Bethany Beach looks at disorderly homes

Bethany Beach officials are scrutinizing the issue of so-called “disorderly” houses, looking at both problems with noise and concerns about overcrowding in the resort town’s rental homes.

To discuss the former, Bethany Beach Police Chief Michael Redmon addressed the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) at the group’s Aug. 17 meeting. Redmon’s conclusion: unruly residents aren’t really a problem.

Redmon reported only two arrests for related charges this summer – both from the same house. He said the BBPD’s traditional handling of reported problems has proven to be effective.

BBPD policy currently calls for officers to respond to reports of noise and other disorderly conduct at residences, whereupon they issue a verbal warning to the residents. In cases of too much noise from inside the home, Redmon said, they’re asked to turn down music and generally quiet down. And when the disorder has spilled outside the structure, he said, they’re asked to go back inside.

With that warning given, BBPD officers will generally leave, the police chief said, returning some 10 minutes later to see if their instructions have been followed and the disorderly conduct ceased.

“We tell them, ‘If I have to come back, someone is coming with me,’” Redmon told CORC members, indicating that arrests were imminent if officers returned and corrections to the problem hadn’t been made and maintained.

Redmon said that during his tenure with the BBPD, from 1980 to the present, disorderly homes were “not an issue,” being generally handled with the verbal warning and an occasional arrest.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, that’s enough,” he said of the warnings. “This is not Dewey Beach,” he added.

CORC Chairman and Council Member Lew Killmer also noted the ability of officers to issue summonses and the town’s aldermen to issue fines in cases where such disorder continues. With homes that might be a routine source of problems, Killmer said, the town could also consider pulling the property owner’s rental license.

To that, Redmon responded with the notation that the town manager could be noticed by police officers if situations did get out of hand.

“But, historically, it’s not a problem,” the police chief said, emphasizing that he personally reviewed all paperwork in the department and kept a log of all problems, making him very much aware of whether there was a need for additional enforcement measures — and there wasn’t really, he said.

Redmon said there was also the option of notifying the real estate company that managed a rental unit, if renters were consistently a problem in a given home. That would lead to notification of the property owner, with the possibility of eviction — something the police assist with in any circumstance.

But on balance, Redmon said, the town maintained its reputation as a “Quiet Resort,” with both property owners and renters willing to comply with police requests to keep the volume down and avoid disorderly conduct.

‘Rooming house’ targeted for regulation

CORC member Don Doyle was also concerned with another type of disorderly house, paving the way for consideration at the committee’s October meeting of other changes to the town’s ordinances.

Doyle offered up a printout of Internet advertising for a local rental home that was touted by its owner as perfect for corporate retreats, club meetings, family reunions and other large gatherings. Doyle said he didn’t really have an issue with family reunions, but he questioned whether the town’s residential districts were suitable locations for a corporate retreat.

“This house was built for the maximum number of people,” Doyle complained. “The police haven’t been called in because they’re really well-behaved. But there have been 20 or 30 people in there, and it’s out of character with the neighborhood.”

Doyle noted that such homes weren’t really policed by town authorities. “The police don’t control this. The public does by complaining,” he said.

The real issue, Doyle said, wasn’t the matter of how many people could stay at a given home, but rather its operation as a hotel or “rooming house” — something prohibited outside the town’s commercial districts.

Rooming houses are defined in Bethany Beach town code as “a multiunit building containing two or more commercial lodging rooms with or without board (e.g., bed-and-breakfast).” And area towns with prohibitions against rooming houses generally look for circumstances where a number of unrelated people are sharing a home.

That could become the crux of the issue, with the town asked to define just how many people, or unrelated people, can stay at a given residence at one time. It is well-known practice for two or three families to jointly rent a larger home in the area’s coastal towns, and extended families often end up with just as many people — including family friends — sharing a home.

CORC members, however, were concerned that trying to control the problem would be impractical. Those at a suspected “rooming house” at any given time might declare themselves temporary guests, versus residents. And trying to untangle the family trees of those admitting to residing at a home would likely prove unwieldy.

That could mean setting capacity limits — perhaps by the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage or parking spaces. Killmer said such numerical limits were “unenforceable” given the complications. And those favoring property-owners’ rights would likely also balk at that kind of suggestion.

However, Doyle said, “We can’t permit this type of place to pop up and feel powerless because he owns the house.” He noted that neighbors of the home in question were perturbed enough that two or three were considering selling their own homes and moving, while the owner of the rental home was reportedly looking at buying another home in the town to rent similarly.

CORC members will have about two months to consider their feelings about and other possible solutions to the problem. It is scheduled to be formally discussed as part of their October agenda.

Referendums, newspapers and produce scrutinized

Also at the Aug. 17 CORC meeting:

• Killmer noted future plans to review the town’s referendum process, saying that efforts to call for a referendum on the recently passed R-1 district height allowance had revealed a number of areas that were unclear in the current code. “It could be tightened up,” Killmer said, adding that changes should make the process easier for both petitioners and the town to understand. “We’re not trying to make problems for anyone who is doing this, but it raised some questions,” he emphasized.

• CORC members voted to recommend that newspaper and other publication boxes be removed from the town’s right-of-ways — particularly at Garfield Parkway and Atlantic Avenue — citing unsightliness, lack of off-season use for some and potential safety issues of the unsecured boxes in coastal storms. They also could be considered to impede the right-of-way, and break town law when displayed at more than three in a row. Committee members at least wanted to require that the boxes be secured against the wind — something that could be impossible for many of them as it currently stands.

Killmer referenced plans to eventually address newspaper distribution in the town’s Streetscape project, with some kind of attractive, organized display. But Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink noted the boxes near the boardwalk as a destination for many, drawing them to get a paper and buy a cup of coffee. “It’s a public nuisance to some, but not to others,” she said.

• Committee members voted 6-1 to eliminate exemptions from the town’s prohibition on sales outside established structures. Previous consideration of the issue had yielded the notation that many current sidewalk-based sales displays are on private property adjoining the public sidewalk.

However, some CORC members said they were also concerned with the long-existing practice of truck-based sales, such as those of produce and eggs. Town code exempts those products from the prohibition on sales outside established commercial buildings. And snow-cone vendors have sought to have that food added to the exemptions in recent years.

But CORC members said they felt the practice in general posed problems regarding traffic, health and fairness for all those who would sell items via truck. They voted 6-1 to strike the exemptions — a move that would eliminate truck-based produce and egg sales inside the town.

• Committee members voted to select green as the cover color for the reorganized book of town zoning code, while the color of the general code book will be blue. They also voted to have the code renumbered for better organization and easier additions in the future.