South Bethany hikes building permit rate


South Bethany Town Council members on Friday, Oct. 13, unanimously passed their proposed building permit fee increase — but it won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2007.

The late move to delay implementation came amidst two council members’ open disclosures that they themselves had saved money in recent weeks by getting building permits before the new fees came up for a formal vote. It was a chance they said others deserved to have as well.

Councilman John Fields said he felt the delay was important in that it would allow those currently planning significant projects to go ahead and get their permits prior to the effective date of what all the council members acknowledge is a substantial increase over the formerly modest fees.

Current fees for building permits range from 20 to 40 cents per square foot, but they will jump to $2 for everything but decks, which will remain at 20 cents as a nod of the town’s generosity to do-it-yourselfers and owner-builders who might take the smaller projects on as weekend endeavors.

The bite will be a big one for those planning major renovations or new construction, as Fields noted. A visit to Code Constable Joe Vogel days prior to Oct. 13’s vote netted Fields a $96 permit fee, versus the $552 the project would have cost him had the increased fees been in effect, Fields said — some $465 difference for his small project.

Likewise, Councilwoman Bonnie Lambertson noted she’d been saved from an even bigger financial hit when her contractor had gotten her building permits two weeks prior to the vote. She estimated she’d saved some $4,000 with that timing.

“I think people should have more notice,” Lambertson said of the proposed change, “especially if it’s going to be all at once.”

Council members indeed remained divided over whether the best approach to the increase was the mythical one of removing an adhesive bandage — quickly and all at once — or whether small bites at the apple of more parallel permit fees would garner less ire from the town’s property owners.

Lambertson favored an incremental approach with the significant increase in mind, as Fields continued to do.

And Councilman Jay Headman said he believed a delay was further appropriate to allow additional public input on the subject as a whole.

But Councilman Richard Ronin remained fervently in favor of the bandage approach, saying he felt the change should be made in one fell swoop. Otherwise, he said, complaints would only come year after year when the council made smaller and repeated, albeit pre-announced, increases.

The entire issue was raised as the result of South Bethany officials’ realization that the town lagged behind in not only what might have been routine and minor increases in permit fees over the years but also in what has become the norm in fees charged in the area’s coastal towns.

A comparison by Vogel of fees in Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island to those in South Bethany showed that when previous councils had not acted to increase the fees, they’d let the town fall toward the bottom of the scale of such fees in the area. The new $2 fee would put the town near the current average among the towns.

For a 3,500-square-foot home, South Bethany currently requires just $1,380 in permit fees. In comparison, according to Vogel, Rehoboth Beach asks for $5,000; Bethany Beach property owners are charged $9,000. And the $2 fee to be implemented in January would bring South Bethany up to $7,000 — just below the current $7,310 average between the coastal towns.

“This should have been done years ago,” Ronin said emphatically, echoing the comments of most of the council members at their September workshop, when the idea of a major increase was originally proposed. Indeed, Mayor Gary Jayne said he felt town officials had been somewhat negligent in failing to tap the modest source of income during those prior years.

“We’re way behind. They should have been raised incrementally,” Jayne said. “We’re playing catch-up.”

Councilwoman Marge Gassinger agreed, noting she had proposed increases – without much response — to previous councils. Gassinger also emphasized the main reason the town moved to consider the fee increases in 2006: anticipated shortfalls in transfer tax revenue in a slow real estate market.

“It’s the council’s responsibility to look for revenue,” Gassinger said, yielding further agreement from Jayne.

“I don’t think any of us likes doing this,” Jayne said. “But we’re way behind on transfer tax. … We’re going to have a shortfall,” he noted of anticipated revenues for the current fiscal year. “And this will help somewhat.”

Thus, both voiced support for the all-at-once approach, saying it was justified as a catch-up measure and to ensure no further revenue was lost.

But all acknowledged the need to provide sufficient notice to the town’s property owners, with suggestions to advertise the Jan. 1 change far more thoroughly than is legally required, through advertisements, newspaper coverage, town bulletin boards and the town Web site. There was also suggestion from Headman that a full mailing should be done.

Mildly balking at that idea, Councilman John Rubinsohn pointed out that such notice would be an excellent example of a situation in which the e-mail announcement system he has championed for the town would serve to disseminate important information while limiting the town’s costs for doing so.

A standard mailing costs the town about $1,200, Town Manager Mel Cusick said, but council members asked Cusick to look into whether the town might save some costs by using pre-printed postcards instead of letters inside envelopes.

Further making Rubinsohn’s point regarding the efficiency of e-mail, South Bethany Property Owners’ Association officials said their own e-mail list included some 500 e-mail addresses among the 700 property owners who have joined the organization — all of whom would be e-mailed information about the fee increase within a day or two of that night’s council meeting and vote.

Also providing such information, they noted, was the Coastal Point’s Web site at www.coastalpoint.com, where previous stories regarding the proposed increase were made available to those well outside the newspaper’s traditional paper distribution zone and archived for future reference by anyone accessing the site.

Indeed, Rubinsohn questioned whether a paper mailing would set an unwanted precedent for how and when the council would choose to communicate about fee increases in the future, despite no formal requirements to do so.

Ronin said he felt this was one case when the council could justify the mailing, while saying that the council could just as easily decide it was not needed in future cases. Cusick said he felt the mailing could be prepared this week and be in property owners’ hands soon.

In making their 7-0 vote, the council members also slightly increased the existing minimum permit amount, from $35 to $50. Town officials had been uncertain of that minimum, and whether there was one at all, while drafting the proposed changes but had agreed on the $50 minimum as reasonable.