Bethany gets input on plans for property

If opinions expressed at a May 26 public workshop are representative of feelings in Bethany Beach, the town council can breathe a bit easier in that there appears to be general support for council members’ planned use for the town’s large parcel of land at the intersection of Route 1 and 26.

Most of those speaking at the public workshop Friday expressed support for the open-space type uses the council members championed last July in their own special meeting to discuss uses of the former Christian Church and Neff properties.

The uses outlined would allow such things as walking paths, gardens, fountains, benches and improvements to existing wetlands. And the town’s small children’s playground — currently located on land leased for $1 per year from the Christian Church — would also likely get a spot on the 5.862-acre parcel, in preparation for the day when the church might exercise plans to build on the current location.

Trees, not sticks and balls

But that would likely be the limit of active recreation options for the land. The council has rejected uses such as basketball or volleyball courts, ball fields or a skate park, as well as municipal buildings that could be used to host events. It has also soundly rejected suggestions that the land be used to provide additional spaces in a parking-strapped resort town.

The sports facilities, Town Manager Cliff Graviet explained, would require that the existing woodlands on the parcel be removed. And he cited “stress on the neighbors” as another basis for keeping the land restricted to quieter uses. A parking lot, he said, would mean “even more deforestation.”

“The council determined they would like to keep the parcel as natural and wooded as possible,” Graviet underlined for the public. “This is one of the most visible pieces of property in Bethany Beach,” he emphasized. “It could redefine the community.”

That definition, he suggested, should not be a three-story parking garage, as some have suggested. The predominant opinion has been that the town should protect the property — valued at some $12 to $18 million, but for which the town paid just $2 million total — by cementing those preferred open-space uses not just with a council vote but with an amendment to its charter.

Setting plans in stone

The charter amendment would not only dictate allowed and disallowed uses for the property but also mandate that only a supermajority vote of the council (current or future) could alter the uses. Instead of the four-member majority needed for other votes, it would require a five-member majority.

“There was a concern,” Graviet explained, that in the future, “a cash-strapped council and town would convert the property to cash on hand for another use.”

Council Member Lew Killmer, speaking after the hearing, noted, “Requiring a supermajority was the only way I felt comfortable with the town turning down the grant.”

The grant he referred to was a state grant offered to help offset some of the purchase cost of the former church-owned parcel. The council rejected that offer in the spring of 2005, citing the burdensome nature of restrictions on future use and sale of the property that were part of the grant.

Council stays open

They liked the notion of open-space use restrictions, but were reluctant to basically sign over the parcel to the state for the future. Instead, they considered the charter amendment, which would allow them to dictate uses — focusing on open space, though not necessarily prohibiting uses such as the children’s playground — but keep the land firmly in the town’s hands and leave some room for changing use in the future.

That will mean not only a supermajority vote, but an approval from the state legislature for a charter amendment designating any new uses or other changes in use.

“It will require strong convictions on the part of the town council in the future to change those uses,” Killmer said.

While some expressed a desire to expand the council’s planned recreational uses of the parcel, most speaking May 26 expressed pleasant surprise at the council’s stance.

Resident Kathleen Davis said, “I came for fear of what the council would have in mind. And I’m pleased to know what the council has in mind.”

Davis cemented the council’s stance against allowing a basketball court, saying, “I would have problems with moving the basketball court.” But she also expressed some concerns that the town’s police department would be able to sufficiently patrol the winding paths of a wooded park to ensure it wouldn’t become a haven for adolescents’ parties.

Speakers were generally in agreement, also, that the council’s list of uses was in line with preserving the town’s character.

Betty McLaughlin, pronouncing herself pleased with the plans, said, “This will help maintain a vestige of what the town used to be.” Former Council Member Jane Fowler said, “I’m a strong believer in keeping as much open space as we can get.”

There were some dissenting views voiced at the May 26 hearing, however.

Opposing views

One of the main lines of objection was over the lack of “active” recreation options being included, such as the sports courts and fields.

Bethany Beach Landowners Association (BBLA) President Paul Denault was one of those objecting on that basis, saying, “I’m a strong believer in an active playground for kids.” Former Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesch agreed, noting that the current facility was “well used” and “if it goes away, a lot of kids will be disappointed.”

And that doesn’t just mean the tots playing on swings and slides. Jeff Lewis, speaking generally for his parents, noted they’d be thrilled with the direction council was going, but personally he found it lacking.

“You have to have something for the kids. Our love for Bethany Beach starts at an early age,” he said. “I’d ask that you have a play area not only for little kids but for bigger kids, to keep them occupied.”

If they opposed sports courts and fields, council members seemed more willing to consider another option presented May 26: exercise stations along the planned pathways, to allow walkers and joggers to break up their cardiovascular exercise with crunches, pull-ups and other such exercises.

Dog owners also championed the provision of a dog park, which resident Michael Horn noted could be a good land-holding use for a future spot for playground equipment, as it would require only a fence and refuse containers while in use as a recreation space for canines and their owners during the time they’re prohibited on the beach.

Former Mayor Joseph McHugh championed not only those kinds of uses but reexamination of a possible municipal building where, he said after the workshop, the town could host events in inclement weather that might normally be held on the boardwalk, or where the town might offer services such as computer access for seniors, year-round.

McHugh pointed to the delay in completion of the bandstand renovation project, which canceled a month’s worth of planned entertainment and shifted the town’s traditional Memorial Day services to a jam-packed fire hall, saying these were cases in which the town could have used a municipal building instead, if it had a suitable one.

Other objections to the plan came specifically over the supermajority requirement. One of those objecting was Boesch. “That would seem to imply the seven people here — eight people here,” he corrected himself purposely, referring to Graviet, as well as the council, “know better than those who will come after. Let each town council take care of the town as they see fit,” he advised.

The former owner of part of the property, Joan Neff, was also concerned the decision-making was a little high-handed. “I sold the property to the town, not the town council,” she admonished the council members. “To the people. They should have a voice in how you use it because they own it.”

Neff also noted that the sale of her property had mandated it be kept only for town use and ownership for the next 60 years. That restriction would protect it, she said.

“Let the town have more of a voice,” she reiterated. “These are the people who paid for it – as little as they paid. It’s for the people. They should decide what they want there.” Most of those in attendance applauded the sentiment.

All wet?

McHugh’s objections to the plan also focused on the assumption that some 2.36 acres could essentially not be built on at all, having been designated as federally protected wetlands.

The town’s own survey – conducted by a specialist who often works with the Army Corps of Engineers — had recently delineated the wetlands as covering most of the north side of the property, paralleling Central Boulevard. The Corps’ own official designation is in line with that determination.

But McHugh expressed concerns about what he saw as bias on the part of the surveyor, toward designating wetlands for protection. Further, he explained, there had already been one legal case that had rejected the Corps’ ability to designate protected wetlands that are not contiguous to a body of water. And another such case is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. He suggested the council not proceed until an official Corps survey was done and the case decided.

Graviet noted after the workshop that the pending case was the reason the town hadn’t officially requested a Corps survey of the property. They’d put the project into the Corps pipeline to ask for permission to improve the wetlands on the property, but then called a halt to wait on the results of the court case. They were still waiting for a final call on the issue, he said.

As to the wetlands themselves, Graviet said they were essentially a “man-made problem,” the result of buried pipes that had long been forgotten and left untended, and which were only recently rediscovered. The parcel is also surrounded on two sides by Route 1 and 26, and divided east to west by a paver roadway — Maryland Avenue, which was never opened and was recently abandoned by the council to make way for joining the former Neff and church properties.

With the pipes left to collect rainwater and road surface preventing outflow from the property, Graviet said, it had accumulated just enough moisture to become fertile ground for seeds dropped by birds coming from nearby wetlands. Those plants, he said, were used as a major indicator by those surveying the property as to whether or not it should be protected as a wetland.

But, really, he said, it was just mud. A small area on the northwest corner of the property had been known to take on the appearance of a creek in wet weather, Graviet allowed, but in dry weather, it too is just muddy. (That area was suggested by Joan Neff as an ideal location for a veterans’ marker required under her terms of sale.)

That muddy nature had been the spur for the town to pursue permission to “enhance” the wetlands on the property. He envisioned draining some areas while deepening others to create both ponds and dry areas, while preserving the designated wetlands areas as such — if improved.

As it stands, the Corps had rejected the bulk of that notion, Graviet said. That leaves the town wanting a precedent from the legal system as to whether the Corps does have final say on protecting wetlands that aren’t connected to actual waterways. It could mean a significant difference in development plans, mud versus ponds. But the council’s decision on general uses still needs to be determined, as well.

Council members have not yet set a vote or offered a precise draft charter amendment that would dictate allowed and prohibited uses for the property. But they got a step further in that direction with the public workshop and public opinion it netted for them this week.