Bethany Beach enjoys a quiet night

With a recent history of meetings that made headlines as critics became increasingly vocal, Bethany Beach officials experienced a decidedly downbeat Aug. 18, despite a full menu of public hearings and council votes.

There were no complaints about notice or information available on the subjects of the council votes, and council members actually settled in for casual discussions with citizens and each other during the interval between at 6 p.m. public hearing session that ended after only 15 minutes and their regular monthly meeting at 7:30.

Indeed, with four matters up for public comment at the public hearing, the only comments made were description of the issues by Council and Planning Commission Member Lew Killmer, and an occasional clarifying question from other council members.

The council’s votes on those four issues were likewise clear-cut, receiving unanimous agreement of the six council members present, except for two recusals. (Mayor Jack Walsh was absent.)

Council Member Tony McClenny recused himself from voting or commenting on either matter related to the Sea Villas community, in which he lives. One vote created a separate R-1B zoning district to acknowledge the community’s unique covenants and easements, and to correct a blanket variance issued by the town in 1992.

That variance allowed not only the previously permitted encroachment of open and cantilevered decks onto eastern neighbors’ property – up to 200 square feet – but unintentionally expanded the permitted structures in that easement to include any type of structure.

With no ability to retroactively modify the variance, the change of zone was the only legal option available to the town, according to Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork. Killmer said he hoped the community’s home owners would eventually all construct to standard R-1 zoning requirements, forgoing the easements and enabling it to be re-zoned as part of the R-1 district.

The second ordinance related to Sea Villas was essentially for housekeeping – establishing the new R-1B zone on the town’s official map.

In both cases, 5-0 votes reflected how well a letter from the town’s Planning Commission had served to alleviate some property owners’ concerns about the rezoning. Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink noted the following day that many of the comments received as a result of that letter had shown it clarified the intentions of the town and assuaged previously expressed fears that the town was aiming for a sweeping change.

The single comment on the rezoning, from Sea Villas resident Nettie Crops, asked the council to consider mandating that building permits would be refused if property owners didn’t honor the easement provided to their western neighbor.

Both then and at the following day’s commission meeting, town officials cited the potential precedent and difficulty involved in the town essentially enforcing the private covenants and easements of the community – something they noted that the Sea Villas homeowners’ association can do through civil action.

Easy passage for ordinances

It was an equally quick, 6-0 passage for a new allowance for corner lots, permitting property owners to encroach up to 5 feet into “side” setbacks with open stairs and landings.

The measure was along the lines of a similar front-setback encroachment allowance that was passed earlier this year to encourage a more approachable front door. In this case, it will also allow more leeway for property owners to create a presence on the usually longer side of their homes.

Council members also voted 6-0 for a mapping change from the Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) district to Municipal, Open space, Recreation and Education (MORE) district, incorporating some previously unlabeled municipal property and additional uses.

And it was similarly 6-0 passage for a new requirement for a single-lot survey for major – primarily new – home construction, targeting assurances for the town and neighbors that property elevation plans will not negatively affect town stormwater systems or those neighboring properties.

Killmer estimated that surveys would cost around $1,000 each, but Town Manager Cliff Graviet emphasized that it would go a long way toward correcting existing problems with improper grading that created problems for the town and neighbors.

Another ordinance, clarifying when lot-clearing activities are permitted in the town, also sailed through with a 6-0 council vote. The ordinance was intended to reduce the possibility of after-hours calls for emergency utility shutoff should damage be done to water or sewer pipes.

Killmer made a last-minute recommendation to change the language of the ordinance, allowing property owners and their guests to perform work during all normal construction hours, provided they notified utility-marking entity Miss Utility or the town’s building inspector prior to performing the work.

Contracts accepted, resolution passed

Council members also voted on two issues postponed from a previous special council meeting on the grounds that, while legally sufficient, citizens hadn’t gotten enough notice or information on the issues to satisfy them.

It was a 6-0 vote accepting a $17,866 contract from FuturTech to provide a “technology enhancement” for town hall, consisting of a computer network, server, maintenance and backups for the town hall, as well as connectivity for town officials from outside the building.

Council members also voted unanimously to accept the $268,100 contract from N.W. Johnson Builders for the construction of 3,500 linear feet of 5-foot-wide, ADA-compliant bicycle and pedestrian trails at the town’s new nature center and “greenway,” at the former Natter property.

Of that total bill, the town has some $153,200 remaining in grant funds for the project and agreed to foot the additional $115,000 with their Aug. 19 vote. The trails are expected to be completed some 30 to 40 days after workers arrive on the site.

Council members also easily passed a resolution in support of the replenishment of neighboring private beaches at Sea Colony in conjunction with an anticipated federal and state-supported project on municipal beaches.

The community’s recreation association will pay for the project and the resulting widened beach is expected to bolster both public beach sections in Bethany Beach and South Bethany. But questions had been raised about the dredging of public supplies of subaqueous sand.

Graviet said the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control had endorsed the project despite those concerns, citing the resulting reduction in erosion across the coast. And council members were likewise asked to give the thumbs-up on the plan. They did so unanimously.

Surface requirements don’t really hold water

A recent “hot potato” among Bethany Beach’s committees and commissions – a requirement for porous surface materials for driveways and sidewalks – was again shuffled at the Aug. 18 council meeting.

Having originated in the Zoning Ad-Hoc Committee as a side concern in reference to parking requirements, it was then tackled by the Planning Commission in reference to how to define parking areas, with additional concerns about drainage, before being sent on to the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) and then on to Steele as chairman of the town’s Stormwater and Drainage Committee.

All but the last had refused the assignment in the end, citing a lack of technical knowledge on the subject of the materials involved. And Steele, bringing forward loose recommendations that originated in the Planning Commission, had been questioned earlier that evening about the impact of the proposed requirements by property owner Bill Zeigler, who wanted some sort of grandfathering to allow replacement of his existing asphalt driveway.

While the consensus was that further discussion of the issue needed to take place before any ordinance was passed, there were no offers from any town body to take on the issue. In the end, council members voted to send it back to the Planning Commission.

Also at the Aug. 18 council meeting:

• McClenny reported a continuing downturn in real estate transfer taxes, with some 43.7 percent of budgeted revenue collected for the fiscal year thus far, compared to 48.8 percent at the same point in 2005; 31 percent of budgeted expenses had been paid out, compared to 31.84 percent in 2005 – revenues continuing to exceed expenses.

• Council members unanimously appointed Charles McMullen to serve on the town’s election board.

• McClenny was presented with a certificate from the University of Delaware’s Institute of Public Administration for completion of a series of classes on government. He is the first council member ever to complete the series of eight courses and received a round of applause for the accomplishment.

• Former Mayor Joseph McHugh demanded council members call a halt to plans to install drainage pipes in the Bethany West neighborhood, saying the project had waited for three months and could wait until his property there was no longer being rented.

But Council Member Jerry Dorfman and his wife, Cherie (who serves on the community’s board), said the move to start the work immediately had come as the result of demands from the homeowners’ association and other property owners who wanted the town to stop stalling at McHugh’s behest and help with drainage problems before the worst of hurricane season. McHugh was advised to take the issue to his homeowners’ association.

• Olmstead endeavored to clarify that the town council hadn’t dissolved the Bethany Beach Historical Association but that responsibility for the town museum had been removed from them and placed with the Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee that she chairs. She said members of the BBHA were welcome to continue to participate in the museum through CHAC, which has recently lost two members.

Olmstead also noted a pause in plans for a historical mural overlooking the museum, due to escalating costs. Other methods of creating the mural were being considered, she said.

• Graviet noted plans to install, on a trial basis, showers at boardwalk locations at Parkwood Street and Campbell Place, with plans to evaluate the showers at the end of the summer. He said the move had come as the result of people attempting to shower at the foot-wash stations that already exist.

• Town employees will also be stepping up power-washing activity at the boardwalk, running between 5 and 8 a.m., to combat increasing problems with dirt. He said he expected some complaints due to conflicts with the washing activities and pedestrians using the boardwalk.

• Changes are being made to the doors at the town’s renovated bandstand, Graviet noted. The original design of doors, weighing in at an estimated 400 pounds each, was recently rejected as unwieldy. A temporary door system will serve until a final design is approved, and Graviet said it will also serve to provide more room for musicians performing on the bandstand.