Bethany planners recommend commission change

Though 2007 has been relatively quiet for Bethany Beach’s Planning Commission, conflict between the town’s planners and its council in 2006 set the stage this week for commissioners to recommend a major change to how the commission operates.

Council Member Lew Killmer — who currently serves on the commission as the council liaison but who is not running for re-election to the council in Sept. 8 voting — recommended a series of changes pertaining to the commissioners, including that the council liaison position be changed from a voting role to a non-voting, ex officio one.

The move, if adopted, would mean seven people would sit at the commission table — five voting commissioners, none of whom are elected town officials, plus the non-voting council liaison and the building inspector, who already has a non-voting advisory role with the commission.

Killmer said he’d been doing some research on planning commissions when he discovered that Bethany was relatively unique in allowing a town council liaison to serve directly on the commission and to vote.

“Bethany was the only one with a council member on the planning commission as a voting member,” he told his fellow commissioners at their Aug. 18 meeting.

Killmer said his own experience had proven that there was much difficulty involved with the council liaison/commissioner “wearing two hats,” leading to friction among both bodies.

Commissioner Don Doyle agreed that the change would be a good one. “I don’t think it’s a healthy situation for the town,” he said, “to have someone on the planning commission voting on an issue and then voting again on the council. And I would think that, if they thought about it, the council would feel the same way.”

Indeed, the solidarity of the commissioners’ recommendations as they are forwarded to the town council for that body’s vote was a major issue in 2006, when the commission voted to endorse an 8-foot setback among commercial architectural guidelines forwarded to the council for their consideration and vote.

Killmer had reconsidered his vote on the issue between a July 21, 2006, commission meeting and the Aug. 7, 2006, council vote, citing five concerns at the latter meeting that led him to then oppose the guideline, including a vote against it at an Aug. 2 committee meeting on the final guidelines themselves.

Then-Commissioner Steve Trodden had cited Killmer’s change in stance — as well as the selection of Carol Olmstead as mayor — as major points leading to him resigning his post on Aug. 19, 2006, saying that the council had not been treating the commission’s recommendations with the weight due to them as the council’s appointed experts in planning issues.

Trodden’s comments echoed those made by former Commissioner Dave Evans, who had resigned three weeks prior, also in protest of conflicts between the commission and the council.

The entire situation resulted in efforts by Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink to draft a “memorandum of understanding” between the commission and council, seeking to detail the commissioners’ duties and the source of their work. Commissioners at that time had pressed for an agreement not to publicly reverse their positions from previous votes without first notifying their peers, and Killmer had also acknowledged that he had likely been wearing too many of those figurative hats.

Lessons learned from the experience apparently influenced Killmer’s review of the section of town code regarding the planning commission. He not only recommended the shift to an ex officio role for the council’s liaison to the commission but further recommended extending commissioners’ terms from two years to three and delineating the duties and responsibilities of the commissioners.

Mink on Saturday praised the changes, saying that the shift to an ex officio liaison would benefit the commission, the town council and the community as a whole.

Doyle also praised the idea of extending commissioners’ terms, noting that work such as updating the town’s comprehensive plan was a “great responsibility, requiring time and seasoning.”

Killmer said the extended terms would likely result in more experienced members serving on the commission, as well as increased continuity, resulting in an overall “better product.” He said that Bethany and Millsboro were the only two local municipalities, of 17 that he reviewed, that had terms of less than three years for planning commissioners. Millsboro uses one-year terms.

The changes recommended by Killmer also include a process for the removal of a commissioner by the town council, with cause, once a public hearing on the issue is held; a “system for helping the commission and council work together”; and a declaration that the council should feel free to ask commissioners’ for input when it is desired.

Commissioners voted unanimously on Aug. 18 to recommend those changes to the town council. Mink said she would like them to consider enacting the changes as soon as possible, hopefully, she said, in time to implement them prior to the change of council and commission membership anticipated from the coming Sept. 8 council election, when Killmer will step down from the council and his liaison role on the commission.

Boat trailer ordinance to be reconsidered

Commissioners on Aug. 18 also expressed support for a proposed change to town regulations regarding the maximum size for boat trailers.

Because of a recent complaint, the town has recently sent out letters to 14 property owners telling them they are in violation of the existing 6-foot width limit for boat trailers stored on property in the town.

The problem lies in that current state regulations limit boat trailers to a much more generous 8 feet, 6 inches in width. Moreover, current highway regulations essentially require that all boat trailers are at least 8 feet in width, to provide safe and stable transport for today’s larger boats.

That information came to light after residents Eric and Linda Mendoza received one of the notices about the violations.

“It was a little bit of a shock,” Doyle said of the letter the couple received, “especially when we’ve never enforced it before.”

In fact, research done by the Mendozas revealed that no state in the U.S. restricts trailers to 6 feet, and no other municipalities that the couple could locate information on do either.

With that in mind, town officials put enforcement of the town’s restriction on hold, pending a possible update to town code that would put it more in line with state — and generally accepted — standards.

“As it stands now, when they cross into Bethany, they’re in violation of town code,” Doyle said. Similarly, those abiding by town code, when they cross out of town limits, are in violation of regulations requiring a minimum size to be on the roadways.

Commissioners on Aug. 18 also noted that the town’s existing ordinance really failed to address the real issue — the size of the boats on the trailers and where, and for how long, they are kept in Bethany yards.

Building Inspector John Eckrich said he wanted to review a proposed draft of the new ordinance and consult Town Manager Cliff Graviet before making recommendations on the issue to the commission.

Other issues he felt needed to be addressed were possible requirements for surfaces upon which boats could be parked, restrictions on parking them in the town right-of-way, storage of boats off a trailer, the maximum number of craft allowed to be stored on a property and the commercial use of a boat as signage.

Also under consideration is a requirement for boat owners to register their boats and trailers with a department of transportation, which most often requires inspection to prove safety of travel for a trailer/boat combination and would reduce the enforcement burden on the town as a result.

Commission’s future plans outlined

Also on Aug. 18:

• Commissioners discussed plans to conduct a new town survey in the near future that would aim to develop updated perceptions and recommendations from citizens for the town’s planning future.

• Commissioners reviewed a set of recommendations from Commissioner Fulton Lappatto regarding the new town Web site and how it can be used to increase interactivity between citizens and town government.

• Commissioners discussed a draft of a “vision” plan for the town developed by Doyle and planned to give additional input in developing a formal list from the commission that will help in work on future planning issues. Mink cautioned the commissioners to focus on developing an idea of what they want the town to be in the future, rather than getting caught up in ideas related to implementation at this stage in planning.

• Killmer noted progress in working to improve communication between the town’s government and business community. The project is to be handed over to the town’s ex officio liaison with the commission, should the council go with the commission’s recommendations on that subject.

• Killmer also outlined the process the town would use if it decides to pursue an initiative for pedestrian walkways. Graviet and the towns’ public works department are set to consult on a strategy, which would involve developing a priority plan for tackling the town’s most problematic and hazardous pedestrian areas first. From there, issues of cost and construction scheduled would be detailed, resulting in the council deciding which projects should go first and when.

As part of the process, the town may look into issues such as driveway regulations, specifically dealing with aprons and rights-of-way. Initial focus is likely to be on areas east of Route 1, with priority for Atlantic Avenue, as well as on high-risk areas to the west, such as Kent Avenue (a state road, which complicates matters) and Collins Avenue.