Bethany Beach Town Council members will hear a first reading tonight of an ordinance that could change the makeup of the town’s planning commission. They discussed the proposed changes during their council workshop on Thursday, Oct. 11, with some council members not yet giving a clear indication how they might vote on the issue.
The biggest change in the proposed ordinance, as recommended by the planning commission itself from discussion at recent meetings, would be the removal of the council’s liaison on the commission from a voting role to that of an ex officio or non-voting member. That council member would join the town’s building inspector in being present at meetings to advise but would also not have a vote in commission decisions.
Commissioners said they felt there were some issues of conflict between the role of the council member liaison on the commission and that member’s role on the council itself, noting cases in the recent past where the commission had voted for a recommendation to the council only to have their council liaison present and then vote against the recommendation.
“I don’t see that there’s a conflict,” said Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny, who was recently selected to replace outgoing council member and incoming Planning Commissioner Lew Killmer as the council’s liaison to the commission.
McClenny said he had voted against some planning commission recommendations on the council level when he had previously served on both bodies.
But Killmer and other planners had seen a conflict in the position, as it could put pressure on the council liaison to vote in favor of a planning commission recommendation or appear to undermine the position of the commission when the liaison votes against their recommendation.
Further, Council Member Tracy Mulligan said the recommendation for an ex officio role for the liaison had met with the approval of Town Solicitor Terrence Jaywork and was a recommendation of state planning advisors, as well as the commission.
Mulligan said he personally favored a “liaison” role for a council member, rather than a strictly ex officio role or that of a voting member of the commission. Other council members did not comment directly on the recommendation but indicated they would consider changes to it through the first and second readings at future council meetings.
If the council were to adopt the change to the council liaison position, it would come with an accompanying change in the number of commissioners, adding one more voting member to replace the liaison. That would result in a seven-member commission made up of five voting members, the council liaison and the building inspector.
Commission budget and member terms discussed
The proposed changes to the commission also include changing the term of planning commission members from two years to three years, something Killmer said would greatly enhance the continuity of the body and help satisfy another recent goal of the council: better education for those serving in roles in town government. Commissioners could still be removed before the end of those terms for cause, under Delaware law.
Killmer said that if the terms were changed, most of the present commissioners would resign and then be reappointed by the council with terms varying from one year to three years, to stagger reappointments in the coming years.
McClenny — who said he personally would not resign his commissioner role and is only, as council liaison, serving a one-year term anyway — asked whether, in light of conflicts with some previous commissioners, the council would want to give all future commissioners three-year terms instead of two-year terms. The question was met with rueful consideration by those present on Oct. 11.
Mayor Carol Olmstead said the council should also consider whether commissioners would want to serve three-year terms, with some possibly being ready to end their service after two full years.
Commissioners have also asked the council to consider giving the commission the ability to determine when it will meet. That is designed not so much to allow them to change their regular meeting date of the Saturday after the council meets but to add a second or third meeting in a given month without having to ask for council approval for each one, Commissioner Don Doyle explained.
The commission has struggled in the last year to both address time-sensitive reviews for planning and zoning decisions and to pursue ongoing work on major planning projects and a review of the town’s zoning code without resorting to marathon sessions.
In contrast to time spent, the commission has spent very little of its annual $20,000 budget, but commissioners and council members discussed Oct. 11 how much oversight and control should be exerted by the council over that budget.
Jaywork had recommended the council limit automatic repayment of out-of-pocket expenses to $50 per item to an individual commissioner. And commissioners had included a requirement that expenses above $450 be approved by the town manager and/or town council.
Mulligan said he was concerned that the commission not limit its independence by constraining its budget but that some level of control should still exist.
Doyle objected to the $450 limit, saying that the commission should have control up to the full amount of its annual budget.
Mink said she would prefer the council to allow the commission to spend what it deems necessary, with notification to the town manager and council, instead of a requirement to obtain permission for such expenditures.
Town Manager Cliff Graviet noted that the current system requires that all expenses above $200 undergo an approval process for the issuance of a purchase order.
Mink countered that she didn’t want the commission to be in a situation where it was up to a town manager to decide whether or not a project of the commission would be done, based on such a financial approval process.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Olmstead replied. “We should be working together.”
Another change proposed in the new ordinance would give the town council a formal vote on the town’s comprehensive plan — something not technically required by state law. As it stands, only the planning commission is required to approve a town comprehensive plan before it is submitted to and finalized by the state.
Council members also expressed support for continuing to require an annual update to the comprehensive plan, even though the state-required annual update is rarely done by any municipality. Even if the update is a “no change” report, they favored Bethany Beach being one town that does meet that requirement.
The commission is now looking ahead to its next comp plan update, with plans to perform another town-wide survey to ascertain the needs and desires of citizens as they begin that planning process.
The proposed changes for the commission go to a first reading tonight, at the monthly town council meeting. From there, a second reading — with or without changes — would be held before the council votes on whether or not to adopt the changes.
Council eyes future projects
Council members on Oct. 11 also began discussion of their priorities for the coming year, with plans to add several items to future workshop agendas for extensive discussion.
Eliminated from a long list of items developed in the last year were projects already under way, such as town Web site redesign; those being addressed by other bodies, such as a possible commercial “buffer” zone for restricted uses near residential properties, which was handed to the planning commission; and those not being considered for near-future action, such as ordinances regarding impervious surfaces.
Among the list of topics for upcoming council discussion is the future use of the former Christian Church and Neff properties, which were tentatively designated for “open space” uses when the purchases of the properties were finalized more than a year ago.
Graviet said he would like some additional direction from the council as to their planned use for the property so that a gradual plan to transform the property could be put into action using minimal town funding and town employees for labor.
Possible incorporation of the town’s Zoning Commission into the Planning Commission is also on the council’s agenda, along with changes suggested for its Board of Adjustments, though both are fraught with concerns about the impact of changes on non-resident property owners serving, and conflicts between the commission and board and council members who serve thereupon.
Other items kept on the council’s radar include:
• The revised Streetscape plan for downtown Bethany Beach;
• Water storage (a new water tower) and other long-term planning for the town’s utility needs;
• Pedestrian and bicycle safety, with planning commissioners asking council members for more direction on the project after previous engineering recommendations for one-way streets were rejected by the town;
• Possible voting restrictions for non-resident property owners to as few as two per property;
• Possible changes to town council members’ terms and establishment of term limits for the council;
• Commercial planning and possible establishment of a Bethany Beach business association; and
• Establishment of rules regarding the solicitation of donations by non-profit groups on the town boardwalk.
Council members are expected to continue to hold workshops on a roughly monthly basis, though they formally agreed on Oct. 11 to hold such workshops as the need arises.