Ordinances adopted, sidewalks sidelined in Bethany

There was little, if any, concern about the two proposed ordinances that were the subject of a public hearing in Bethany Beach on Friday, Feb. 16. Both were designated as being for “housekeeping” purposes, and neither garnered even a word of public input before the hearing was adjourned, less than 10 minutes after it was convened.

Likewise, the town council had no issues with later adopting the two changes, voting unanimously to adopt both with no discussion. One ordinance makes a series of housekeeping-type changes to the town’s zoning code, as part of the Planning Commission’s ongoing review and update.

The second makes sweeping updates to the town code regarding water and sewer, adopting a more current set of standards for such operations, a new testing requirement and references to state code. “This will bring us into line with today’s standards,” said Vice-Mayor and Charter and Ordinance Review Committee Chairman Tony McClenny.

Of nearly as much import that Friday was the decision by the council not to consider an issue that had previously been on the agenda for the meeting: the possible addition of sidewalks on the east side of the town.

Though the item was included in the budget considerations submitted by the Planning Commission for the 2008-fiscal-year budget for the town, it is not an issue that commissioners or most of the council were ready to discuss in full at the Feb. 16 meeting, let alone set initial public hearings on, as was to be voted upon according to the agenda. It was referred back to the planning commission for more research.

The possibility of the sidewalks was raised at a January meeting of the commission, by Council Member Steve Wode, and Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink said she had included some $500,000 on the commission’s list of budget considerations as a possible expenditure over the next few years.

“I put the number in there as an attention-getting device,” she explained at the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting. “It’s a realistic number, but now may not be the time.”

Commissioner and Budget Committee Chairman Don Doyle agreed on Saturday, pointing to the decreases in transfer tax revenue that the own has seen in recent years. “It will substantially impact some of the things the town has been doing for the last few years,” he said.

Doyle said the town might even need to consider a slight change to its real estate tax rate to help offset the drop in transfer taxes.

But on the subject of the sidewalks, he noted both prior discussion and the inclusion of the issue as a public safety concern in the town’s comprehensive plan. However, he said, “I think that sidewalks are a subject that aren’t a complete issue, where you in favor or sidewalks or your not.” He said residents of his Turtle Walk community had rejected the notion for that area, while some living in Lake Bethany had told him they also opposed the idea.

He said there was also an issue in that some didn’t want Bethany Beach to become “too urbanized” — something that might include sidewalks. “Some places really need it,” he acknowledged, though.

Doyle said he felt the town ought to get more input on the need for the sidewalks, with the commission having a lot it could add to that discussion. The bottom line: “I’d rather not go into next Friday’s budget meeting asking for that amount,” he said, as stretched as town finances may be.

Wode pointed out Saturday that he hadn’t planned for his sidewalk suggestion to progress to budget figures. He had expected that the commissioners would study the issue and get some initial cost figures before holding some public meetings in a “phased approach.”

He also noted that he’d previously suggested, as a commissioner, that new homes built in the town be required to include a segment of standard sidewalk in front of the home, in a piecemeal approach to getting the entire town connected by them.

Wode said that with the amount of traffic, the numbers of cars, bicycles and children in the town that sidewalks were a necessity, even though many don’t use the broken and unconnected segments that currently exist due to those conditions. “We’ve been lucky,” he said of the town’s limited incidents with pedestrian-vehicle interaction thus far.

Public safety concerns emphasized

Mink said she categorically considered the issue one of public safety. “This isn’t about sidewalks,” she said, “it’s about public safety.” Mink said narrow streets, increasing traffic and pedestrians were a major concern under that umbrella. She also noted the potential problems involved, including a possible taking of property needed to make room for sidewalks and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that could add to the costs.

“We need expert input,” she said, suggesting an ad-hoc committee functioning under the auspices of the planning commission should be formed.

On the subject of the budget, Council Member Tracy Mulligan noted the addition of a new system to organize potential expenditures on into the long term, ranging up to a Category 7 area in which he said it might be appropriate to place a sidewalk project. Those projects would be ones “requiring more analysis and not requiring funding in this budget cycle.”

While Wode was ready to reduce the scale of what most might expect of a sidewalk project — noting no real need for curbs and gutters, but instead established walkways separate from the street — resident Dan Costello said the concept of sidewalks could also serve the town in promoting a “community value” of walking, and thereby helping to reduce traffic and parking issues.

All of those issues will likely be raised as the commission pursues the issue of sidewalks in the future. But, for now, it is off the table for the town council, with agreement to refer it back to the commission for further research.

Committee statements, council manual adopted

Council members were, however, decidedly ready to tackle the draft council protocol manual and committee purpose/scope-of-work statements that were also slated for possible adoption on Feb. 16.

The council has been hammering out the new protocol manual for several months’ of council workshops, often spending most of a day deciding how to document council and meeting procedures. It has been pointed to by the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration as a first of its kind in the state. With a draft completed as of their workshop on Feb. 12, they were ready to put the manual in place.

Wode was a standout in objecting to the adoption of the booklet. As he had at Monday’s workshop, he said he felt the manual was not clear enough in delineating which procedures were mandated by law and which were a matter of council preference and could be changed at any point in the future by this council or a future one.

While Wode praised the portions of the manual intended as an “orientation” document for new council members, with its full notations of related sections of law, he said he feared new council members wouldn’t be able to distinguish between legally required conduct and mere council procedure that could be changed.

Mulligan, while having no such objections, confirmed that he did still have some deeper issues about the content of the manual that he wanted the council to discuss at length. They had promised to do it at their March workshop, with any potential changes resulting from that discussion to be adopted in the future.

Thus, on a 6-1 vote, the council adopted their new manual. They have referred to the document not only for its ability to orient new council members but also as a document of public value and of interest to any who would run for a council seat.

Wode also voted against the adoption of the committee purpose and scope-of-work statements on Feb. 16, again reiterating his objections from Feb. 12’s workshop. Wode asked Mayor Carol Olmstead to confirm whether each committee, or at least their chairperson, had been able to review and approve the statements.

Olmstead said, again, that the committees had been involved in drafting the statements but that the council had since made minor changes, as the committees “serve at the pleasure of the council.” She said she expected that any objections from the committees or their chairpersons would be returned to the council as feedback.

Wode voted his objection to that, leading to a 6-1 vote in favor of adopting the committee statements.

Also at the Feb. 16 council meeting:

• Council Treasurer Jerry Dorfman reported some 83.99 percent of budgeted revenues collected for the fiscal year, through Jan. 31, compared to 95.02 percent last year; he said some 76.6 percent of expenses had been disbursed, compared to 78.28 percent in the prior year; revenue continues to exceed expenditures for the town, despite a continuing decline in real estate transfer taxes.
• Olmstead acknowledged McClenny with a certificate of completion as the first Bethany Beach council member to finish emergency management training required by the Department of Homeland Security.
• The council fulfilled its promise of a $5,000 donation to the capital campaign to fund expansion of the South Coastal Library. Some $3.5 million is the goal of the campaign this year.
• Olmstead reported meetings between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Marlowe & Co.’s Paul Ordal, who represents the town regarding beach replenishment. Ordal was to join Olmstead, South Bethany Mayor Gary Jayne and DNREC’s Tony Pratt in meeting with the Corps in Philadelphia mid-week regarding the expected beach reconstruction project, with an announcement regarding possible funding and construction start expected.
• Town Manager Cliff Graviet reported ongoing efforts by DNREC to push sand back up to the town’s dwindling dues whenever possible. A dune-grass planting day has also been set for March 24.
• Graviet noted plans to push back repaving in the town to the fall, in conjunction with a DelDOT audit requirement.
• Building Inspector John Eckrich reported ongoing work in his office on Insurance Services Office (ISO) and Community Rating System (CRS) requirements that could potentially help property owners in the town reduce their insurance rates.
• Council members unanimously approved a $14,400 contract with Hillis-Carnes Engineering Association Inc. to cover hydro-geologic engineering fees for the drilling of a test well and the actual production well. They likewise unanimously approved a $34,000 with A.C. Schultes for $34,000 for the removal and installation of two new high-life pumps for the town’s water plant, which will establish redundancy there to keep the town’s water supply online in the event of a failure, even at high summer need.