Bethany slip-ramp plan not endorsed

Bethany Beach officials have — at least for now — rebuffed efforts by the Sea Colony Recreation Association (SCRA) to obtain their endorsement for a major alteration of the intersection between Route 1 and Pennsylvania Avenue.

They not only decided not to endorse the SCRA proposal to the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) at their Oct. 21 council meeting but voted unanimously to send a letter to DelDOT Secretary Nathan Hayward III correcting the record as to the town’s undecided stance on the matter.

A Sept. 8 letter from SCRA Vice President John J. Gilbert notably implies that town officials already support the closure of the Route 1-Pennsylvania Avenue “slip ramp,” but those same officials were only to discuss and vote on the proposal for the first time Oct. 21. And their statements on the issue were far short of support.

“We have discussed this intersection modification with the Town of Bethany Beach, the Bethany Beach Fire Department, Representative Gerald Hocker, and Senator George Bunting,” the letter from Gilber to Hayward reads. “They all agree this short-term improvement will further improve pedestrian safety and that the long-term intersection realignment to provide better east/west traffic flow is desirable.”

On the contrary, said Bethany Beach council members Oct. 21, debating the issue with considerable hesitancy to endorse the project, even after a presentation from Gilbert.

Council Secretary-Treasurer Tony McClenny, in fact, recommended that the council raise its voice against the idea. McClenny also requested the letter refuting the assertion that council members had endorsed the plan.

Indeed, the proposed closure of the off-ramp from Route 1 onto one of the town’s main streets was deemed confusing at best by council members.

Having heard Gilbert’s presentation and viewed a diagram hastily scrawled before the meeting by town Building Inspector John Eckrich, Council Member Harold Steele said it had not turned out to be what he had expected coming into the meeting and was not quite as drastic a measure as it had at first seemed. That was as much of an endorsement as the plan received from any council member.

Instead of the curved roadway (or slip ramp) that currently allows drivers to gradually slow from the 35 mph speed limit of Route 1 to the 25 mph limit on Pennsylvania Avenue and prepare for coming stop signs and pedestrian traffic, the proposal would create a right turn some yards north, next to the existing lanes of southbound traffic from the street onto the highway.

Northbound traffic heading into downtown Bethany Beach would proceed to that turn, stopping before making the turn itself. It would then make a left onto Pennsylvania Avenue, again making a stop before actually turning.

Contrary to rumors that circulated before the meeting, the plan did not call for closing a section of Pennsylvania Avenue — just the slip ramp.

“I was under the impression you were closing more of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Steele said.

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead said she wanted a field trip to review just what was proposed. “This is not what I thought it was,” she stated.

Gilbert emphasized that he believed the change would help regulate speed on the roadway better than the existing slip-ramp, making it safer for pedestrians. The existing pedestrian walkway, he said, would be straightened as part of the project.

He said the improvement was needed as soon as possible — a first step before a hoped-for long-term project of realigning the entire intersection involving Route 1, Pennsylvania Avenue and Westway Drive. He said he feared a future accident would be the result of continued speeding on the slip ramp and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gilbert requested council support for the proposal, noting a recent $300,000 investment made by the association in drainage improvements that were designed to reduce drainage problems east of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We have tried to be a good neighbor,” he said in reminding town officials of that project and $750,000 he said the development had spent in tram system improvements designed to keep both pedestrians and individual automobiles off the roadways.

Gilbert failed to mention during his presentation to council members the notion of how the proposal might further reshape the existing slip-ramp area — and it was a sore spot with some of those in attendance at the meeting.

“You notice he didn’t mention the parking lot,” one audience member said at the conclusion of the presentation.

Indeed, the Sept. 8 letter makes reference to the development’s need for parking space and provides a neat dispensation for the area currently making up the slip ramp.

“It [the plan] would also take less right-of-way (creating excess ROW) which Sea Colony as the adjacent land owner would want ‘first rights’ to acquire,” the letter reads. “This additional space would provide critically needed additional parking.

“We understand that DelDOT’s Transportation Program is currently experiencing fiscal problems and a Task Group is looking for additional funding sources. Sea Colony is willing to share in the cost of this improvement provided ownership of the excess ROW can be turned over to Sea Colony to help relieve the severe parking problems on the beach or east side of the community,” Gilbert concluded in the letter to Hayward.

McClenny took umbrage at the suggestion, saying he felt the proposal had selfish motive: to move the street out of the way to make room for parking. The statement elicited applause from the audience. He further said he believed the result would be the same “No Admittance to Beach” signs that grace other areas of Sea Colony property.

The councilman also noted that he believed the change would negatively impact traffic flow on Route 1, possibly causing a backup onto the highway instead of improving flow. He said he thought the plan wouldn’t benefit the town because it would just change something that was already working.

McClenny endorsed the town not supporting the plan. Instead, he proposed sending a letter not supporting it and supporting keeping the slip-ramp area the same.

Olmstead commented that if speeding was a concern, the town could further lower the speed limit in the area, while Council Member Wayne Fuller upped the offer by mentioning speed bumps.

McClenny noted speeding had actually not been a substantial problem in the area, according to the August 2004 traffic study done for the town.

Council Member Jerry Dorfman said he had only received a negative response to that point from town citizens. He said he was additionally concerned that the change would route east-west traffic onto some of the town’s residential side streets, further threatening an already difficult pedestrian situation that the town was working to resolve.

As for the parking lot, Dorfman noted that there had been parking for Sea Colony on property owned by the Freeman Corporation that originally developed the community but that it had recently been used for building additional single-family homes.

Gilbert did seek to clarify the relationship of various entities involved in Sea Colony, noting some confusion in the reporting of one local newspaper on both the plan and who was presenting it.

The proposal — and Gilbert himself — was from the SCRA, a homeowners group. The development itself is currently controlled by the approximately 2,200 homeowners, he said. ResortQuest is the community’s management firm, while the Freeman group was the original owner/developer.

In the end, Gilbert pressed for a limited form of support from the town, seeking an official request that the impact on traffic, pedestrians and speed in the area of the slip-ramp be studied by DelDOT.

But council members said they felt the presentation hadn’t provided them with enough information to even go that far.

They opted to table the issue and refrain entirely from voting on whether to support the plan — neither a yea nor a nay for it, but with some negative feelings expressed by both some of the individual council members and citizens, and ambivalence by others.

Mayor Jack Walsh instead pointed to Gilbert’s proposed long-term solution — the realignment of the entire intersection — as something he viewed more favorably. And council members concluded the night’s handling of the plan by unanimously agreeing to send a letter clarifying the town’s undecided stand on the issue for DelDOT.