Streetscape project revived in Bethany

Bethany Beach Town Manager Cliff Graviet raised hopes once again for the town’s planned “Streetscape” project at the Oct. 21 town council meeting, citing information that Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) officials were optimistic funds for the project would be restored despite a general funding shortfall.

With federal funds anticipated to assist with that shortfall in the area of transportation enhancement initiatives, the department had begun a review of projects that had previously been put on hold – including Bethany’s Streetscape. And, according to Graviet, the Bethany project is on the short list for possible restoration of funding.

The renewed focus on the project mandated a review of its history at the council meeting, leading toward a renewed council vote on a final design for the revamped downtown streets, as required by DelDOT officials before consideration can proceed.

The last vote on the plan, an approval in June of 2002, was a conditional one. Council members at that time agreed to endorse the plan with the caveat that appropriate agencies sign off on its acceptability. The condition had come as a result of Council Member and fire policeman Wayne Fuller’s insistence that the state fire marshal sign off on the plan.

But DelDOT wanted unconditional council support for the project’s concept, with no conditions attached, and recently told Graviet it also did not want to be considered an agency from which to obtain an endorsement under that previous condition.

So, the ball is back in the town’s court. But with an added complication — so much time has passed since that June 2002 approval that only two council members of that period remain on the council, and Fuller the only one of those two who actually voted on the issue.

Thus Graviet proposed a review of the concept for current council members, with the added contributions of engineers from JMT, the firm that performed the town’s August 2004 traffic study. Graviet said he hoped JMT would be able to present the concept in light of the traffic findings for a more updated take on the projects impact.

The sticking point for the idea came when Graviet mentioned a set of three concepts that had once been considered and recommended they be the subject of the council review.

Members of the former Beautification Committee (a subcommittee of the Planning Commission) said that only one concept had been presented to and voted upon by the council members in 2002. The three concepts, they said, had been combined into a final, fourth design that “cherry-picked” the best elements from each of the three.

That final concept was the one they had developed in coordination with the public, the one the council had conditionally approved and the one that had been put forward to DelDOT as “the” Streetscape concept. And that was the one that should be reviewed now, if such was needed.

Further, if a presentation to council needed to be made again, should not the Beautification Committee members who had worked on the project be the ones to do it, and not outside engineers that were only retained in 2004?

Current Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesh, a member of the Beautification Committee in 2002, emphasized that only one concept had ever been presented to the council for a vote.

Sherry Dorfman, another member of the 2002 committee, stressed that the town as a community had been responsible for the design — not the committee members in isolation. She said the design had also been endorsed by then-Bethany Beach Fire Company President Wilburt Powell, minimizing the need for any conditions to be imposed on its approval.

Further, business owners, she said, had been consulted about the affect the concept would have on downtown parking and had also endorsed the final concept, eliminating any concern that might have existed about its suitability for the commercial district.

The 2002 plan was the one and only plan, and not likely to be changed or improved now, no matter what might come up in a review, they suggested. It still had solid support.

But council members nonetheless pushed for a review. Council Member Lew Killmer noted that there was a significant amount of new information that had come up since 2002, with both the 2004 traffic study and the theming workshop held in early 2005.

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead noted the passage of time, saying that other issues might need to be considered now and the council might also need to approve possible additional expenditures to make Streetscape a reality. They needed a review, she insisted.

And Killmer reminded everyone that “the people who pay the bills” — meaning DelDOT — had asked the council for unconditional support of the concept, which might be easier to give once the council members had reviewed it and weighed any new information.

Boesch recommended the members of the Beautification Committee be the ones to present the review of the concept to the council members.

He noted that it provided for a single 18-foot-wide lane of traffic — controversial among some in the town and initially rejected by DelDOT as a hindrance to traffic flow, but accepted by DelDOT engineers once Boesch explained that the purpose of the plan was to focus on safer, better pedestrian traffic and thus to actually intentionally impede the ease of traffic flow.

Indeed, while previous discussion of a one-lane concept has met with a mixed reception when citizens envisioned traffic tie-ups, when the focus was put on encouraging less vehicular traffic in favor of pedestrians, some of the resistance to the idea vanished. (The 18-foot width had actually been chosen to accommodate the fire company’s ladder trucks.)

But the acceptability of the idea will have to be weighed as council members and the community at large familiarize themselves with the Streetscape concept once again, especially in the light of traffic studies.

With such enthusiastic support for the 2002 concept from those in attendance at the meeting, it was asked if they felt it was unfair to present the initial three concepts to the council members. Resoundingly, they answered in the affirmative.

Dorfman said she felt the original three concepts were long since moot, since the fourth concept had been the one designed and accepted by members from many facets of the community. That was the one and only plan that needed to be presented.

Mayor Jack Walsh noted that he felt the wrong thing to do would be to make a decision that would have a negative traffic impact on the town.

“We owe it to the town to study” the plan, Olmstead said.

Former Mayor Joseph McHugh commented to the council members, “Where you are is where the council was then,” referring to the point where council members in 2002 were familiarizing themselves with the concept and seeking expert opinions as to its suitability before categorically endorsing it.

By way of compromise, Graviet recommended both the Beautification Committee and JMT’s engineers be involved in the presentation to council members, so that questions from both a design and engineering angle could be answered. Elements of all four designs — the three original ones and the fourth combined concept — may be included.

The meeting was set for the Saturday following the November council meeting — Nov. 19 — at 1 p.m., to accommodate the most members of the public who might wish to hear the presentation and give their input. Additionally, a wide-reaching mailing to town property owners and residents was to be sent to maximize turnout for the meeting.

The Planning Commission, at its Oct. 22 meeting, officially reformed the Beautification Committee, with plans to meet with JMT engineers prior to Nov. 19 and inform them about the origins of the final chosen concept.