Council nears decision on Streetscape plan

Bethany Beach officials are one step closer to officially endorsing a plan to make over their downtown area, with discussion and possibly a vote now on the agenda for their March 20 meeting on whether to pay costs associated with removing utility service from poles along Garfield Parkway to buried lines leading to the neighboring alleyway.

The poles have long been considered both an eyesore and a significant element of crowding on visitor-packed sidewalks during the summers. Their removal has been a key component of most of the town’s proposed Streetscape beautification plans for the downtown area, and it is one of the few elements of more elaborate plans that has been retained even in the stripped-down “as is” option that council members have considered since deciding last year to follow a more low-budget approach.

Recently, Town Manager Cliff Graviet brought to the council estimates of the cost associated with the removal of the utility poles, asking them whether he should pursue more complete and final estimates of those costs so that the plan could begin to move forward. They agreed, and Graviet brought the latest available numbers to them at their Feb. 11 workshop.

Costs associated with removing the poles and relocating electrical service provided by Delmarva Power and Light (DPL) in the 100 block of Garfield Parkway were estimated at $205,000, plus or minus as much as 30 percent of that cost. Relocation of supply lines for Verizon’s telephone service were estimated at $351,000, not including the relocation of individual service lines to the alley.

Both utilities said they could not provide hard cost estimates until detailed engineering and survey drawings of the project were provided to the town, since the number of individual private service lines and how they would be re-engineered are still an unknown.

(Costs associated with moving Mediacom cable service lines are expected to be comparatively minimal and could also be shared with private property owners since the change could be considered to improve property values for them.)

Having detailed project drawings done would be the next step for the town and one to be authorized by that council vote in March, possibly heralding the way for some form of the Streetscape project that has lingered in the design and approval phase for years now.

If the “as is” concept is pursued, the project would focus largely on the removal of the utility poles and relocation of utilities in the 100 block of Garfield Parkway to underground and the alleys. The town would patch existing sidewalks where the poles were removed and thus avoid running into costly requirements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as would be the case if new sidewalks were constructed.

Expansion of the project to the 200 block of Garfield Parkway has been considered cost-prohibitive, as a number of major supply lines run along the poles there and the utilities have been reluctant to even offer estimates on the costs of moving underground or to the alleys.

As it stands, Graviet said he expects no funding assistance for the project from any source beyond town coffers. The town, he said, would have to foot the entire roughly $556,000 total cost for the utility relocation, as well as the sidewalk repair costs.

While Delaware Department of Transportation officials had at one brief point held out hope for some state funding for the utility pole removal project, citing the poles as a safety hazard for pedestrians walking in crowds so close to traffic, Graviet said he had since been told that no funds would be available to the town.

Meanwhile DelDOT has held off on repaving Garfield Parkway for a half-dozen years — a delay Graviet has said he suspects is due to the cash-strapped department’s own realization that such improvements will trigger the ADA requirements for sidewalks and thus inflate exponentially the final cost to whichever entity disturbs the area enough to make compliance a requirement.

The costs of the project, while significantly less than the projected cost of more ambitious Streetscape designs, did raise concerns for the council, which is already facing capital cost demands for anticipated improvements to drainage on flooding-plagued Pennsylvania Avenue and to the town’s water storage and treatment facilities.

“That’s a lot of money,” Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny commented, encompassing all three of those needs.

Council Member Jerry Dorfman pointed to efforts by the council to prioritize such needs. “There are other things we need to do,” he said.

But Graviet noted that the Streetscape plan may be the one area in which the town cannot expect to receive some help on the financial front. The water system improvements could be eligible for grants or financing from the town’s sinking fund. Hopes are that state funding might be forthcoming to help on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Graviet encouraged the council to move ahead with formally selecting a concept for the Streetscape project and getting the needed engineering drawings done. Without those steps, he said, “You’re just moving over the same ground.”

“The council needs to endorse a plan. You need to say what you like,” he said, referencing previous pressure from state officials for the council to`formally approve a plan before any more support or funding would be forthcoming from the state.

Already the town has spent more than $150,000 in grant funds from the state for the design phase of the Streetscape project. Another $30,000 in town money has been spent. And that past spending was a major point for the council on Monday.

“You are at the end of the process. You have a concept you can approve,” Graviet emphasized.

“There has been $180,000 of public money spent to get here,” McClenny added.

Graviet also pointed out that approving the next step to move forward with this plan still does not fully commit the town to the entire project, just to having the engineering drawings done, at comparatively little cost.

“Do we spend a little bit more to go ahead, or do we scrap all of it?” McClenny asked.

“Stop talking and do it,” interjected Phil Boesch, former chairman of the town’s planning commission and a member of the beautification committee that worked on initial phases of the Streetscape project.

Council members agreed, adding the issue to the agenda for their March council meeting, which has been moved up from Friday, March 21, to Thursday, March 20, to accommodate the Good Friday holiday.