Bethany residents reminded to maintain swales

Bethany Beach’s most recent work reviewing town ordinances came down to one resounding bottom line: Property owners in the town need to remember that they’re responsible for the upkeep on the swales and drainage ditches that abut their properties.

With ongoing work to fight drainage problems, the town’s Public Works crew has cleaned out and repaired quite a few of the swales in the last few years. But the roots of stormwater issues in Bethany West notably extended beyond engineering problems and high water tables into property owner neglect — and in some cases, outright defiance of town ordinances regarding swales. And they’re not alone.

The reminder came from Public Works Supervisor Brett Warner at an April 20 Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) meeting that focused on such issues and the references to them in town code. Fresh from a review of town water codes, the committee waded into stormwater issues with Warner, taking advantage of his expertise to make any changes that might be needed.

Topping his list — enforcement of the ordinances that make swale maintenance a property owner responsibility, not one of the town. “We’ve got to have enforcement,” he said, referencing the previous $10 fine for infractions that the committee had recently upped to a range between $25 and $100.

Warner said the $100 fine was more appropriate for some of the violations he’d seen, which he’d previously reported to the town’s Flood and Drainage Committee as including repeated, flagrant and intentional filling in of the swales by property owners who preferred green lawn or landscaping at the borders of their lots. He said, “$100 will get the message across.” But he allowed that fining a property owner the lesser fine of $25 per day for some violations would do the job in some cases.

The Public Works supervisor noted that he didn’t want regulations governing how property owners deal with swales to prevent such maintenance or require the town to get involved in some sort of advisory or support capacity — it was not needed for basic maintenance he said, and that was the property owner’s responsibility.

However, ordinances should make it clear, he said, that the town is supposed to be involved in major projects involving the swales, such as bridging them for a driveway. That, too, had been a problem in the past, with driveways paved or covered with gravel in a manner that obstructed the drainage flow through the swales.

In those cases, the town generally takes care of the underlying pipe structure used to keep the drainage going, while working with the homeowner to ensure paving and other work is done properly by contractors licensed with the town.

But those fallen leaves — not only don’t they get raked into the swales, they should be raked out, by the property owners, to ensure the swales stay clear. CORC Chairman and Council Member Lew Killmer reiterated the point at the following day’s council meeting, hoping to get the message across to all property owners.

“They’re not aware,” Warner allowed.

Flood and Drainage Committee Chairman and Council Member Harold Steele, in attendance April 20, said that he had ensured residents of Bethany West were made aware of their responsibilities for swale maintenance as part of the recently-begun major stormwater project in the area. Ignorance of the issue will no longer be an excuse for them to avoid the fines.

Warner said the problem was more often one of persistent violators: “There are two or three guys, year after year, who rake leaves into the ditch,” he said. “And they’re the first ones to call to say their property is flooded.”

Killmer wrapped up some expected changes to stormwater and water ordinances, with plans to submit an informational “white paper” to council members in May, on the way to adopting the changes. Those changes include adjustments to permitted work hours with motorized tools or vehicles for projects that might involve accidental (or intentional) cuts/breaks to water lines, with the intention of avoiding emergency, after-hours work for water department employees and big fines/fees for property owners.

Committee member Don Doyle joined Killmer in wondering aloud why the town’s police department wasn’t doing more enforcement work on permitted work hours. They pointed to a recent case when early-morning work was done on a property visible from Route 26, but police did not put a stop to it. Mayor Jack Walsh, present at the meeting, said he would inquire with Town Manager Cliff Graviet about enforcement issues.

Another proposed change will prohibit clearing of land without a permit, as the town moves toward requiring engineering studies of single-lot projects under the heading of impacts to drainage. Any change to elevation in the town will likely soon require a permit.

Also on the topic of drainage, the committee members reviewed information on porous surfaces, as referenced by the town’s Planning Commission under its initial work on an off-street parking requirement that has been tabled.

The list of six porous surface materials suitable for driveways and walkways received support from CORC members, though each would prove a little more expensive for property owners than the standard asphalt. They generally increase water transfer by 15 to 20 percent above standard asphalt, Killmer explained.

Under the proposed ordinance change, the town would require all driveways and walkways be constructed of such porous materials, in an attempt to get stormwater into the ground more quickly, before it collects and floods the area. The committee was to draft another white paper for the council on that issue.

Doyle noted that some paving contractors might not be aware of such a change, since door-to-door solicitation sometimes overlooks the town’s requirement for a business license and permit to do such work. That raised the issue of signs at the town’s borders that might serve as a reminder of such requirements.

Town Building Inspector John Eckrich said the signs formerly posted had been removed, due to the perception of being “unfriendly.”

“Welcome to Bethany Beach — get your permit,” Eckrich joked of the abruptness of the shift in sentiment.

Finally, in an update on plans to upgrade the town’s code book, committee members said they’d been approached by the codebook company employed by the town (and most municipalities in the nation) about a possible update project that would extend beyond their planned reorganization and division into two separate books.

A presentation was due in the coming months, but the committee was not yet persuaded such a substantial update was needed, particularly at a cost above the $3,000 the town pays for a code update every six months.

Finally, Killmer reported on proposed changes to the state’s Title 15 regarding election procedures. He said the Delaware League of Local Governments was seeking to have additional changes made above those already proposed by other municipal governing organizations.

Killmer said state legislators were pushing forward on the changes with an urgency he couldn’t understand, but on the up side had agreed that some changes desired by the towns could be made, while others were unlikely to be.

If passed, the proposed changes would have major impacts — particularly on the coastal towns. Everything from non-resident absentee voting to residency requirements for council members and mayors could be impacted.