South Bethany focuses on wind, building

With the big kahuna of concerns for the coastal town — beach replenishment — lined up for this fall, South Bethany officials on May 25 turned their eyes toward a number of other environmental issues, organizing a number of committees to do research and make recommendations.

First on the agenda — literally — were concerns about the water quality in South Bethany’s canals, which has only continued to deteriorate as the impact of development and traffic along Route 1 has increased.

For Councilman Richard Ronan, the issue is simple and ongoing: overdevelopment. “What good is buying land if you’re polluting the bays with development here?” Ronan asked rhetorically, critical of Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips’ latest proposal on density issues, nicknamed “density for dollars.”

Council members noted that they had previously worked with the Delaware Department of Transportation to have a drainage cache installed at the largest intersection of Route 1 with the town’s canals, at Anchorage Drive.

But that cache, Councilman John Rubinsohn said, is only considered to be 28 to 35 percent effective in collecting polluting runoff from the highway, which also contains downstream runoff from neighboring developments, including Sea Colony. Councilwoman Marge Gassinger said there had also been talk about better filtering for the cache, to improve its efficiency.

Mayor Gary Jayne noted the cache as a positive despite its shortfalls, saying it was a blessing from DelDOT in prior years when the department now faces a massive budgetary shortfall. Instead, Jayne pointed to problems seen across the area’s dead-end canals, such as the one on Anchorage and others throughout South Bethany’s west side.

“The Anchorage canal is no worse than any other in the state, and better than some,” Jayne said, referring to a previous study done on such canals.

Ronan said that was one reason the town should pursue the proposed tidal pump project championed by former Councilman Lloyd Hughes, as a way to freshen canal waters by opening a path for interchange between the canals and the ocean. As a “pilot project” to help improve water quality in all the state’s dead-end canals, Ronan said, South Bethany might find funding more plentiful.

That project is currently nearing the completion of an initial study to verify models of its operation and potential costs of its creation.

Rubinsohn said he still had hopes for help from DelDOT in containing and removing pollution coming into the canals from and via Route 1, despite the department’s financial crunch.

He favored detailing the history of the issue and current thought on the problem so that state officials from both DelDOT and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) can see the link to the highway and nearby development, as well as some possible steps toward improving the problem.

Councilwoman Bonnie Lambertson said she also would like to see a specific mention of the problem in the state’s Pollution Control Strategy, which is currently in the final stages of its development.

However, Councilman John Fields said he felt the issue was already mentioned in the draft PCS, if in more general terms, with that ship having sailed. Why weren’t South Bethany residents and officials involved in the early stages of the PCS work, he wondered. “We should have started work on this four years ago,” he said.

Nonetheless, he joined his fellow council members in supporting the formation of a town committee to work on addressing the water quality issue in its canals. Councilman Jay Headman is to head the new committee.

Town forms ‘Windmill Task Force’

Taking on a note of extra gravity now that the state’s Public Service Commission has recommended negotiations with BlueWater Wind for a proposed wind-farm project off the coast of Rehoboth Beach or Indian River, South Bethany’s discussion of wind power and its impact on the town led to the formation of what Lambertson calls the “Windmill Task Force.”

Lambertson on May 25 reiterated her concerns about the proposed wind farm, saying she felt BlueWater Wind hasn’t provided residents enough detailed information and clear answers about their concerns.

Those include the impact on the horizon of area beaches, stability in Atlantic storms, potential pollution from any mechanical systems in case of a failure, and how much energy the project might supply directly to the Delaware shore and thus how much — if any — pollution-generating power might be reduced locally by the “greener” alternative.

With those concerns in mind, Lambertson said she believed the council needs to decide how it wants to proceed, whether it will take a stance on the project or advocate thing such as better information for its citizens or one proposed location over the other.

“Windmills are a foregone conclusion,” Jayne opined. “The only thing to be decided is whether it will be off Rehoboth Beach or here,” he added, with resounding agreement from council members that they would rather have the wind farm farther north, where it would also be farther offshore, as currently proposed. They anticipated that Rehoboth Beach officials would probably be stating an opposing preference.

Ronan said he wasn’t so sure “foregone conclusion” was accurate, noting concerns about migratory bird flight paths, shoreline access to bring power onto land and other issues that have yet to be fully resolved by BlueWater Wind. But Jayne disagreed. “It looks like we’re going to get windmills,” he concluded.

Lambertson declined to serve as chairperson of the “task force,” saying she felt her concerns over the issue had already been formed and might skew the mission of the committee. Instead, she said she would serve as the committee’s liaison with the town council.

“I think the citizens would like us to be more knowledgeable and to develop a position,” Headman said of the committee’s function of helping to research the issue for the town officials.

Town to tighten construction restrictions

Immediate action was called for on May 25, regarding the town’s permitted construction hours and enforcement, but none was taken, save to form a committee that will work to draft new town code to correct deficiencies in existing ordinances.

The crux of the issue, under recent complaints, appears to be that the town’s ordinance restricts construction to the hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. is not specific enough. The ordinance does not define construction and particularly does not include construction-related activity, such as delivery of materials or the gathering of workers at the site.

All of those activities can generate noise, which has itself generated complaints from some residents as the town endeavors to enforce the existing ordinance.

Jayne said he felt Code Enforcement Constable Joe Vogel was doing “a decent job” at enforcing the ordinance. “I don’t think we have an enforcement problem,” the mayor said. “Some people don’t like Joe Vogel, but he has legitimate reasons for everything he does.”

He said that Vogel was finding what appeared to be a lack of communication between general contractors and their subcontractors, as well as questions over the definition of construction and additional allowances made for property owners working on their own homes.

The mayor said he had reviewed the ordinance in 2006 and had made a list of recommended changes. He said he would turn that list over to a group that could review it and work to develop a “comprehensive solution” that would address not only what constitutes construction but rewrite the proverbial book on what South Bethany wants from construction sites.

Under Jayne’s proposed changes, the town would limit “construction” to between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., with no workers permitted to arrive at the site until 7:45 a.m. There would be no unloading of tools or arrival of materials deliveries until 8 a.m.

Currently, he said, “Joe lets them unload because the code says, ‘No construction,’ and a guy taking his toolbox from his truck to the site isn’t ‘construction.’”

Jayne also proposes to clarify that construction by homeowners, which is permitted until 8 p.m., should not be an exception until a certificate of occupancy is issued, thus eliminating the ability for contractor-owners to continue work later than on homes they do not own and do not live in. Quiet activities, such as painting an interior room, he said, would be permitted, so long as they are not able to be heard by neighbors.

The new ordinances may also include requirements for “cleanliness,” requiring that sites be cleaned up at least daily, with Dumpsters emptied and kept covered, and silt fences kept intact.

Jayne said he felt it was likely the stricter ordinances would elevate some costs of construction in South Bethany, since it might force contractors to arrive later and not begin preparation until 8 a.m. But opposition to the proposal was in the area of needing something done sooner.

“We need to do it now,” Headman said adamantly, arguing that the issue was one of interpretation of “construction” and that the council should simply instruct Vogel that its interpretation of “construction” included all construction-related activity.

“The code, the way it’s worded, doesn’t back that up,” Jayne replied. “I don’t think the code gives us license to interpret it that way.” Headman asked that the town solicitor give an opinion as to whether the council can make such an interpretation.

Rubinsohn also championed speed, favoring a “quick-and-dirty” code change. But such a change requires three readings before a vote, and Jayne urged care be taken in crafting a new ordinance that would have the desired effect. A new committee of three council members will work on that legislation.

Council agrees to delayed support for library

Finally on May 25, council members dealt with an issue of financial want in a time of financial shortfall.

With a request from the Friends of the South Coastal Library for $30,000 in donations over the next three years, toward the capital campaign to fund library expansion, Jayne said he was inclined to grant the three $10,000 requests, beginning in the 2009 fiscal year.

Jayne said he had been told by Bethany Beach Mayor and FOSCL supporter Carol Olmstead that official promises of future grants were just as good to the organization in cementing its finances with state and county officials as real cash. Recognizing the financial shortfalls in many area towns in the last year or more, she asked Jayne to consider a letter formally promising such a contribution in future years.

South Bethany’s 2008-fiscal-year budget has already been adopted, with just $5,000 in total grant funds available. Rather than pulling from contingency funds, Jayne suggested the town hold off on actual financial support for the library expansion until next fiscal year.

Council members were largely supportive of the library project but some were concerned about the notion of giving large grants when the town could potentially be forced into a property tax hike in coming years due to lagging transfer tax revenues.

“I feel a little odd about giving money when we might have to raise taxes to account for our own expenses,” Fields said, adding that he would be happy to make a donation if the town found it didn’t have to increase taxes next year.

Rubinson and Headman both noted personal connections to FOSCL and refrained from voicing a clear opinion on the subject of the grants from town coffers, but both — along with other council members — said they supported the effort to expand the library and praised the service provided to the town’s citizens.

“We won’t have to raise taxes over $10,000 (per year),” Rubinson assured the council members, saying other expenses would be the difference between raising the town’s tax rate or keeping it the same, as they managed to do in the 2008 fiscal year.