Bethany abandons Maryland Avenue

Bethany Beach Town Council Members voted unanimously to abandon the unopened section of Maryland Avenue at their March 17 meeting, making way for the combining of the town’s latest land acquisitions, the former Disciples of Christ Christian Church and Neff properties, as dedicated a single parcel of open space.

The section of Maryland Avenue between Central Boulevard and Garfield Parkway was never officially opened, existing as a so-called “paper street” that has been eyed by a few neighbors as possible access to the rear of their properties but was not paved or otherwise authorized by the town for general use.

As recently as last summer, neighbor Christina Edgar had asked the town to open the street so she could build a new home on the rear of her property, but officials balked at the idea and instead encouraged Edgar to seek access approval from the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) or through a permanent easement across other portions of her property. She opted for the latter, having resigned the fight with DelDOT.

That removed the only official request the town had to open the section of roadway and left them free to go the other direction — to close it officially, taking it from paper street to just another piece of undeveloped land owned by the town.

They did so after a public hearing March 17 — one which was minimally attended and received little in the way of public comment. Town Manager Cliff Graviet presented the proposal, saying the move was in the best interests of the town.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink — one of the few who attended the hearing — agreed, declaring the notion “a great idea, and the next important step” in developing the two town-owned parcels that border the unopened street on the east and west.

Since it joins the former Christian Church and Neff properties, which were purchased by the town in the last several years with the plan to retain the parcels as some sort of open space, the Maryland Avenue land was a key part of the more recently fleshed-out plan for the project.

In addition to making way for a single big parcel to be made of the two, it would potentially create access to the open space, with a modest amount of parking able to be provided for the area, natural landscaping at the entryway and perhaps a central corridor where picnic tables and other facilities might be provided alongside unimproved open space.

Final plans for the area have yet to be determined. Consensus has always been for some sort of “green” or “open space” use, with a focus on recreation, but exactly what kinds of recreation would be facilitated is something the town has not yet finally decided.

The town council last summer reclaimed dominion over the initial decisions in the process from the Planning Commission, which had originally — if briefly — been tasked with that early phase. Public input has been encouraged throughout, but the council members have explicitly favored open, green space over anything involving structures or, for example, sports facilities.

The council last year rejected a Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) grant that offered funding to offset some of the cost of the purchases, citing too many concrete restrictions against non-open-space use and future control of the property. But they reaffirmed their intentions to keep the property less developed, resolving instead to pass a charter amendment that would cement such a usage restriction and require a super-majority of council members to pass any change from that use in the future.

With basketball courts and skateboard parks essentially ruled out, town officials still have to decide on a detailed plan for the property. That will, in part, depend on how much of the land is declared to be wetlands. A topographic survey of the property has recently been completed, and the results of that survey will help federal officials from the Army Corps of Engineers determine what portion, if any, of the two properties are officially undevelopable due to being wetlands.

Graviet has said the town may propose a reworking of the wetland areas as a true water feature, draining some areas by virtue of making others deeper and wetter, rather than merely muddy. With some 40 percent of the two properties currently estimated as wetlands, any reclamation of dry land has been deemed to benefit future use of the property for the town, its citizens and visitors.

The 7-0 vote of the council members on March 17 cleared the way for the town to proceed with final plans for the use and improvement of the property, with access and unification of the two parcels all but assured.