Ocean Views starts planning its future

As Ocean View battles falling transfer taxes, the growing-pains of past annexations and the long-term consequences of past spending decisions, the town is also looking to its future, as the first stage of drafting the town’s five-year comprehensive plan update takes place.

Interested citizens were invited to turn out on May 31 for the first of two scheduled public hearings that week to kick off a months’ long process to update the town’s vision for its future, as well as the associated elements of town code and its charter, from the document ratified in 2004.

Leading them through the process were Town Manager Conway Gregory and Delaware Department of Budget and Management administrative official Bryan Hall, who now guides many of the towns in this area of Sussex County through the comp plan process, often writing up the documents himself.

In introducing the process, Hall noted that a five-year update of a municipality’s comprehensive plan often means defining new challenges ahead and new issues that have arisen, and redefining goals. A 10-year revision, he emphasized, would require a total rewrite of the existing plan, to allow for a large change in vision.

Despite the reduced requirements, in Ocean View’s five-year plan citizens may be looking at a similar amount of change, he said.

“In Ocean View in five years, a lot has happened,” Hall pointed out, asking for public input on the town’s future challenges, its future land-use map and its proposed zoning map, which will guide its near-term growth.

Before opening the May 31 hearing to input from the general public, Gregory outlined a few areas that he plans to focus his attention on during the comp plan update process.

• Recognizing and preserving the town’s history. Gregory referenced the formation of the Ocean View Historical Committee, which has begun a transformation into an independent, non-profit historical society, and said he would like to see that historical perspective be expanded to include creation of a town historical district. He said the recent University of Delaware study of the town’s historical homes should help the town define such a district.

• Creating a pedestrian pathway along the Assawoman Canal. Gregory noted John West Park as the heart of the town, but he said there are not a lot of opportunities in Ocean View for pedestrian-type recreation, since most of the town poses problems in the form of conflicts with vehicular traffic.

He said he had been told that DNREC was already considering a possible pedestrian path along the canal with 100 feet of state-controlled right-of-way along the canal, offering 50 feet for a possible pedestrian path, and the notion of extending such a path through Bethany Beach to South Bethany, from White’s Creek to South Bethany’s wetlands.

Though the town has been talking about the idea in recent years, Gregory said DNREC officials were discussing a possible project becoming reality in a five- to 10-year time range. With the possible support of both neighboring towns, Gregory said he felt the project could come to fruition in three to five years.

• Sidewalks. Gregory noted growing concerns about the impact of increasing traffic levels on pedestrians walking along some town streets, particularly along Central Avenue and Woodland Avenue. He said he would like to investigate possible funding assistance for such a project from state and/or federal sources.

• Density. Gregory said the existing density restriction of five units per acre in some of the town’s residential districts was something for citizens to ponder during the update to the comp plan. Is it too great? Would the town prefer the maximum density to be four units per acre?

• Future annexation. “What is available to annex? Do they want to be annexed? Do we want to annex them?” Gregory asked in sparking ideas for future consideration. He noted the boom in development in the surrounding area in the last 10 years, asking citizens to carefully consider how annexation plays in a cost-benefit ratio for the town, as the value of taxes and fees is weighed against the town’s responsibilities to those developments.

In a related note, Gregory said the town must also look to the idea of enhanced requirements for annexed developments, so that the town can better guarantee it won’t inherit streets that need to be redone to town specifications and other costly headaches.

• Permitted uses. The recent controversy over the proposal to build a gas station inside town limits has raised serious considerations for the town of what types of uses it should permit or encourage. The lack of a notation in the existing comp plan for the permission or encouragement of a gas station as a use has been cited in statements of opposition to the proposed business. In that light, Gregory said citizens must carefully weigh what they want to allow in the town as they make this next comp plan update.

• Updating of ordinances. Outdated ordinances, needed new ordinances and housekeeping tweaks will all get examined during the update process, as new issues are raised and problems discovered. Significant changes in the town’s direction as laid out in the updated comp plan will need to be supported by new, or amended, ordinances. Gregory also noted the ability of such changes to drive the town’s budget, particularly as relates to capital expenditures.

• Corporate limits. “I’ve never seen a town with such jagged limits,” Gregory said, referencing also “doughnuts” of unincorporated properties inside what is otherwise incorporated Ocean View. These “enclaves,” as Hall noted they are properly called, generally receive town services, such as police protection, but do not pay town taxes or require town approval for projects that would otherwise require applications, fees and an approval process within the town. Instead, they are solely responsible to county requirements, even though the town provides services.

Gregory noted that the issue touches on annexation concerns as well, since the town may prefer to annex such properties but may face opposition from their owners.

• Streetscape. Gregory noted the possibility of working to improve the town’s street presence, with elements such as sidewalks, curbs and gutters, which will also interact with — and could improve — the town’s drainage, as well as possibly improving public safety.

But he also mentioned ideas about purely aesthetic improvements, including beautification efforts and projects such as banners along main roads that would better proclaim the town’s presence.

“Ocean View gets lost to Bethany and South Bethany,” he said.

In concluding his thoughts on the comp plan update, Gregory noted that his idea of a good comprehensive plan is one that is general, not overly specific. “We don’t want it to become handcuffs, or a straight jacket,” he said. “It should be flexible and change as conditions change in the next five years.”

Gregory also pointed out that the town is not likely to accomplish in the next five years everything defined in the plan as a goal. “But it will give us a direction. It will help in terms of asking whether we have to go to the taxpayers for money.”

He said he had some concerns about the town receiving state and/or federal grants for projects, too. “That money is tightening up. Things are getting very competitive, with more people competing for fewer dollars.” But Gregory noted that he has extensive experience in grant-application writing and plans to pursue any monies that might be available to the town for its projects.

Citizens offer input on comp plan update

Hall turned the tables on the usual public participation process in a comp plan hearing, owing to the scant attendance at the May 31 meeting. He asked the three citizens present to give him a list of their concerns, questioning them individually as to whether they believe the town needed to address some specific areas.

“It lets state officials know what’s important to you,” he said, pointing to concerns about ambulance service in the area, as well as the need for medical services to be provided at a closer distance than at present.

Resident and Planning Commissioner Gene Brendel said he felt the town needed to focus on necessities first, such as drainage improvements and keeping taxes low. Brendel said he was also concerned about the presence of unincorporated enclaves within the town’s geographic boundaries.

Elain Birkmeyer, the head of the newly formed Ocean View citizens’ watchdog group Citizens for Transparency in Government, said she felt many of her fellow Ocean View residents “just want to be left alone.” But many of those who want to be “left alone,” she said, felt they weren’t being permitted input on related issues. “They feel they have been stifled. … The citizens feel a little left out,” she said.

Birkmeyer said she was concerned about the town’s responses to potential growth, including attempts to develop the parcels upon which the proposed gas station would be located. “Other people wanted to build there, and they were turned down. Traffic can’t be the excuse every time,” she said.

She also voiced one theme that was repeated over and over again during the hearing: concern over the formation of enclaves of unincorporated properties, as well as the distance — and transport time — to the closest hospitals.

But Birkmeyer’s biggest beef with the town, as voiced on May 31, was a lack of involvement on the part of many of its citizens. She pointed out that dozens had turned out two hours prior for the hearing on a proposed drainage-improvement project for the West View area, near Savannah’s Landing, but only three people had stayed or turned out on their own for the comp plan hearing that Saturday afternoon.

Further, Birkmeyer said she had concerns about both sides of the town’s recent growth.

“Newcomers want to slam the door on everyone else,” she said. “And the town has changed in eight years like you won’t believe. The landmarks are all gone.” Comparing the town to neighboring Millville, she noted that town’s differing attitudes toward development, with Millville largely welcoming growth, even including the multi-thousand-home Millville By the Sea.

“We fought off a car wash. We fought off a 30-home development,” she pointed out in contrast. “This is tax revenue. Everyone else is growing. We’re sitting in the middle here, doing nothing but fighting.”

Cliff Mitchell asked Hall for further explanation of the meaning of the town’s designated growth area, which reserves areas the town considers possible targets for future annexation. Gregory noted that that area is already limited, and will likely only become more so, with Bethany Beach town limits already butting up against Ocean View in most eastern areas and Millville rapidly growing on the west.

Touching again on the issue of enclaves, Hall noted that annexation requires agreement on both sides, from the town and the property owners in the annexation area. “An enclave is when the marriage does not work,” he said.

Hall pointed to ways in which a town can better ensure that enclaves won’t be formed, such as a state requirement that properties in some areas that change hands in the future must be annexed into the town at that time, or that properties adjacent to a town that seek town services (such as water or sewer) must agree to annexation to receive those services.

Posing an additional challenge is that properties seeking annexation must currently be contiguous to existing town limits, limiting annexation options for some who would prefer it.

“It’s going to be a tough one,” Hall said of the work needed to map out an annexation strategy for the town. “But we will work through it.”

Mitchell said he would encourage the town council to look at future annexations very carefully, particularly as to the possible long-term impacts on the town. He said he had concerns the long-term responsibilities of annexation would turn out to be a negative for the town, over and above their immediate financial benefits. He also pointed to increasing density, saying, “The town has changed.”

“I would encourage them not to reach out and expand until we have a firm grip on what we have and what we are going to do with it,” Mitchell added.

Gregory supported that idea, noting that studies have shown that residential annexation does not generally support itself financially over the long-term, with its costs to a municipality outweighing its benefits, while commercial, industrial and business properties annexed into a municipality generally provide a financial boost over the long haul.

“And the money has to be handled well when it comes in,” he added, referencing the significant amount of monies the town took in during past annexations that has all but been exhausted since.

There was also consensus May 31 as to the desire for Ocean View to better establish its own identity.

“There’s a lack of an identifiable downtown,” Brendel lamented.

“Not every town has the ability to have a nexus,” Hall responded. “Some will always be a pass-through town.” But he added that comprehensive plans are one way in which towns can examine ways in which they can better create an identity or town center area, such as working with developers and individual property owners when they develop or redevelop their properties. “We would need to look at how and where we could develop that — something that says, ‘I’m in Ocean View.’”

Mitchell said he would also like to see the town offer more amenities, such as parks, walking trails and bike paths. “Something,” he said, “to keep the generations in town.”

Concluding the public hearing, which was followed by a second kick-off hearing on June 3, Gregory noted that there will be ongoing work by himself, Hall and Administrative Official Charlie McMullen in the coming months on things like a charter revision and code updates — particularly those that have allowed enclaves to exist.

Responding to a comment made at the earlier hearing on the proposed drainage project, Gregory said he would also be looking into the idea of forming “tax ditch” associations in the town that would then be responsible for the maintenance of swales and other drainage elements, for which the town is currently taking responsibility.

Current plans are for a follow-up meeting this fall, possibly in September, with additional meetings to be set prior to Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, every two to three months. The timetable would call for a proposed comp plan update to go to the town council in the spring of 2009 for the required two readings and a vote on adoption by the council.