Bethany Beach property owners may be attracted to bamboo and cattails for their appeal as temperate-weather, water-loving plants that give a feel of the bays and forest, but little do many of them know that the plants are a menace to be categorized with the dreaded phragmites.
While many know that phragmites is considered invasive in the region and to be eradicated at all costs, property owners have continued to plant many varieties of bamboo and cattails in the region, despite a prohibition under Delaware state law and the listing of both plants — and others — on the state’s lengthy list of invasive, non-native species.
Even further, many are unaware that by planting them, or even allowing them to remain when they’re already established, they could threaten their homes and their lives.
That was the message that Bethany Beach code enforcement and public works officials sought to get out during a Feb. 15 meeting of the town’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC), when they were asked to speak on the subject before the committee decided whether or not to ban the plants entirely with an ordinance.
“It will ferment and ignite,” Code Enforcement Officer Barry English warned of bamboo with dire seriousness last week. “The wind will spark it off and it will ignite.”
English said the town had already noted several locations where bamboo had been allowed to grow to the size of a house. Often, he said, it wasn’t a matter of the notoriously vigorous plants spreading off the original property, but instead they were planted close to a home, where the risk posed to life and property as a fire hazard were extreme.
Fire risk is real
“I’m not necessarily worried about a lighting strike,” Public Works Supervisor Brett Warner said. “I’m more worried about Joe Homeowner flicking a cigarette.”
Warner said some stands of bamboo were also close to main roads, increasing the risk that a careless toss of a cigarette could create a major fire.
“I don’t want the darned things in town at all,” English said adamantly, citing the risk of fire the plants pose.
Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny, who chairs CORC, said he’d also questioned members of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company about the plants, and they were in agreement that there was a real danger of fire if bamboo is allowed to grow in the town.
He said the firefighters had further refused his suggestion of a controlled burn for fire training inside the town, simply to the proximity of so much bamboo and the risks that burning anything near the stands would pose.
“It will spread. It will never stop,” Warner warned. “The only way we’ve found is to spray it.”
English came to the Feb. 15 meeting with a written offer from Envirotech, which already helps the town control some invasive and nuisance plants, to assist with eradicating bamboo. The recommended spraying pattern requires spraying the plants three times each year for three years, just to get rid of it.
The Envirotech letter notes that bamboo (Arundinaria spp.) is listed on the State of Delaware, Department of Agriculture, Nuisance Plant List and is regulated under Title 3, Part II — Chapter 27: Nuisance Plant. The regulations require that bamboo, a Class B Nuisance Plant, be controlled in order to prevent outward growth to adjacent and adjoining properties.
If the species grows beyond property boundaries, violators may be fined up to $1,000.
There is a single exception to that rule, for Arundinaria gigantean or “river cane,” which is native to the United States.
McClenny noted that the town had already done some battles with bamboo, cleaning up the plant in many of its alleyways, where it had been allowed to get out of control and impede the alleys.
Like phragmites, which has been targeted throughout the region for eradication, bamboo spreads by rhizomes, sometimes traveling as deep as 3 feet and across distances to create a whole new stand. It has been known to damage concrete and asphalt, as well as sewer, drainage swales and other infrastructure.
List of invasives goes beyond bamboo
In initial discussion of a town ban on bamboo, English said he would prefer to have the plant banned under Chapter 179-1-G, which is a property-maintenance section regarding underbrush, rubbish and tall grass.
English said that section allows him to give property owners up to 30 days to resolve a violation after they are notified and permits him to then deal with the problem himself, with fees assessed to the property owner for the work.
Committee members also added cattails (Typha spp.) to the initial list of three specifically prohibited plants: bamboo, cattails and the notorious phragmites (phragmites australis).
Warner noted that cattails, while sometimes popular for plantings in ponds and stormwater drainage basins, had been specifically prohibited by county officials for such plantings, due to the damage they do to the banks of the ponds. They can also hybridize in the wild and form new varieties that are even more competitive.
All three plants are considered invasive and are among those specifically listed on the state’s invasive plants list.
The town has also periodically battled kudzu and other invasive species, but the committee elected not to expand on the list of prohibited plants beyond those three, to avoid any lack of clarity as to what is and is not to be permitted.
“In Bethany Beach right now, these are the problem,” said council and committee member Jerry Dorfman. “There may be more in the future,” Warner noted.
Warner also referenced the extended list of invasive and non-native plants that the state either outright bans or would prefer property owners not plant. “A ton of people have some of these plants,” he said. They include wisteria, varieties of honeysuckle, purple loostrife, pachysandra, common reed, water lettuce, mile-a-minute, Callery (Bradford) pear, multi-floral rose, periwinkle and Japanese wisteria, among others.
The Delaware Estuary program also notes a number of plants that it says have caused problems and should not be planted, including several varieties of maple, butterfly bush, burning bush, English ivy, Japanese spirea, Japanese yew and privet.
The invasive non-native plants tend not only to spread invasively but to crowd out native species, many of which simply cannot compete.
For now, however, Bethany Beach could specifically ban the three top menaces. A unanimous vote of the committee on Feb. 15 moves the ordinance change to the council for a series of readings and a vote.
Leaves also to be kept under wraps
CORC members on Feb. 15 also agreed unanimously to add a prohibition on another property maintenance problem: people who place or sweep leaves or other debris in the street or drainage swales or allow them to flow into those areas.
“This is a problem in several areas that I can think of,” Warner said last week.
Warner has been fighting a seemingly never-ending battle with the problem for years and has repeatedly asked property owners to make sure that swales and streets are kept clear for drainage purposes. But not everyone has gotten the message.
They town could take that home with a specific prohibition on those activities, instead of the existing requirement that property owners maintain their own swales as free of debris.
Placed under Chapter 76-2B, the prohibition would give property owners 10 days after notification to rectify the problem before the town would do it for them and assess a related fee.