally, Saxton represented a third position from the council: favoring the purchase of the reversion clause but stating his opposition to construction of a park and playground there. Saxton insisted that those who tied the council members’ opinions on the purchase of the clause to a decision on the park were not giving them enough credit.

Saying he particularly wanted to address the families with properties on Russell Road, adjacent to Tract II, who were adamant in opposition to construction of a playground there and who opposed the purchase of the clause on that basis, he emphasized, “There are council members who are for purchasing the reversion clause but who oppose development of a park on that piece of land,” he said, pointing to himself as one such council member. “I want to be sure you understand council members can keep these as two separate issues.”

Saxton indicated the reasons for his position on the purchase were practical.

“We need to consider, do we want to have control of a piece of land that we don’t have full control over right now? I am a believer in not having encumbrances on property that the town owns and that the town should have full control over how want to use that land moving forward,” he said.

Of the opinions he heard on the issue, Saxton said, “Half said don’t buy it for a park. I expect there are members who would vote for the purchase of the clause and would vote against a park. I do believe they are two separate issues.”

The notion had received a skeptical response when uttered by Councilman Rob Youngs, who had championed a referendum on the park issue earlier this year.

“A vote to purchase the reversion clause is in no way related to the past proposals,” he said emphatically, to a vocal response from park opponents. “They are separate and distinct items,” he continued. If one happens, the other may.”

Youngs noted that any potential litigation surrounding the use of the park property would center on the definition of the work “park,” which was not further defined in the reversion clause. He said any disagreement on whether the town’s definition of a park was in line with Elizabeth Hall’s wishes for use of the property as parkland was likely to cost the town at least $10,000 to $15,000, even if a lawsuit was dismissed by a judge at the first opportunity.

Youngs said he also had gotten more responses in favor of the purchase of the clause than against, 15 to 10, but all except two of those opposed had said they were “opposed to a recreation area being established and did not refer to the acquisition of the property for future generations of this town.”

Councilwoman Sue Callaway – considered a supporter of development of the park when the idea was initially raised – surprised some by stating vigorous opposition to the purchase of the reversion clause. She cited Elizabeth Henry Hall’s reported response when asked prior to her death to attend the dedication of the park property to her husband’s memory. “Why have a dedication when you have nothing there? So when you decide what you want, I’ll come,” Callaway said of Hall’s words.

“It’s clear that her wishes were for it to be a park for the benefit of South Bethany residents,” Callaway emphasized. Though she noted that council members had been asked to make their decisions on the purchase independent of their feelings about a future park, “If the citizens of South Bethany voted to develop a recreational park within only 10 percent of the land, there would be no violation of deed restrictions,” she said. “It would be a park by her description. We would be honoring true intent of her gift.

“It’s disingenuous to accept a gift and then not do what the person intended. And if we do what she wanted, it’s unnecessary to spend $32,000 as the lawyer (and heir) asked,” she concluded, recommending the town move forward with a survey “to determine if the town agrees with honoring Mrs. Hall’s wishes in developing a park for South Bethany residents.”

Councilman George Junkin said he likewise felt construction a more developed park wouldn’t violate the deed restriction. But he said he was concerned that the heirs coming forward with the offer to sell the reversion clause to the town just as the issue of constructing such a park was raised might indicate that it was likely the heirs would pursue litigation should the town decide to build that park – and that there would likely be more heirs to contend with at that time.

“If we build it and the heirs challenged it, we would have court fees,” he emphasized. “It takes all the burden off and puts me into the camp Tim [Saxton] is in, that you would be removing all the burden on the property. Now, if we build it, we would have to worry that it would violate the clause. If we purchase it, the council can decide what to do with it.”

Junkin said he believed that beach access is a problem and that it needs to be taken care of, with the formation of a committee to address the issue, regardless of the vote on the clause purchase.

“For $32,000, it would be prudent for the council to move on this,” Junkin concluded.

The issue of Mrs. Hall’s wishes were a part of last Friday’s debate.

“By buying the reversion clause, you’re saying you don’t care what her wishes were,” Cestone asserted.

“I would say the heirs have ownership of her wishes, and they’re willing to sell her wishes,” Saxton replied.

Concluding the discussion, Mayor Jay Headman noted that he, too, had received about as many opinions in favor of the purchase as opposed, with 17 in favor and 13 opposed.

“I do believe it is in the best interests of our town to have a clear deed on the property,” Headman said. “I do believe $32,000 is a bargain price,” he added, noting also that a vote for the purchase had nothing to do with support for construction of a park or playground on that land.

“I feel it is important for the town to get a clear deed in its hands,” he said. “It was very clear to us that they were ‘threatening’ to litigate,” he added of the Hall heirs’ offer to sell the reversion clause.”

Opponents were predominant among those at the Aug. 13 meeting, citing everything from fiscal priorities to a desire to preserve the existing trees on the property. The Russell Road contingency particularly cited the potential loss of quiet for them and their neighbors if children were to be playing in a park there.

“If you build a playground across from the residents of Russell Road, our property values will drop. We may not be able to sell those houses with your plastic or your wood whatever-you’re-going-to-build-there. … Do you want to live across the street from a playground?” a second-generation member of a family who owns property directly across from the park said. “I’m all for purchasing green space; but you’re trying to brainwash us so you can put your playground across the road. Thirty-two thousand dollars is a steal, but you’re going to put the playground there no matter what we say tonight,” she concluded.

Resident Jim Gross felt one priority, in particular, stood above any such purchase. “You’ve said for years that the repaving of Ocean Drive would be taken care of. It’s a mess. I want to know where that sits on the priority list,” he said. Saxton said the town council doesn’t currently have an actual priority list but last year did make a list of some possible capital projects. Projects on prior priority lists had been completed, he noted.

Former council member Bonnie Lambertson challenged the current council members. “You haven’t been here anywhere near as long as these people,” she said of the Russell Road group. “This started when the property owners’ association went to the heirs,” she asserted. “This is a ridiculous, ridiculous proposal,” she added, saying that one arborist opponents had consulted had said “28 trees would have to be taken down to do anything on that property. Leave this property as it is. It’s an environmental benefit.”

Council members remained divided after the debate, with a 4-3 split on the vote to approve the purchase. Fields, Saxton, Headman and Youngs voted in favor. Cestone said, “Absolutely not,” with Callaway joining him in opposition and Junkin startling some by also voting against the purchase.

After the vote, Fields noted that the park committee appointed by the town is currently working on a “carefully structured, controlled and counted survey to determine the wishes of the citizens of South Bethany as to whether they want this area to stay in its natural state or to be developed into a recreation area.”

Fields said he expected the committee to have the survey out before Christmas. Citizens will receive a form with a postage-paid envelope.

“What we wanted to do is say the town needs to take this over,” Headman explained of the committee’s formation. “That’s why this committee was formed – so when citizens make their decision, they have the right information to make that decision.”

Finally, council members considered whether a survey or a ballot initiative is the best way to collect those citizen opinions. Youngs said he favored a ballot initiative next May, while Fields said he had been looking at a survey as a way to collect the opinions sooner than that. The issue is to be discussed at the town council’s next workshop.

Also at the Aug. 13 town council meeting:

• Headman confirmed that funding for beach replenishment is coming the town’s way in the fall, but he said no details on the project have been received.

• Headman noted that, for the second year in a row, Rocky Weeks had been voted by his peers as South Bethany’s Lifeguard of the Year. The Sussex County lifeguard competition team also reported a second-place finish in national competition earlier this month.

• Headman reported concern from members of the Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) about the economy not rebounding, and a possible reduction in state and federal funding to towns resulting.

• Police Chief Joe Deloach and the Delaware State Police will attend the Aug. 28 SBPOA meeting, to make a presentation on what property owners can do to secure their homes against break-ins.

• The monthly police report included details of the department’s participation in the arrest in Middlesex of five teen suspects in a series of car thefts and break-ins across Kent and Sussex counties. It was noted that Deloach had personally apprehended three of the five suspects.

• Police advised residents who had non-emergency issues after-hours but who still needed police response to call the Sussex County non-emergency number, at (302) 855-2980 if they didn’t want to call 911. Calls to that non-emergency number will be radioed to officers out on patrol at night.

• Youngs confirmed that crews dredging the Assawoman Canal had received authorization to continue dredging through August. The project has generally had a green light to work between September and December, so the process is likely to continue this year until it is finally completed.

• Council members unanimously approved the reappointments of Jim Gross, Robert Johansen, Richard Oliver and John Speer to the Planning Commission. Speer and Roberts each have one-year terms, while the others will serve two-year terms, reintroducing the original staggered terms for commissioners. The council also voted 6-0, with Cestone abstaining, to appoint Sandi Roberts to the commission as a new member. Cestone said he wasn’t familiar with her qualifications.