Bethany Beach scraps Streetscape plans

After more than four years, and approximately $68,000 and countless citizen hours spent to date, Bethany Beach officials on Friday, Oct. 20, voted 6-0 to abandon the latest of several proposed plans for their downtown-enhancing Streetscape project and instead pursue a vastly scaled-down, “as-is” project to improve Garfield Parkway.

With a public presentation of the most recent two-lane Streetscape iteration made by engineering firm JMT in mid-September, council members had had several weeks to consider whether they liked the new version.

But during those weeks, the plan had also yielded enough information to reveal a new cost estimate and potentially allow JMT to move forward with a three-quarter bid package for their own work and creation of a bid package that could be forwarded to the Delaware Department of Transportation for consideration of possible funding.

Plan B was approved by the council’s previous iteration in December of 2005, in a rejection of a previous community-generated plan and other design variants that had included one-lane designs and a turnabout or traffic circle.

The new $4.2 million estimate for Plan B notably didn’t include the costs to bury utility lines for electrical and telephone service — a key element of all of the various versions of Streetscape, including the latest, scaled-down one.

And the town finally received an estimate for the electrical line burial from Delmarva Power in recent weeks, coming in at $205,000, plus or minus 30 percent, after three years of requesting such estimates. But Verizon has yet to provide an estimate for burying telephone wires and finally in the last few weeks told the town it would had to pay $13,000 just to get such an estimate.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet said engineers had told him that they expected the Verizon costs to exceed Delmarva Power’s estimate, but that the town would be requesting that Verizon waive the $13,000 fee for the estimate in order to pin down that number. If the estimate is done in a timely manner, Graviet said the project could be in the pipeline for utility burying between January and March of 2007.

But council members were left looking at the overall hefty price tag of the project — the $4.2 million, plus the as-yet-unknown utility burying costs — alongside an acknowledgement Council Treasurer Jerry Dorfman also delivered Oct. 20, that real estate transfer tax revenues in the town continue to be down from their normal level in the recent years of perpetual boom.

Like other coastal towns, Bethany Beach has had to decide how to handle the real estate and related revenue downturns, and like many of those towns, it is looking at cutting unnecessary expenses — including the original concept of Streetscape as a way to create a gateway to the town on Garfield Parkway that would deliver major visual impact from Route 1.

Also posing economic roadblocks are financial shortfalls at DelDOT, which was originally expected to fund the bulk of the project.

As it stands, assuming funding issues within the department are even resolved, Graviet noted a maximum of $1 million per year in grants that could be given to the project, potentially stretching it over four years of engineering and construction for near-full funding — a much longer period than had been hoped-for or planned.

Graviet also said that he believed the town would exhaust its resources for outside funding once DelDOT was tapped for help. He noted that Rehoboth Beach’s larger business community had been much more able to assist their town with costs of that Streetscape project than Bethany’s own businesses likely would be.

Asked by Council Member Steve Wode whether DelDOT would be including much-delayed repaving of Garfield Parkway and related funds as part of what it would provide to the town for Streetscape, Graviet said he believed DelDOT would meld the costs of repaving into its construction price and grants for the project, rather than adding those funds on top of the other numbers.

Thus it came that the council members considered a major shift in the plan.

“I suggest we use the remaining grant money and go to JMT with a different concept,” Mayor Carol Olmstead told her fellow council members on Oct. 20, referring to the funds left from a $105,000 grant for design of the Streetscape project by JMT, less the $68,000 billed to date.

“This is a concept that perhaps should have been considered from the start,” Olmstead emphasized, describing an “as-is” design that would include primarily burial of utilities and revamped sidewalks, rather than the larger-scale elements of Plan B.

In addition to cost, Olmstead said, “The other issue is the concerns of the business community. There is no plan to replace the parallel parking.” Plan B called for eliminating parallel parking along Garfield Parkway, and while there have been some efforts to obtain land from the Bethany Beach Christian Church in order to offset such losses, no agreement has been reached.

Wode agreed that the business concerns were a paramount issue, saying, “The appeal of our town center is that we have real businesses that you can walk to. If you go for beautification and take parking away, you lose those businesses.”

Olmstead said she felt revamping the town’s sidewalk system would go a long way toward overall beautification, reducing the impact of the other changes in Plan B.

Wode further suggested that removing the existing non-standard, 4-foot-wide bicycle lane would allow for even more room to enhance the sidewalks, with perhaps 2 feet going to widening sidewalks further and the other 2 feet to a wider outside traffic lane that could better accommodate bicyclists riding with traffic.

He argued that the current non-standard lane was dangerous and shunned by many bicyclists over safety concerns, and further noted that the Rehoboth Beach Streetscape project included no bicycle lane at all. But council members were reluctant to support the removal of the popular bicycle lane, despite its technical shortcomings, and Wode abandoned the idea.

Dorfman further noted the town’s blooming pride in its floral displays in the wide Garfield Parkway median, mentioning plans next month for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to deliver an award to the town for its beautification efforts. “I don’t want to lose one of those flowers,” Dorfman declared, noting the major reduction of those planted medians under Plan B.

Objections to the scrapping of the plan, if mild ones, came from Council Member Lew Killmer. “Obviously, this is a bigger project … than I expected it to be,” he said. But “Did no one really think this was going to be a lot of money?” he asked. Dorfman’s wife, Cherie, responded from the audience, saying, “When this was started, transfer taxes were wonderful and DelDOT had money,” — a sentiment her husband reiterated from his council seat.

That point acknowledged, Killmer’s focus was on how the town should direct the development of the proposed “as-is” plan. “We need to define what we what JMT to do,” he said, referencing the original concept of a gateway to the town.

Council Member Tracy Mulligan said the town should move forward with a clear understanding of what the “baseline” costs of the changes to the street would be — for instance, how much the curb and sidewalk re-do would cost. From there, he said, the town could evaluate what elements it wanted to pursue.

Olmstead detailed her vision of a slightly revamped Garfield Parkway, with burial of the utilities (and removal of the utility poles), creation of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant sidewalks, addition of more decorative streetlights, and retention of both existing plantings and parallel parking.

“I’m glad we’re finally arriving where it seems we are headed,” Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny told those at the Oct. 20 council meeting, adding his endorsement of the new concept for Garfield Parkway.

“I recommend we rescind approval of the two-lane concept and endorse an ‘as-is’ concept,” Olmstead told the council, netting a 6-0 vote (Wayne Fuller absent) in favor of her suggestion, which in turn yielded a smattering of applause from those in the audience and a single boo representing those who had supported the larger vision of Streetscape.