New mini-golf proposed for Bethany

Bethany Beach takes pride in its place as one of Delaware’s “Quiet Resorts.” It has never been a center for bars, dance clubs, amusement parks and other such entertainments. But Bethany Beach has been home over the years to a bowling alley, arcades and a number of miniature golf courses.

However, this summer marked the end for the last of Bethany’s mini-golf establishments. The Garfield Parkway course was closed and razed, and in its place came a diner and a coffee/smoothie shop.

Fresh from rejection of a plan to develop townhomes on her property at North Pennsylvania Avenue and Central Boulevard, about a block away, Carol Schultze decided the C-1 property would be a great location to put something that she felt Bethany was now missing.

“I would like something for my children and other people’s children to do besides shop and eat,” Schultze told Bethany Beach Board of Adjustments members at an Oct. 24 hearing on her application for a special exception to allow the mini-golf course. “They need to do something healthy at night.”

In the past, miniature golf has been a use permitted in the town by special exception, under the auspices of uses such as billiards or pool halls, bowling alleys, pinball and “similar games of skill.”

With several such courses having been permitted within the town, precedent for such an exception is relatively well established. But the Board of Adjustments was still required to hold a hearing on the issue and decide formally whether to grant the exception for Schultze’s proposed Bethany Mini-Golf, as well as whether to place any restrictions on that use.

Reaction to the plan so far has been mixed, garnering letters of support from some in the town who believe a new mini-golf will fill a void, as well as objection from some — though not all — of the property’s neighbors, who feel Schultze’s plan would be better suited for Ocean City than Bethany Beach.

Some close neighbors, however, expressed an open mind about the idea. In a letter to the board, the Lewes family nextdoor said they had no objections to the use, as long as a solid 8-foot-high fence was built to protect their property from golf balls and lights were pointed away from their home.

Bethany Beach resident Joan Thomas wrote a letter mourning the loss of “Bill’s” mini-golf. “Putt Putt is truly a family entertainment and what better place to be than the family-oriented quiet resort town of Bethany Beach instead of having to go to Fenwick Island, Ocean City or Rehoboth,” Thomas’ letter of support reads, in part.

Likewise, Cindy Miller supported the idea and mourned the loss of the previous courses the town had offered.

As currently proposed, Schultze said she is considering a pirate/Caribbean theme for the mini-golf establishment — something on a smaller scale, to reflect her 50-by-125-foot lot and allow for a full 18 holes to fit there. But she is emphatic that “theming” elements are vital to her future business.

That idea didn’t exactly soothe the concerns of the project’s opponents, such as Star and Gene Arbaugh, who live just down the street on Central Boulevard.

“When I got the notice about this hearing,” said Gene Arbaugh, “my first image was of an Ocean City honky-tonk with chain-link fence around it. Then I remembered the old Bethany course, which was relatively simple.”

“I’m more upset than ever now,” he added, referencing sample photos Schultze had supplied of a pirate ship, treasure chest and pirate figures, and a drawing of a cave and waterfall, that could adorn the course, which has not yet been designed. Without a design, Schultze said she couldn’t detail how large those elements would be, but that they would certainly be on a smaller scale than at other, larger courses.

The Arbaughs also had concerns about noise and light coming from the business, as well as safety of the intersection and impact on existing flooding problems.

“I agree that children like a themed concept,” Star Arbaugh granted Schultze. “We choose to take our grandchildren to Ocean City and Rehoboth. But we did not choose to stay in a place that’s a honky-tonk like Ocean City. There are people who choose Bethany Beach because there’s not that much to do.”

The couple said they would likely have less of an issue with mini-golf on the property if it were indoors, as an arcade would be, where doors could be closed to contain noise and light. As it stood, Star Arbaugh said, “We’re concerned that it will be too high, too loud and too bright.”

“I don’t see how she could do it without bright lights and noise, except indoors,” Robert Arbaugh said. And the pirate ship – “That’s Ocean City,” he added.

Like the Arbaughs, board member Robert Graham said he was concerned about the course’s design. “In my opinion, we need one in Bethany Beach,” he said of miniature golf in general. “But we don’t need castles or big pirate ships to make the business a go.” Graham said such large theming served to pull patrons off the highway and wasn’t needed in Bethany.

But Schultze said she’d done hundreds of hours of research on the miniature golf business, both with local businesses such as Old Pro and Viking Golf and in other areas of the country. And Schultze said she knew also from her own experience as the mother of several young children that theming is the primary draw for miniature golf.

“I’m not trying to build an Ocean City golf course,” she assured hearing attendees and board members. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that you do need these things. That’s what kids want. If they see the dragon, they want to go to Viking Golf.”

“You need something to draw kids in,” Schultze continued. “That’s what they’ve been getting. My kids never wanted to play Down Under,” she added, referring to the comparatively modest, Australian-themed course adjacent to Viking Golf’s more extravagantly themed establishment in Fenwick Island. “They wanted to play Viking.”

Schultze said that she’d talked to former mini-golf property owner Sharon Rose and that business at the now-defunct — and “relatively simple” — course on Garfield Parkway hadn’t been that good before it closed. While she couldn’t clearly tie those business problems to the style of course, Schultze said she felt theming would make the difference.

“If the town will not let me do theming, then I withdraw my application today,” Schultze said. “That’s how strongly I feel.”

Despite the vocal opposition and Graham’s stated objections, Schultze may have at least one thing in her favor: there’s little legal room for the board to deny her the special exception when it has previously been granted for other courses in the town.

According to Building Inspector John Eckrich, the board’s decision is confined whether or not miniature golf is a use that can be permitted under the existing special exceptions — a point emphasized by board member Thomas Mahler and chairman Bob Parsons several times during the hearing.

Since the town has permitted the use in the past, that decision is relatively cut-and-dry. And making an incongruent decision on the basis of concerns over the course design would likely result in a legal appeal from Schultze, Eckrich acknowledged.

If the board makes that decision in Scultze’s favor, the next hurdle is approval of a building plan, which is in Eckrich’s hands and strictly governed by town code. As long as the plan conforms to the code — including height restrictions that would keep any elements under 35 feet above the base flood level — he’s bound to approve her application. Any appeals to that decision would go to the Board of Adjustments for review.

Eckrich said that even the board’s ability to impose restrictions on use of the property when granting a special exception would not likely not severely cramp Schultze’s plans. They couldn’t require her to build the course indoors, for example. Eckrich said restrictions imposed in the past were along the lines of limiting hours of operation and ensuring lighting was pointed away from neighbors.

Schultze told the board that she was anticipating opening no earlier than 10 a.m., acknowledging that daytime mini-golf isn’t a big draw, and closing no later than midnight — before the town’s 1 a.m. curfew. And she’s hoping to have the course open by May of 2007 — if there are no further delays.

Oct. 24 did bring one delay for the plan. Town Council Member Wayne Fuller, representing the interests of the Bethany Beach Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, said the church hadn’t been notified of the application as required for a neighboring property. Eckrich said notice had been sent, but Fuller said a newer address was available, though it was not on town or county books for official notifications.

After consulting with legal counsel, board members agreed to leave the hearing record open for 10 days for church response, with an additional five days for Schultze to respond to comments from the church. Schultze waived that time, saying she would have a response to any church comments within two hours.

That led to board to schedule a reconvening for the hearing on Monday, Nov. 3, at 10 a.m. Testimony at that time will be limited to the Christian Church representatives and Schultze. The board could then decide whether to grant the special exception and what, if any, restrictions it will place on the use.