On the table for discussion at Fenwick Island’s monthly town council meeting Feb. 29 were three main topics: ambulance service, building height restrictions and residential garbage pick-up.
Fenwick Island was the final of the “Big Four” to hear from the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company regarding their proposed new ambulance service. Since hearing of Millville Volunteer Fire Company’s irrevocable decision to stop providing ambulance service to the people of the Bethany district as of January 2009, the BBVFC has been out in full force trying to get the four main areas of their coverage district — Bethany, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and Sea Colony — on board with an ambulance service.
Bob Minutoli of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company presented the council with the fire company’s proposed plan for ambulance service in the district. He stated his case for the town’s support in pointing out that the fire company is already running at about a $205,000 deficit for fire service alone and can only provide the ambulance service “if it does not put the fire company in financial peril.”
Although fire and ambulance services would be separate, it is that burden of debt for the new service that makes assistance from the Big Four such a necessity if the Bethany company is to provide ambulance service to their fire district.
In addition to the proposals to the “Big Four,” they have 500 commitments from area homeowners associations and will be sending out direct mail and duty crews door to door to gain ambulance service subscribers and other individual pledges of support.
“For every 200 additional homes that sign up, it will reduce the yearly fee by $1,” offered Minutoli.
The plan proposes that the property owners in the “Big Four,” who make up about 70 percent of the fire district, pay an annual assessment fee of less than $25 for this year and less than $45 for next year — depending on when the towns’ fiscal years start.
Councilman Todd Smallwood raised the issue of a possible cost cap after the second year. Minutoli offered that a large part of process is driven by healthcare premiums and that they could be looking at an average cost increase of 4 percent each year.
“Costs will go where they go. As a partnership, we can bring balance to the Big Four,” he said.
Councilwoman Diane Tingle asked about motels, hotel and commercial establishments and Minutoli answered that the subscription will follow the property.
“Renters would be covered. Anybody staying at the house would be covered — kids, grandkids, etc.,” he said. “For commercial,” he added, “probably, but not in every case.”
Concerns were also expressed over the length of the proposed 10-year contract between the towns and the fire company’s ambulance service, with suggestions that a three- or five-year contract would generate more urgency with legislators for a mandate that would ensure financial support for the service. Minutoli replied that the 10-year loan/contract allows them to keep their costs down.
Also brought up was the question of lot owners versus homeowners. Minutoli said lots would be treated the same as houses — the bill would follow the property regardless. He pointed out that the Millville company’s current ambulance service subscription costs $50 annually and covers only the residents in a given house. Bethany’s service, he said, would cost less and cover everyone.
When asked if this had been done before, Minutoli offered, “This is the first — but the first of many. The issues and financial challenges are stark and are dragging people down everywhere throughout the state.”
Minutoli also offered that each town, and Sea Colony, would assess the fees in the manner which suited them best. “Each town is doing it differently. It would be your option,” said Minutoli.
The BBVFC hopes to get contracts from the Big Four by the end of next month, with all actions complete and close to approval. Minutoli said they would like to get the ambulances ordered soon, as they take about six months from order to delivery. He said they hope to have a supervisor hired by November and be up and running by Jan. 1, 2009.
Mayor Audrey Serio said that council members will meet with BBVFC officials and the other towns again regarding the issue and that there will be a workshop for residents once more things are ironed out and there is a more finalized contract presented.
Builders appeal for increased height limit
Also at the Feb. 29 council meeting, Charles Zonko, a local builder, and Phil Craig, a local builder and architect — both residents of Fenwick Island — proposed that the town raise its building height restriction to 34 feet from its current 30 feet and make it measured from base flood elevation, to allow the lower levels of a building to be built above the flood plain and still allow roofs to have a standard pitch.
The men pointed out that, in 1954, the height restriction for the town was actually 40 feet, measured from the vertical distance from the curb.
Zonko and Craig also cited the way other area towns measure for base flood elevation and spoke of the challenges they face in building the type of home their customers expect in a beach area on a typical 50-by-100-foot Fenwick Island lot.
“The types of houses we are building, the two-stories on pilings, the salt boxes, the traditional style houses, the cottages — by the time you add up the wall height for each floor and add the trusses, you might have 3 feet left for the roof and, for aesthetics, that roof is not the best case scenario,” said Zonko.
Craig mentioned that Fenwick Island is a member of the National Flood Insurance Program, with a membership requirement that a town must have a “well-established flood plan ordinance.”
“Which we do,” he said. But Craig said that in talking with Jeff Shockley of Sussex County, he had learned that, in Slaughter Beach, having a finished lower entrance level with drywall and insulation — which he said is expected in a multi-million-dollar beach home — has actually invalidated insurance for people because the insurance company sees that as the lowest living area.
“When you look at it, the houses that we are building are actually non-compliant, and it’s irresponsible,” he said. “Not only is there a monetary cost of fixing your house after a flood but there is health issue as well. We actually have a whole industry of mold remediation in this area because of this.”
Zonko and Craig also touched on what they perceive as inequity in the restrictions because oceanfront homes are on a higher flood plain and already less likely to receive damage from flooding. They said they wanted to bring the issue to the council’s attention in this important time in the town’s history, when the comprehensive plan is being devised.
Council William Weistling said he was concerned with what would really be achieved by increasing the height cap. He added that a two-story house not on pilings would still offer ample space for a pitched roof and that he didn’t really see how the height restriction pertained to flood elevation.
Craig responded that, if parking were not such an issue, that would be an option.
“Being that parking is at a premium in town and people are coming here with their extended family, the parking and storage areas that come with having a house on pilings are important, and that additional parking is something I have to think about for me or anyone I want to sell my house to. It’s a personal choice,” he said.
“We are really looking at two different issues here. Do we really want people building in the flood plain? It won’t hurt anybody,” added Zonko. “And it’ll help everybody in town. We just want to be able to build a house that has a pitched roof and the first floor high enough so you don’t have flooding. It’ll better the architecture and better the community.”
Serio said the issue is something the town’s Charter and Ordinance Committee will review.
Town trash service nixed in favor of outside hauler
Despite opposition and concerns over bringing in a commercial garbage vendor after years of using town employees and equipment to haul away residents’ refuse, the town council voted 4-2 on Feb. 29 to award Moor Disposal the town’s garbage hauling contract.
Town Manager Tony Carson noted that two options for bids were presented to area vendors, with Moor Disposal winning the bid. Option 1 was the same as the current trash pick-up, and Option 2 was for the same frequency — once a week from October to April and twice a week in the summer — with the only difference being the use of a 96 gallon cart supplied by the town.
Carson added that, after riding on the trucks last year, he was convinced the trucks need three employees to run efficiently. He said the town does not have the manpower to do that.
“We would need two additional people in the summer to provide the same service we are getting now, and with only four men and two trucks, we can’t provide that same service to residents,” said Carson, also acknowledging that the age of the town’s workforce was a factor in keeping enough personnel to continue to do the job with employees.
Besides the cost of added personnel, he said that they would be eliminating some $60,000 in landfill, fuel and other truck-related costs, and they could eliminate $5,000 in insurance. He mentioned that the fees quoted were contracted for three years and that the town couldn’t promise what it might cost in the future.
“You will know what the fees are for three years [going with the outside vendor], and we can’t promise that.”
Costs to the residents would be about the same as their current charge — $181 annually.
Councilman William Wesitling raised concern about performance, since Moor Disposal was the lowest bid.
“Do we know anything about their service or have we talked to any of their current customers?” he asked.
Carson assured him that a performance bond was written into the contract for the company so the town would be protected by that.
In response to a resident request, council members voted on the issue and then each gave reasons for their votes.
Weistling mentioned that it would be difficult to repeat the excellent service by the Public Works department and ultimately stated that as his reason for voting no.
Serio opened up the discussion with the long-standing question of: “Do we really want to be in the trash business?” She added that the trucks would eventually need replaced, and that the cost of gas and everything else related to the service was only going to rise. She said the current service was phenomenal but noted she believed it was time to get out.
Councilwoman Vicki Carmean added that, as a fiscal conservative, she agreed that they did not need to be in the trash business “The Public Works department needs to be commended, but as a fiscal conservative, now’s not the time.”
Councilman Todd Smallwood echoed the sentiments about the age of the workforce not going down, adding, “Once we get out, we can’t get back in — we’re done.” He expressed concerns with large-item pickups and voted “no with an asterisk,” saying that if the big items would still be picked up in the same manner he would have voted yes.
Tingle voted yes and cited many of the same reasons. “Costs are only going to go up. Nothing is going down,” she said.
The council members then voted to keep the trash frequency and bins the same as currently in use — going with Option 1. Many people said they had issues with the 96-gallon cart because of its size and the necessity of using it on a gravel driveway. They took into account many of the residents’ concerns with using the cart and added that one big change was enough.
Many residents offered that they were happy with the current in-house garbage service from the Public Works department, and expressed concerns over Moor Disposal being able to provide a service like the one they have enjoyed in the past. They also expressed concern over enforcing or controlling the hours of the commercial vendor.
After the final vote, the residents got a surprise when Robert Moor, owner of Moor Disposal, stood up and assured them that he would do everything in his power to get keep it exactly how it is at present.
“Now, you have a face,” said Serio, laughing.
“I have been doing this for nine years in Dewey Beach,” said Moor. “I currently service the area with ResortQuest, Ocean Ridge, Ocean Village and have 8,000 private homeowners. We’ll do whatever it takes to do the job.”
Transportation, smoking ban on the table
Other items mentioned Feb. 29 were the Historical Committee report, which will be revisited at next month’s meeting and DelDOT’s plan for pedestrian sidewalks. Carson said he will meet with state transportation officials next week on DelDOT’s future five-year plan, “to make sure that they know Fenwick is here and do not forget about us.”
Smallwood added that the Spring Beach Clean-up is scheduled for May 17 at Dagsboro Street.
Other issues brought up by residents at the meeting included a suggestion for a beach smoking ban, similar to the one Bethany Beach is pursuing and in which South Bethany has already expressed interest.
Council members noted that the town’s current ordinances already prohibit smoking in the park, but the Environmental Committee could bring it to Charter and Ordinance for future action.
Finally, town staff also announced that audio of the council meetings is now available on the Web site at www.fenwickisland.org.