Walkway, permit fee hike moved forward

South Bethany officials gave the preliminary go-ahead for the proposed York Road pedestrian walkway project on a 6-0 vote at their Sept. 28 special meeting/workshop.

The project would create a 2-foot-wide pedestrian walkway alongside the roadway on York Road, though the exact nature of that walkway has yet to be determined.

The town bid out the original project concept, for a 2-foot walkway of stone divided from vehicular travel lanes by a painted white stripe, but also added to the bid package an alternate concept, for a paved walkway that would be stained and stamped to resemble brick pavers.

A similar surface was used in new pedestrian crosswalks in Dewey Beach.

Town Manager Mel Cusick called the alternative type of surface “the Cadillac of pedestrian walkways” and said it had been considered due to concerns about eventual complaints and maintenance issues involving the proposed stone walkway, which would inevitably leave stone scattered on the neighboring roadway to potentially damage cars and need to be replaced to maintain the walkway itself.

Dixie Construction provided the low bid for both proposals, at approximately $101,000 for the stone walkway and $116,000 for the paved, stamped surface.

Thus it was that council members were left with a decision on Sept. 28: (1) preliminarily approve the original concept, which already has grant funding available to the town, pending federal approval of the final design; or (2) approve the alternative concept, recognizing that the town would either have to seek an additional $15,000 in grant funding or fund the project itself; or (3) hold off on a decision until federal authorities reached a decision on approving the project.

In either case, federal approval of the project will be required to permit the existing grant funding to be used. State approval has already granted.

The council technically cannot formally approve the contract for the work until the federal approval for funding is given, but Cusick said a preliminary vote from the council would at least allow him to get the ball rolling. He said the vote would be a move toward beating the weather, as colder fall and winter temperatures would make the construction on the project more difficult.

Cusick told council members he recommended the alternative plan, owing to the easier maintenance, and they agreed in principle.

But Councilman John Rubinsohn, the council treasurer, cautioned against even preliminary approval of the more expensive project. He said that such approval could indicate that the town was able to foot the bill for the added expense — something he said might limit potential grant funding at a time when town officials are growing increasingly concerned about recurring revenue and conservative with town pocketbooks.

With that caution in mind, council members vote 6-0 (Councilman Jay Headman absent) to approve the original project, in principle. Cusick told them that once federal approval of grant funding was gained he could poll the seven council members individually or ask for a vote at a future meeting to give formal approval to either concept.

If federal grants only cover the lower cost of the original concept, the council could decide to either stick with that concept or to pay the additional $15,000 out of town coffers. A decision from federal officials was expected in the coming weeks.

Construction fees to go up

Council members also voted 6-0 on Sept. 28 to bring forward a resolution at their October meeting that would increase construction permit fees to $2 per square foot.

The council had been dismayed to discover from Code Enforcement Official Joe Vogel in recent months that South Bethany’s permit fees were lagging far behind most of its coastal neighbors. With the ongoing concerns about recurring revenue, the disparity in fees and the lack of increases to those fees in recent years were something the council had wanted addressed quickly.

Thanks to a recent ordinance change, the council can now change such fees through resolution, requiring only a single council vote. And, having received updated figures from Vogel in time for the Sept. 28 workshop, the council members were ready to discuss just such a resolution.

On the range of fees, Vogel reported, South Bethany fell at the low end of coastal towns, averaging about 40 cents per square foot. Lower rates were found inland, Mayor Gary Jayne said, but the range of coastal towns found South Bethany decidedly on the low side of average.

Councilman John Fields questioned the size of the fee hike, asking, “Isn’t that a big jump?”

Jayne agreed on that count, replying, “Yes, it’s a big jump, but it hasn’t been changed in years. Everybody else is way ahead of us. It should have been increased incrementally over the years.”

Fields liked that idea, suggesting perhaps the increase would be easier to defend if done over five years instead of all at once. Councilwoman Bonnie Lamberson agreed. But Jayne said, and found agreement from most of the council members, that the increase was overdue, needed and better done in one move rather than have complaints about smaller increases year after year.

“It’s justified because it wasn’t done in the past. We need to get even with the other towns,” Councilman Richard Ronin said, adding that the move would also help to lessen the impact of potential falloffs in transfer tax revenue.

Ronin pointed to the recent increase in tax rates in neighboring Fenwick Island — a change motivated by those same falling transfer tax revenues — and said the alternative for South Bethany might be a similar increase.

Councilwoman Marge Gassinger noted that she’d floated the idea of a permit fee increase years ago, before prior councils, but hadn’t received any interest in the idea. She also cited concerns about the town’s transfer taxes. “It’s our responsibility to try to get revenue,” she said, adding that the increase was simply a matter of raising the fee rate to where it should be.

With a consensus reached, council members also addressed the separate permit fee for construction of open decks. Fields said that perhaps the disparity between the two fees — just 25 cents per square foot for decks, versus the new $2 rate for other construction — should be bridged by also making an increase in the lesser rate.

But there Jayne also took a stand, saying that with decks as a project that could easily be tackled by a father-and-son, homeowner do-it-yourself team, “We’re trying to be nice,” and not increase fees on the likely smaller-scale projects. Ronin also noted that a modest increase to the lower fee wouldn’t even net much revenue for the town — certainly not worth any additional citizen objection.

Council members were uncertain regarding a $50 minimum on construction permits that some of them remembered but others did not. Jayne requested town staff review the matter and recommended such a minimum be established with the proposed resolution if it did not already exist.

Thus, under the proposal, open decks will remain at a permit rate of 25 cents per square foot, while other construction will increase to $2 per square foot, with a $50 minimum on all permits.

That will increase the cost of a permit for a 3,500-square-foot home from $1,380 to $7,000 — a 400 percent increase. Council members, however, said they felt the increase was easily absorbed as part of the cost of building a home in a town where many lots are valued in excess of $500,000 and homes often cost more than $300,000 to build.

The final vote on the resolution changing the fees has been set for the Oct. 13 council meeting.

Also at the Sept. 28 meeting:

• Council members voted 6-0 to authorize town staff to pursue setting up a database of citizen e-mail addresses for eventual use to send out official town e-mail and electronic copies of The Zephyr newsletter. Citizens may receive a form with their annual rental form asking for their e-mail address for an opt-in e-mail list and a decision on whether to receive The Zephyr electronically or via traditional mail.

All current postal mailings are expected to continue, with the exception of those opting for the electronic Zephyr. But the e-mail list could also be used to provide timely warnings about impending storms or updates and reminders about storm damage, bulk trash pick-up, voting and other town functions.

Council members had mixed expectations of the project, noting that an estimated 90 percent of property owners have given their e-mail addresses to the town’s property owners’ association but that some do not even own computers.

• On a side issue, council members decided that the reduced two mailings of the Zephyr will be sent in May — allowing for candidate statements in town elections to be included — and October.

• The council decided not to make a change for the second reading of the proposed Ordinance 138-06 regarding grass and weeds. Lambertson said she’d received some concerns from property owners about “wooded lots” as an exclusion in the types of lots required to be mowed and weeded, saying that some property owners might consider a single cluster of trees enough to qualify.

But council members, while agreeing the definition was tricky, said they wanted to avoid requiring heavily wooded lots to be cleared and eventually settled on keeping existing definitions of such lots as enforced by Vogel. Thus, the ordinance is to stand as previously presented for its second reading.

• Council members also decided not to make any changes in ordinances regarding construction site requirements. Rubinsohn noted complaints regarding a construction site on West 11th Street where a contractor had run a generator for five months rather than connecting to electrical service. He noted the situation was unusual but said he wanted to protect neighbors in the future.

The other council members agreed that the situation was unacceptable but said they thought it could be prevented by adding such actions to a list of don’ts issued by Vogel to all contractors working in the town.

• Cusick provided formal notice to the council of an addendum of $5,500 in work to the town hall/police department engineering contract, to cover the installation of a base pad for the eventual installation of the emergency generator that itself was paid for by Homeland Security grants. The amount was just over the $5,000 cap for contract addendums that Cusick is permitted to authorize without informing the council.

Also in South Bethany, 2006 council candidate and recent Planning and Zoning Commission appointee Chris White was elected by his peers to be the new chairman of that commission at their meeting on Sept. 29. John Speer will continue as vice-chairman of the commission.

“I am happy to be a member of the South Bethany Planning and Zoning Commission and am honored to be the chairman,” White said in an e-mail to town officials. “I look forward to serving this great town and preserving life as we know it in South Bethany.”