When Bethany Beach Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesch suddenly stepped down from his post on the commission at their Jan. 21 meeting, the obvious question for most observers was whether the move had anything to do with recent conflicts over the town’s proposed Streetscape plan.
According to Boesch, it did indeed.
“It was a result of several things,” Boesch told the Coastal Point this week. “It was the fact that the Planning Commission, in which I was intimately involved, was overruled any number of times on what I felt were important matters.”
Topping that list was for Boesch was the town council decision on how to use the newly acquired property at the northwest corner of the Route 1/Route 26 intersection — the former Christian Church and Neff properties. Or, as Boesch emphasized, the process by which that use was to be determined.
“We (the Planning Commission) were asked to come up with plan, but the town manager didn’t like that we were going out and asking people what they wanted,” Boesch explained. “The council took it back and decided that what could be put on there, which was nature trails and picnic tables, and what couldn’t be there, which was basketball courts and sports things.”
“We had quite different ideas,” Boesch said of the divergence of opinion on the issue.
In the end, council members did take the use question back from the Planning Commission and made their decision in closed session.
But that wasn’t the only — or the most obvious — issue on which Boesch and town officials disagreed in recent months.
There were some public clashes over the town’s Streetscape project, for which Boesch had led the support of the previously conditionally-endorsed one-lane plan developed through the town’s Beautification Committee (a subcommittee of the Planning Commission originally charged with the preservation of trees).
Some two years out from the original start of discussion on the project, the council scheduled a revisitation of the design issue. With a mandate from the Delaware Department of Transportation to get an unconditional endorsement of a single plan from the town council, they wanted to review the previous plan — and, on the recommendation of Town Manager Cliff Graviet — an alternative plan that eliminated some elements Graviet said council members had expressed concern about, including the one-lane streets and a traffic circle.
Boesch asserted that he was left out of the loop on the development of the second plan, which was derived from one of three original plans that pre-dated the one Boesch supported. And he questioned how the authorization had been obtained for the town engineers to create the new alternate plan.
“We worked on that pretty hard and had a professional city planner work on it. Again, the town manager said, no, he didn‘t like it. He came up with another plan and hired a contractor to promote it,” Boesch said this week.
Though Boesch and other Beautification Committee members said public input in the initial development stage was in support of the elements incorporated in the original plan (culled in 2003 from elements of all three initial plans — with the input of residents, property owners and businesspeople, Boesch emphasized), more recent public input on the Streetscape plan seemed to side in favor of smaller changes, or none at all.
In the end, the council voted to endorse the alternative plan, over the one the Beautification Committee had brought forward and over more modest changes. The council agreed to pursue a detailed design with the town engineering firm, which presented the alternative plan.
Boesch was disappointed, and he still questions what happened and how the town will proceed with the project.
“The town was given a grant from DelDOT to do the streetscape last January, and they did nothing. Every town meeting, I asked for a progress report. Then suddenly we lost the money. I don’t know whether we’ve gotten that money back,” Boesch said.
“At the Dec. 16 meeting, they voted to move ahead with the contract,” he continued. “My question was, ‘Have we gotten the money back?’ They didn’t have an answer, yet they voted on that contract. I don’t understand.”
On the heels of the property-use decision, the whole situation was just one more blow to the notion that he was on the same page as far as what town officials wanted.
“It was unfortunate that a series of things happened — bang, bang, bang. … I was pretty heavily involved in both. I seemed to be out of step with the rest of the Bethany Beach government, and therefore I decided to step aside,” Boesch explained.
But it wasn’t an easy decision, he said. “I didn’t like doing it, because I thought we had some important issues coming up. But I thought maybe we had a better chance of getting something done if I wasn’t involved.”
Based on the varied – and often opposing — votes of the Sussex County Council and the county’s Planning Commission, conflict between two such bodies is hardly unfamiliar to local residents. Yet county planning commissioners continue to butt heads with the council. Boesch said he did make an effort to get through the difficulties before making the decision to hang up his commissioner’s hat.
“It didn’t seem like it was possible. I certainly tried,” he said of attempts to work things out. “It said to me, ‘Man, I’m out of step with the rest of these folks.’ So I said, ‘I’ll step aside.’”
For Boesch, it all boils down to the approach the town is taking in making such decisions.
“As shown in the northwest-corner properties, my approach with all of these things was always to go to the people and ask them. That was how we generated the Streetscape plan,” Boesch reiterated.
“I was going to go ask the people what they wanted to do with their property,” he explained in regard to the former church and Neff properties. “The town manager said, ‘No, you have to ask the council what they want.’ They had a closed meeting and the seven of them decided what they wanted to do.”
Sticking to his guns, that’s also a decision Boesch questions. “I don’t know how many people come to the beach and want to walk on nature trails,” he said mildly.
Given that Planning Commission recommendations were based on majority vote rather than Boesch’s lone opinion, there remains the question of whether the town’s entire group of commissioners is out of step with other town officials, as Boesch felt he was.
“I hope not,” Boesch said. “I think we’ll find out at the hearing coming up in the middle of this month, where the commission has put forward a number of initiatives to change zoning ordinances. We’ll see if they accept some of those things. Maybe that will work out fine. If they overturn all that stuff, too…”
Despite the conflicts, Boesch has continued to reap heavy doses of thanks and appreciation for his work on the commission and related issues.
In announcing his resignation at the Jan. 21 commission meeting, the remaining commissioners noted his contributions to town beautification efforts, the bandstand renovation project, research into architectural theming in the town’s commercial district, the new Zoning Ad-Hoc Committee (ZAC) and the town’s Comprehensive Development Plan.
Council Member and Commissioner Lew Killmer — who preceded Boesch as commission chairman — particularly thanked him for being a personal inspiration as a commissioner.
The town council will have to select someone to fill the empty spot on the commission, likely in the coming weeks. The remaining four commissioners — Killmer, ZAC Chairwoman Kathleen Mink and Steve Wode — at the Jan. 21 meeting voted unanimously for Mink to take over as chairwoman of the commission.
She took over the gavel but declined to immediately fill a vacant center chair that was just last month the domain of Phil Boesch.