Bethany planners have vision of future

What will Bethany Beach be like in five years? In 10 years? In 20 years?

Members of the town’s Planning Commission are looking into the future these days, seeking to prepare elements of the town’s annual comprehensive plan update and preparing for the next major update. And first on that list is a “vision” of the town in the years to come, from which can come the plans to address the challenges and changes the town will face.

The start of that “vision” came Sept. 22, when commissioners met and discussed a draft of the document written by Commissioner and former Town Council Member Don Doyle.

That vision brought heavy praise from other commissioners on Saturday, noted as being not only a look into the future of a town most hope will generally resemble its current self in the years to come but also as not overly optimistic about the challenges the town could face in those years.

Alongside the expectation that Bethany will remain a “family resort” and a “senior citizen community” populated largely by part-time residents and accented with features such as its “totem pole” and town trolley, Doyle envisions “a skyline of taller structures replacing smaller ones (maximizing the value of the property),” a greater strain on town resources as it seeks to meet the needs of summer visitors and perhaps the need for tax relief for long-time property owners on a fixed budget.

Doyle sees the former Christian Church and Neff properties, now owned by the town and tentatively marked for preservation as “open space,” as “the gateway to our community – a park that is visually stunning but one that will provide open space accessible to citizens and visitors like, with amenities for all ages.”

He also notes the nearly completed plans for the Bethany Beach Nature Center, where visitors will be able to access 20 acres of untouched landscape via pedestrian pathways and a visitors’ center that will house high-tech video displays to provide information about the natural environment there.

Doyle foresees completion of some version of the town’s long-planned Streetscape project for Garfield Parkway, with the removal of utility poles in favor of underground lines and the reconstruction of sidewalks in the street’s 100 block.

He also envisions “a working group of business leaders and community activists” coming together to attract exclusive shops and stores to Bethany’s downtown, “substantially upgrading the appearance and ‘feel’ of downtown Bethany Beach.”

Doyle said he expects the town to continue to grown in attractiveness for a retiring Baby Boomer generation, as it offers “a rare ocean attraction with a ‘residential environment.’” That, he said, will impact the area’s infrastructure “in almost every respect.”

That includes continued elevation of the town’s housing market and prices as a prime location, as well as its attractiveness to investors — leading to even more non-resident property owners. He said that will push the trend toward taller structures — a trend the town is already seeing — as well as an increase in retail and rental occupants versus traditional private home owners.

On Sept. 22, Doyle pointed to the planned redevelopment of the Blue Surf Motel as a condominium and retail project as the first major element of that shift.

“The Blue Surf is the beginning of that,” he said. “Can the Bethany Arms be far behind?”

That push toward retail and rental, he said, will “exacerbate the difficulty of administering a town government where a majority of property owners (and voters) have only a commercial interest in the area,” as well as further enhancing the importance of absentee voting.

Doyle also expects that the town will see greater and greater strains upon it from burgeoning development to its west, as it seeks to provide space for visitors from those areas. He envisions them parking in western neighborhoods — where parking meters would be installed and resident parking areas defined — and more scooters and bicycles (and the spaces to store them downtown) being used to get to the beach and boardwalk.

For pedestrian traffic, Doyle sees the busy traffic of Route 1 posing a major problem. He said he expects that state government will eventually decide the solution to that problem is a pedestrian skyway to bring pedestrians across the highway above the traffic.

Along with the pressures of development to the west, Doyle expects that local towns will have to coordinate their efforts more to solve common problems, perhaps even regionalizing police forces from Millville east to Bethany as anticipated increases in crime and traffic would require more efficiency.

With the increasing population of both residents and visitors, Doyle envisioned also a need to deal with the financial strain that would create on the town. He notes a need for periodic reassessment of property values, as well as taxes and investment being utilized.

Though the town has been promised 50 years of maintenance for its soon-to-be reconstructed beach, Doyle envisions that the town may have to anticipate reduction in state and/or federal monies for such work, necessitating it to devote a portion of its income stream for beach restoration. If that comes to pass, he says, the town or Sussex County might find it necessary to enact beach-pass fees to fund those costs.

“All of the above are challenges that are both exciting as they are daunting, and the history of our town indicates that they will be addressed in a constructive manner that will only serve to continue Bethany Beach’s reputation as the most desirable location along the shore,” Doyle concludes.

On Saturday, he added, “When it is over, it will be a different place, but it will be just as great a place as ever.”

Commissioners voted 4-0 on Sept. 22 to forward the vision statement to the town council as an informational document. It could become part of the vision for the town’s future as they work to develop the next major comprehensive plan update, which is due in 2010.