South Bethany to look at noise ordinances

South Bethany police can keep residents and visitors from disturbing their neighbors with loud parties, but those seeking peace and quiet from barking dogs may be out of luck, at least for now.

Property owner Brad Gough complained to council members at their Aug. 10 meeting that he’d recently been bothered by a neighbor’s dog who had barked continuously while its owners were away from the house, at all hours of the day and night.

Gough said it wasn’t the first time one of his neighbors or their guests had brought a dog with them for a beach getaway and left him to deal with the noisy results while they enjoyed time on the sand or went out for some nightlife. But in neither case could South Bethany police help him, he said.

According to Gough, police visiting the scene during the most recent incident had acknowledged the problem but told him they were unable to enforce any kind of noise ordinance, since, technically, South Bethany doesn’t have one.

Like most towns in the area, South Bethany does have an ordinance designed to assure “peace and good order,” but South Bethany has never specified that infringing noises include barking dogs, nor has it enforced the ordinance against those who allow their dogs to bark at length. Generally, the ordinance is used to ensure that parties don’t get — or stay — too loud for neighbors to enjoy some peace and quiet, or get some sleep.

In that respect, the ordinance has been used to considerable effect, with homes that are rented to recent high school graduates — “June bugs,” as they’re frequently called — often cited for resulting loud parties. South Bethany police noted a decrease in that problem this year, as increased chaperoning of such houses moved the socializing out onto the streets, where police had different issues to deal with.

But the dogs apparently didn’t get the memo.

“This is not the first time we’ve had complaints about a barking dog,” Mayor Gary Jayne acknowledged Aug. 10, suggesting that another conversation with Police Chief Joe Deloach on the issue — and a potential noise ordinance — would soon be at hand.

The reason the barking dogs have gone uncited is that the town does not have a formal noise ordinance, which was what Gough asked the council to investigate putting into place.

It’s also not the first time the issue of a noise ordinance has been raised in the town, or many of its neighbors. The hurdle to enacting one has often been a combination of complicated legal, technical and training issues that has led most area police departments to deem specific noise ordinances to be more hassle than they’re worth.

Gough suggested there should be no issue with enforcing a noise ordinance over barking dogs, since officers could use a noise meter to measure decibel levels and make citations when a standard noise level is exceeded. But that kind of plan has been rejected by most of the area’s police departments, Dewey Beach being a notable exception.

In Dewey Beach, council members recently voted to increase the town’s maximum decibel level in the evening hours from 70 db to 80 db. The officers use a decibel meter to verify violations and then cite offenders, who are then set up with a court hearing if they wish to contest the charges.

That is when the issue arises of enforcement, which has concerned police in South Bethany, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island whenever the notion of a strict noise ordinance has been raised.

Fenwick Island police, investigating the idea of a decibel limit in 2006, said Dewey officers had found that proving a violation in court was difficult. Defendants frequently challenge the calibration of the decibel meter and the training of operators, resulting in cases thrown out of court.

The time spent by officers going to court for the cases and to retain certification in use of the meter, as well as the cost of calibration services and training, had also proven to be a problem in Dewey, then-Fenwick Police Chief Colette Sutherland said.

Previous discussions of the issue in South Bethany have also touched on those issues, leading the council to leave their simple “peace and good order” ordinance in place.

In Bethany Beach and Fenwick, a similar simple “noise ordinance” does not deal with decibel levels but allows neighbors to complain and officers to cite disturbances based on disruption of the town’s normal level of peace.

To the west, Millville recently enacted its first noise ordinance, in action accompanied by some concerns over how the town — which has no police force of its own — would enforce the law. There also, there was a decision — at least for now — not to use decibel levels to indicate whether a violation has occurred but rather to rely upon a common sense approach from residents and police.

“This is a complicated legal issue,” Jayne emphasized on Aug. 10 in not immediately seizing on the notion of South Bethany adding a decibel-based noise ordinance.

Instead, he suggested a true noise ordinance merited a discussion with the police chief and other town officials to see how the town can best proceed.

At a May 2006 council meeting, SBPD Lt. Linda O’Malley noted that, most often, a single visit to a home where there has been a complaint about a barking dog has generally been enough to solve the issue.

Fireworks, fraud remain a problem

Also on Aug. 10, O’Malley reported on the town’s ongoing battle to enforce a statewide consumer fireworks ban. Though Deloach had previously said the July 4, 2007, holiday had not been particularly heavy in regards to illegal fireworks use, O’Malley said the month netted about nine calls in all, spread over the two-week period prior to and after the Wednesday holiday.

“We’re chasing our tails,” O’Malley said of the problem, which has typically involved scofflaws shooting fireworks and then fleeing the area before police can arrive to apprehend them.

In one case, O’Malley said she had driven past some beach-bound fireworks aficionados who had armfuls of illegal pyrotechnics. O’Malley stopped them and confiscated the fireworks.

Complicating the matter was the removal of a number of the town’s signs reminding visitors that consumer fireworks are completely illegal to possess or use in the state of Delaware. The prohibition is also noted in the town’s posted beach rules, Jayne said.

The mayor himself said he’d been awoken on Aug. 9 by yet more illegal fireworks.

O’Malley said some of those shooting off the fireworks appeared to consider it a game with the police, taking advantage of times when officers were known to be busy elsewhere to commit the illegal acts and thus having more time to flee without being apprehended.

Though the town has continued to have officers on four-wheel all-terrain vehicles position on the beach around the Fourth of July holiday, the number of arrests has remained low — an issue O’Malley said was exacerbated by the Wednesday holiday this year, since some scofflaws had chosen the weekend prior to July 4 for their activities while others waited until the weekend after.

On Aug. 9, O’Malley also reported ongoing problems with construction fraud in the town, detailing another incident in which a property owner had paid a contractor for work that was never completed.

“This is becoming a problem for us,” she said.

O’Malley said she had looked into obtaining informational pamphlets to warn residents about potential construction fraud and financial abuse of the elderly and should have those available at the town hall in the near future. Information will also be posted on the town Web site and in its newsletter, she said.

Also part of a continuing trend in South Bethany was a third incident of arson in the town in recent months. This time, O’Malley said, someone had tried to set fire to a vinyl pool fence. The state fire marshal’s office is investigating the string of arson incidents, she noted.

O’Malley said the SBPD had also been called to respond in July to a trespassing complaint, in which the suspects were found to be having a beach party and barbecue underneath someone else’s beachfront residence.

Though the shoreline itself is a public area, private property on South Bethany’s beach generally runs 130 feet eastward from the telephone poles on Ocean Drive. The area underneath and between beachfront homes — except for marked public walkways — is private property.

Finally, O’Malley said that while July had qualified as a busy month for the SBPD, with 98 complaints, traffic arrests had been down, largely, she believed, due to a heavier traffic load that kept speeds down and sometimes kept police from being able enter traffic to pursue violators.

Overall, she said, “It’s been a pretty hard summer. We’ve had more complaints, more traffic, more serious complaints, more investigations, more arrests and more time in court.”

South Bethany lifeguards have also had a busy summer this year, Town Manager Mel Cusick reported, with Aug. 7 being particularly heavy.

That Tuesday alone, there were four ambulance calls from South Bethany and more in other beach towns — so many, in fact, that Beebe Medical Center briefly closed to trauma cases and re-routed two of South Bethany’s calls to other area hospitals.

Cusick said many of the injuries had been the apparent result of strong wave impact, such as back and neck injuries.