Bethany Beach planners give input to county

The Bethany Beach Planning Commission is getting ready to embark on the town’s annual update of its comprehensive plan, but it’s the Sussex County comprehensive plan update that has been on their mind lately. Much of the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting was devoted to the county plan, and commissioners have been working since their January meeting to draft a formal letter of input to the county.

They worked to finalize that letter at the Saturday meeting, taking additional input from town council members and citizens before the final version is ready to send.

But that letter is likely to be the first of several from the commission, as numerous areas of concern were noted on Feb. 17 and are planned to be addressed in future letters to the county during the entire comprehensive plan update process.

The theme of the first letter focuses on basic impacts that development has had and continues to have on areas in which development is approved by the county, referencing the main source of complaint — roads — and other infrastructure impacts from sewer to recreational facilities. Commissioners agreed that the results have been “deleterious to our quality of life” in Bethany Beach.

Beach an impacted element of infrastructure

While the impact to Bethany Beach has often focused on traffic problems posed by increased numbers of vehicles on Route 26 and Route 1, and this first letter focuses on just those kinds of problems, Council Member Tracy Mulligan was quick to remind commissioners that development outside the town has had major impact on Bethany Beach through its existence as an access to the public beach.

Resident Dan Costello arrived at the meeting brandishing a print-out of a new state campaign to make the public more aware of public beach access with new, colorful signs indicating where they could freely access the beach, emphasizing just that point.

“They call it ‘Millville by the Sea,’” Mulligan pointed out, “not ‘Millville by the Farm.’ This town is assuming the cost of public access to the beach. The federal and state governments assume the cost of maintaining the beach. The county is not registering that that is part of the cost of the impact of development in the county.”

“The main recreational facility here is access to the waters of our bays and beaches,” Mulligan said.

Commissioners were reluctant to derail the focus on traditional notions of “infrastructure” in their first letter to the county on the comprehensive plan update. But they agreed with the sentiment and added a reference to “recreational facilities” to include such impacts along with those to roadways and sewer.

East-west divide a continuing concern

The commission was also keenly aware of the need to bring heightened awareness to the plight of those in the eastern part of the county. Council Member and Commissioner Lew Killmer passed along a quote from state Rep. Gerald Hocker, from their conversation at the Feb. 15 county input session on the comp plan: “I’m the representative of an area with more people who can’t vote for me but who are relying on me for representation than any other representative in the state,” Killmer quoted Hocker as saying.

It put a fine point on what many on the eastern side of the county have already acknowledged is a likely brick wall in getting the county to make substantial changes in its development philosophy.

“The biggest problem I see is the makeup of the county council,” said Killmer. “There is one member east of (Route) 113 and four from west of (Route) 113. We have a different philosophy of life and needs on the east side, and we are the main money engine for the rest of the county. We need more representation, other than Mr. (George) Cole (R-Bethany Beach). And this is another aspect, at the state level of what we need.”

“It’s not one person, one vote; it’s one acre, one vote,” Council Member Steve Wode said, suggesting that eastern towns would have to work extra hard to make their case for major changes to the council structure and, in the meantime, for change in the county’s comprehensive plan.

“My impression from the meetings,” Mulligan said of the series of public meetings on the county comp plan, “was that there’s a silent, accepting majority and an organized, vocal minority.” He said he felt many towns’ planners and other stakeholders were not getting involved in the process, whereas the stakeholders who were speaking up so far “reflect the values of 20 or 30 years ago.”

Wode agreed, saying that the county’s development philosophy reflected a “rural mentality” and expressing deep concerns about the long-term future of the area if some kind of industry does not move in to draw younger workers, high-paying jobs and a mix of residents that will make the county a more viable whole, rather than relying upon the retirement and vacation market of the east as a driving force for county finances.

“It won’t be a viable community if all of us old timers are just sitting around,” Wode said with a chuckle.

Wode said he’d had his eyes opened from attending or listening to tapes of the entire series of public meetings on the plan held throughout the county — to the need for balance between too much density and artificially creating urban sprawl.

He said he favored elements such as an open-space preference in development that would allow development of pockets of higher density surrounding and surrounded by areas of real open space. “If you have one house on every 5 acres, you still don’t have open space and you have something unsustainable,” he said.

Farmers, developers vs. environment and east-side

Council members and commissioners on Saturday also acknowledged another dynamic that fits into the mix. They pointed to a tendency by developers to purposely raise concern over a future constraint of property rights among farmers who have yet to sell their properties for development. The two groups have largely fallen on the side of existing pro-development tendencies in the county, while environmentalists and east-side residents have made up the other side.

But the representation issue has left many of those owning property in the eastern county without much of a voice and little chance of obtaining the moratorium on development that neighboring Kent County recently enacted or making significant impact on the bellwether roadway issues.

“There’s a concern that there are no roads and a lot of development, and you can’t get there from here. Of all the development that’s been approved, 70 to 80 percent of it is from Route 113 to Slaughter Beach to Bethany Beach,” Wode said. “And when you ask (the county) about roads, they tell you about other infrastructure they’re doing, because the state is responsible for the roads.”

“There’s no requirement to improve roads before a development is improved,” Wode emphasized. “And I don’t know how you solve that except … to separate the county into east and west,” he added, referring to a Coastal Point staff column on the issue last year that suggested that notion of last-resort.

Failings at state level also noted

“We are the victims of a failure of intergovernmental cooperation in respect to our transportation, and parks and recreation – including our beaches,” Costello said. “But the state’s conversation with the county goes on and on with no resolution. It’s a disservice to us as citizens of the county.”

The residents of the town, and their neighboring towns, are beginning to take that personally, as impacts of surrounding developing are increasingly taking their toll.

“The quality of life in our community is being impacted by overdevelopment and a lack of future planning,” Killmer said.

The people of Bethany Beach are not alone in that, and the lack of response thus far from the surrounding towns on the county comprehensive plan spurred commissioners to take their letter one step further: they will send it along to their neighboring municipalities and request that a similar letter be generated in each of those towns.

The commissioners are hoping to transform the “silent, accepting majority” into a larger, “organized, vocal minority” that will be able to make a real impact as the county drafts its comprehensive plan update. That process starts with this letter.

Also on Feb. 17:

• Commissioners worked to further develop a list of short- and long-term projects for the town in regards to planning. Eliminated were issues that the commission has no hand in, such as insurance coverage for property owners, or which has already been handled by other entities, such as beach replenishment. Back on their agenda, at the request of the town council, are efforts to improve residential architectural aesthetics — possibly returning to the controversial issue of roof pitch.
• Discussion of updated signage ordinances was tabled until March, with the assumption that dealing with the subject will likely take the entire meeting.
Commissioners planned to possibly draft a commission statement on power issues, related to the wind farm proposal being evaluated by the state Public Service Commission. Mayor Carol
• Olmstead advised waiting to make such a statement because power-generation NRG might be coming to the town soon to make a presentation on its proposed new coal-fired plant.