Bethany discusses landscaping, construction

Members of Bethany Beach’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) met on Sept. 20 to discuss a number of proposed ordinance changes for the town.

Among them were a proposal to require a town business license for landscaping businesses and set hours for their operation, and one to require builders to complete exterior construction on a property even if they otherwise delay completion of a project.

While CORC members were generally in agreement that landscaping businesses should get a business license to operate in the town, Building Inspector John Eckrich pointed out that many of the grass-cutting operations that currently work in the town are small, “mom and pop” type operations that the town might not want to make go through the expense and procedure of obtaining a license.

Eckrich said he and Code Enforcement Officer Barry English had discussed the matter and agreed that, rather than setting business size limits, only grass-cutting operations should be exempt from any license requirements. Those who move beyond grass-cutting to aeration of lawns, sprinkler installation and other landscaping work should be required to have a license, he said.

Unlike many of the town’s proposed ordinance changes, the landscaping business license requirement proposal did not originate from citizen complaints, Eckrich said. Instead, he and English, he said, were trying to be proactive about a potential problem as smaller grass-cutting operations grow larger and as more large commercial businesses begin to take care of more and more of the town’s private property.

Already, Eckrich said, one formerly “mom and pop” grass-cutting operation had gotten so many new customers that they had been asked to obtain a business license.

Hand in hand with that idea was the proposal to set formal limits upon the hours in which landscaping and grass-cutting businesses can operate in the town.

Eckrich recommended that the hours be set at between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Committee members supported that notion, citing the ability of homeowners to do their own landscaping seven days a week, with just Sunday forbidden to commercial grass-cutting and landscaping.

Outgoing Town Council Member Lew Killmer questioned how enforcement would happen on the Sunday ban, since neither English nor other town staff work on Sundays. Eckrich said Bethany police officers would be able to enforce it, though Killmer noted that the police rarely enforce any code violations unless they are reported by a resident.

The restrictions otherwise met approval on Sept. 20, and the committee agreed to move the proposal forward to the drafting of legislation.

Uncompleted construction draws concern

Also moving forward last Thursday was a proposed policy change that would require that the exterior of new structures be finished, even when builders and developers otherwise put a given project on hold.

That proposal had been generated as the result of citizen complaints, related to one project that recently went unfinished for the better part of a year. Residents had complained about the unsightliness of the unfinished exteriors, saying it detracted from the neighborhood.

CORC members were again generally in agreement on the idea of a requirement to finish exterior construction, even if a builder chooses to halt interior work.

Eckrich noted that, in some cases, unfinished exterior materials were being left to weather beyond the point where they were usable. He said that he and English had already made a policy of asking builders to close up a structure’s exterior after construction was substantially under way.

Further, Eckrich said he had asked the town’s tax assessor what the impact of a requirement to complete an exterior might be on a financial basis and was told that once an exterior was generally complete, the property was added to the town’s tax roles and taxes assessed.

That has been common practice not only in Bethany but elsewhere, Eckrich said, especially with the popularity of “spec homes” that are built nearly to completion but left unfinished inside for buyers to select such items as flooring and cabinets.

Eckrich said they had also developed a policy that allows builders to complete exterior structure work but not to finish landscaping, to allow for the appropriate season to do such work. He said that, in such cases, builders were asked to do grading of the ground around a home but allowed between one and three months to complete driveways and sidewalks, as well as to wait until appropriate weather to plant grass, trees and other plantings.

“There are some things in the code already that allow us some wiggle room,” Eckrich said, noting that his office’s policy in the past had been to, in some cases, issue a temporary or conditional certificate of occupancy for a new dwelling, under the condition that they would come back later to check on the completion of landscaping and other elements.

On that basis, Eckrich said he felt the issue could be handled by setting a formal internal policy for town staff, rather than new ordinances.

Killmer, however, questioned whether internal policy would be sufficient to keep builders from letting a project languish in an unfinished state, with 18 months to complete construction before a building permit would lapse and the ability to renew them for six additional months. He said he was concerned about the ability to leave a home unfinished on the exterior for a year or more.

But Eckrich said the policy provided flexibility for difficult circumstances and also provided a red flag for his office to check on a project’s status when permits were about to expire or needed renewal. Excessive delays, he said, are addressed in a code requirement that construction proceed “in a workman-like manner.”

“This hasn’t been a big problem,” he said.

Killmer again questioned enforcement issues, particularly for an internal policy, saying, “If you can’t enforce something, you shouldn’t make rules about it.”

But Eckrich said he thought perhaps the new sections of town code added in the last year to incorporate segments of the International Property Maintenance Code might address some of the issues and lend more enforcement power to the town. He offered to review the code for such elements and to report back to CORC at their October meeting.

At that October meeting, CORC member Chuck Peterson will take over the role of chairman from Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny, after being appointed to the position by Mayor Carol Olmstead on Sept. 21. Would-be members of the committee for the coming year are being asked to contact town hall so that committee membership recommendations can be drafted.