South Bethany: Water, water everywhere

South Bethany officials were largely focused on the progress on a number of water-related issues at their regular monthly meeting on Aug. 10, reviewing the status of efforts to improve the town’s canals and beach, and nearby Assawoman Canal.

Access to the South Bethany’s most popular waters was addressed at the Aug. 10 council meeting. With the long-anticipated beach reconstruction project set to begin after Labor Day, citizens are starting to wonder what their new beach — and beach access — will look like.

Mayor Jayne reported that New Jersey-based, family-owned Weeks Marine has been awarded the contract for the beach reconstruction project that will widen the beaches and recreate dunes in Bethany Beach and South Bethany, along with related private projects planned for Sea Colony and Middlesex.

Weeks Marine, founded in 1919, has previously completed beach restoration projects in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private communities, and fortified Assateague National Seashore to protect the national wildlife refuge on the Virginia shore.

Preparatory work on the project is commencing now, with the required “notice to proceed” already issued for the project, Jayne said, with activity to begin “very soon.”

Local officials have already met with DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Management Section Program Administrator Tony Pratt to discuss the construction plans, visiting north Ocean City to view the existing “taper” between replenished and non-replenished beach that reflects what will be done at the edge of the South Bethany project where it meets the private Sandpiper Village.

Two properties in that private community have now been condemned for the purposes of access for the beach reconstruction project. The two final holdouts for construction easements needed for the project, Jayne said, are currently in the negotiation stages with state and federal officials for compensation related to the now-mandated access that they refused to voluntarily grant for the project.

Meanwhile, South Bethany officials have been getting a better idea how beach access for its residents and visitors will work. Jayne said the project would not directly impact existing beach access-ways on Ocean Drive. Those areas will remain under the control of the town.

The reconstruction project will, however, include the creation of one Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant beach access ramp, which Town Manager Mel Cusick valued at more than $30,000 in cost that the town will not have to take out of its own coffers.

Other beach access will consist of sand walkways, much as exist now, leading up to the dune that is to be constructed as part of the reconstruction project. The walkway over the dune will serpentine over the dune structure and will be composed of packed sand to ease the longer trip to the water, much as is seen now in Fenwick Island, where beach reconstruction was completed in 2005. The dune will rise some 14.5 feet above the mean high water mark, about 9 feet above the existing beach crest.

Dune fencing on either side of the new 115-foot-wide dune will help protect it from erosion, as will several types of beach grass that will be planted on the dune after the main portion of the beach and dune construction is completed.

On the town’s end of things, South Bethany officials will be looking at what they can do to improve the existing public access. That could include repaving Ocean Drive, which will be more protected from storm damage once the new dune is constructed and the beach widened. It could also include improved signage and access-ways between some beachfront homes.

Jayne noted on Aug. 10 that the division between private and public property on the beach will likely become more defined as a result of the beach reconstruction.

As it stands now, many beachgoers unknowingly trespass on the private property of beachfront homeowners, thinking that all of the beach is open to the public. But most of the beachfront lots extend some 130 feet from the telephone poles on Ocean Drive, which in some cases — particularly as the beach has dwindled due to erosion — means those parking their umbrellas and towels on the sand have been on private property.

When the new dune is constructed, however, it will be placed to the east of the property lines for those beachfront homes. The public will still have access to the beach via the public walkways between some homes, which will be clearly marked, but they will have to walk over the dune to find flat, clear, public beach for their enjoyment. Except for those public walkways, the open sand to the west of the dune will almost exclusively be the domain of various private property owners.

However, once beachgoers cross the dune and reach the public beach, there will be a lot more of it to enjoy. The plan calls for 35 feet of berm in front of the dune, proceeding on a slope of 15:1 to the mean high water level — a distance of about 100 feet from the front of the berm, or 150 feet to mean low water elevation.

Assawoman Canal dredge ready to begin again

On Aug. 10, Councilman John Rubinsohn also reported that the ongoing dredging work on the Assawoman Canal, suspended from Jan. 1 through the end of August for environmental reasons, was set to pick back up again on Sept. 1, as scheduled.

Workers will be focusing on the southern portion of the Assawoman Canal through Dec. 31 of this year, working from the southernmost portion toward the north. Work in 2006 focused largely on the northern portion of the canal, mostly finishing that segment before the New Year’s deadline closed down the project.

Rubinsohn said the unfinished portion of the northern end of the canal will not be addressed at all in 2007, however, owing to a total lack of funding in the state’s budget for that segment of the project. Instead, heavy dredging equipment will be moved in on the south end of the project to help make that portion of the waterway clearer and more navigable for small boats.

That work is not expected to be completed before the required Jan. 1 halt of dredging work, he said. Work to complete both segments of the dredging project, which was delayed by legal challenges from the Sierra Club, is likely to be completed in late 2009.

Canal water quality efforts moving forward

Work to dredge South Bethany’s own canals is also set to begin this fall.

“We’re still on track for this fall or winter,” Mayor Gary Jayne told council members and those present at the meeting last Friday.

Jayne had previously announced that the town no longer plans to request using the same spoils pipes laid for the removal of material in the Assawoman Canal dredge. Instead, a new set of pipes will be laid for the removal of spoils from the South Bethany canals. He said the change in plan will eliminate potential tie-ups that might develop if both projects needed to use the system at the same time.

The dredging project is not expected to make much improvement to the condition of the water in the canals, which remains a top priority for South Bethany officials. Councilman Jay Headman reported that the new Canal Water Quality Committee had already met with officials from the Center for the Inland Bays and experts at the University of Delaware to discuss the situation and begin to determine the town’s next steps toward improving canal water quality.

“Our goal is to make the canals swimmable and fishable, which they aren’t right now,” Headman reiterated.

Already discussion has focused on getting a baseline reading for the canals’ status, and Headman emphasized that the committee’s need for volunteers was particularly oriented toward those who could help with monitoring water quality indicators.

Beyond that initial step, committee members are planning an Aug. 27 meeting with officials from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and Department of Transportation (DelDOT), as well as with CIB representatives, to begin work on ideas for improving the pollution-contributing factor of stormwater runoff along Route 1, where contaminants originating in South Bethany, Sea Colony and Middlesex combine and enter the Anchorage Drive canal.

Headman said concern over the issue extends beyond South Bethany, since the canals – and the pollution in them – feed into the Little Assawoman Bay, which is used by residents of many of the area’s towns and visitors to them for swimming and fishing. The Little Assawoman Bay itself has been demonstrating increasing impact from pollution in recent years, generating concern about the bay, its waters and inhabitants, and the canals and streams that empty into it.

At the CIB, there has been a focus on citizen involvement in the issue, as well as the educational aspect that Headman said will be a primary focus of the South Bethany committee. He said information on ways citizens can help reduce pollution and improve water quality will be provided by the town through its newsletters, as well as the town Web site and some brochures.

As that aspect of improving water quality in the canals takes a step forward, a major project the town is floating toward that end is also set to move ahead — as soon as funding is found.

Headman said those working on the proposed South Bethany tidal pump project were now looking to the funding aspect of the pioneering venture. A study recently completed for the town indicated that the theory behind the tidal pump can work. It also suggested a cost for construction of somewhere between $5.2 and $7 million.

“The challenge for the town is the cost,” Headman said last Friday.

It’s too big of a financial pill for the small town to swallow, officials have recognized. So the focus has turned to ways to seek out state and federal funds that could pay for most or all of the project, which would connect the dead-end canals of South Bethany with the flowing water of the Atlantic to create a system without the stagnation and pollution pooling of the current canals.

South Bethany officials have emphasized that the idea is a pioneering one that could potentially be of use in many of Delaware’s beach communities, where poor water flow in canals near the shore has led to fish kills and other problems. With the South Bethany project set up as a test for what could become a more widespread solution, town officials are hoping state and federal agencies will be eager to kick in for some or all of that significant price tag.

Headman said the town was planning to meet with state Sen. George Howard Bunting (D-20th) and Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th), to see where the town should look for its next steps toward making the tidal pump project a reality.

Also on Aug. 10:

• Councilwoman Marge Gassinger reported that the construction of the new town hall remains on schedule. The new building’s roof and shingles were set to be installed by the end of this week.

• Jayne and Councilman John Fields emphasized that the town has not formally decided to pursue a ban on smoking on the beach. The matter has been assigned to the town Planning & Zoning Commission, which — like the Bethany Beach Charter and Ordinance Review Committee — will be doing research into the idea before making a recommendation to the town council. Former Councilman Bob Cestone on Aug. 10 recommended against South Bethany pursuing a ban, owing to difficulties with enforcement.

• Rubinsohn reported another month in the red for the town’s finances, with $175,000 in revenue and $273,000 in expenses for July. He noted that the large expense figure was primarily due to planned disbursements for the town hall and police station projects. However, he also reported that the town’s transfer tax revenue had decreased from 2006 by some 61 percent. Transfer taxes make up 18 percent of the town’s total revenue. An October council workshop will be devoted, in part, to review of the current budget and determining whether the council can continue to “hold the line” against property tax increases.

• The council unanimously approved the reappointment of Al Buhr and Allan Allenspach to the Board of Adjustments, and John Speer and Joan DeSantis to the Planning & Zoning Commission.