Stormwater information coming together in Bethany


Bethany Beach residents and property owners who are curious about what the town has been and is currently doing to alleviate its drainage and stormwater woes may soon have help in understanding the complex and expensive problem.

The Bethany Beach Communications Committee has taken on stormwater as a prototype project in a proposed series of informational documents that it plans to offer to the town’s citizens to help better explain such issues.

Committee member Rosemary Hardiman has been conferencing with town staff and researching the history of the town’s stormwater management efforts for more than a month now, meeting with Public Works Supervisor Brett Warner, Town Council Member and committee chairman Tracy Mulligan, Town Manager Cliff Graviet, and Stormwater and Drainage Committee Chairman Harold Steele to learn enough to draft just such a document.

She presented a preliminary draft at the committee’s Jan. 24 meeting, for a perusal by the other committee members and additional input from Warner. The document will cover what has been done by the town in the past, what is being done now as far as ongoing maintenance and projects currently under way, and what citizens themselves can do to help minimize drainage problems.

Notably, the document is not currently planned to include information on future plans or options being considered by the town.

Mulligan said he was concerned about the committee taking any perceived stance on items that were potentially to come before the town council for action, as well as Graviet’s often-mentioned notation that the town does not want to raise any expectations above what might turn out to be possible in the end.

Council Member Lew Killmer, present at the Jan. 24 meeting, agreed, warning of the potential disquiet that could be raised if the town laid out its long-term plans or ideas and they weren’t carried out quickly. “Many will be wondering why things aren’t being done,” he said. “But it may be a $2 million project, and you don’t know it. Some of them are not projects you can do piecemeal.”

Mulligan also said he thought the prototype process of developing the document had gone well — involving more homework on Hardiman’s part than valuable staff time that might have been spent getting the stormwater novice up to date.

The initial test of the document is a full review by the communications committee members, each of whom is more man-on-the-street than stormwater expert. If they feel it answers their questions, and Warner agrees that it is accurate, the document could head to the town council in the coming months and eventually onto the town Web site or otherwise into the hands of its citizens.

Warner, Mulligan and Hardiman alike emphasized the importance of the citizen-involvement element of the document when it is finally released. In the past, some property owners have caused complications for the town’s stormwater management instead of helping to improve it, if without realizing it.

“Most property owners think that if they have a ditch between their property and the street that it’s the town’s responsibility,” Warner said, referring to the maintenance needed to keep the swales clear of leaves and other debris. “We do that, but that is not what should be done,” he emphasized.

Indeed, town code calls for property owners to keep the swales on their property clear of debris and in good working order, even if they are in town right-of-way.

But Warner’s public works crew has spent countless hours in recent years clearing the swales of debris and making sure they flow properly. When they don’t, drainage problems usually ensue, and the public works crew has also had to deal with the resulting calls of complaint when properties and roads flood due to blocked drainage swales.

Warner has mentioned at previous Stormwater and Drainage Committee meetings that some property owners are even in the habit of raking their leaves into the swales, or, worse, filling them in for landscaping aesthetics and even refilling them when the town staff then clears them out to fix drainage problems.

It’s a losing battle in a war Warner hopes can be slowly won with enough education of the town’s citizens. And the new document on stormwater management may be the kick-off to the major skirmish of that war.

The background information on the town’s drainage woes may give the citizens some insight to why the issue is so important to the town and to Warner. Killmer said he felt the document will even be of use to council members, as it would provide a “compendium of everything that has been done.”

Hardiman noted that she was dealing with an eight- to 10-page list from Warner of routine maintenance chores the public works staff keeps as an ongoing project to try to keep the town as dry as possible.

On that subject, Warner said his staff was trying to keep town residents as up-to-date on such work as possible, to warn them of any possible inconveniences. But Killmer suggested that tailored updates published in the newsletters of individual homeowners’ associations might go a long way toward keeping people updated on overall progress.

Warner also said he might consider adding such project updates, tailored to individual neighborhoods and focusing on the upcoming month or so, on the town Web site, in addition to posting notices at individual properties as the work comes up.

It’s all one step forward for communication on the issue between the town and its citizens — exactly what the committee has had as its primary goal since Mulligan took the helm.

Replenishment

document up in air

The prototype process of developing the stormwater document was a roaring success for those at the Jan. 24 meeting. However, initial eagerness to perform a similar process for the town’s beach replenishment issue was tempered by concern that such a document would need to focus on future plans and options in order to be of interest to citizens. Facts about what has gone before likely aren’t areas of curiosity for most.

“People say, ‘I have a beach that needs sand. I don’t want to know when it was replenished last. I want to know when it will be replenished and how that is going to happen,’” Killmer opined.

Mayor Carol Olmstead, however, said she felt there was little additional information that town officials could provide to its citizens about the ongoing process of getting a beach reconstruction project moving.

“This is not a town project,” she emphasized. “This is a project of the State of Delaware. We’re very concerned. We’re very interested. But it’s a State of Delaware project.”

As far as updating citizens on the process of funding or possible emergency replenishment, Olmstead said she was keeping on top of the latest happenings, and, “I get whatever information I can out to the public,” she said. “The information is not always available.”

Mulligan and Hardiman, though, were concerned that the town has simply not been giving enough information to the public.

“One of the reasons I was interested in joining this committee was that, leading up to the elections last year, the council kept saying this was their highest priority, but they didn’t demonstrate that,” Hardiman said. “If we’re telling people to read about it in the Coastal Point, is it really the highest priority?” she asked.

That came after Mulligan had noted the newspaper’s extensive coverage of the issue and his own review of prior published articles as part of his homework on it. And he has expressed his own concerns that the town council do more to make beach replenishment a clearly demonstrated priority, pushing them to add it to the agenda of a Jan. 4 council workshop.

But Olmstead and other council members said they felt that agenda was already too full and that plenty of time for any action from the town existed before the next round of federal funding decisions were to be made.

On Jan. 24, Mulligan pushed for more frequent updates to the town’s Web site, which has a page dedicated to the latest information on replenishment. That page hasn’t been updated since the summer of 2006, and the town Web site is currently being re-coded in preparation for a total redesign.

Mulligan said the site should answer questions or provide facts that citizens may want to know, even if they couldn’t go into plans for the future because decisions have been made by the powers that be. He emphasized that his committee was about communication. And Hardiman agreed that the town should at least provide an update on the Web.

Olmstead countered that she already provides updates on replenishment issues at the council’s monthly meeting — most recently on Jan. 19. “The council meeting minutes are up on the Web site,” she said. “It’s in there.”

“People have to avail themselves of the information,” she added.

But most of the committee members appeared to feel the town could do more to inform its citizens on the issue. It was the same conclusion reached by the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which has replenishment as one of its chief interests.

IRC Chairwoman Julia Jacobsen said several times in 2006 that she felt citizens were asking so many questions about what the town was doing to get replenishment going because they hadn’t been kept well enough informed of council actions and ongoing issues.

In the end, Mulligan said he would present the issue to the council at an upcoming meeting, leaving room for their direction on the matter of the informative document and updates via the town Web site.

Committee members are also beginning to draft such documents for enhanced citizen information about emergency preparedness and mosquito control.

The Communications Committee is currently meeting on each Wednesday after the monthly town council meeting.