Truck parking, commercial area discussed

It was a time for revisiting a number of old issues at the Oct. 8 workshop-without-agenda (WWA) in Fenwick Island.

Resident Gail Warburton again raised the issue of delivery truck parking on Farmington and other residential side streets. Warburton noted that she had refrained from discussing the matter with town council members in recent months because she had been asked previously to work with police directly on the problem and allow some time for any improvements to be noted.

But, Warburton said, the problem was still showing itself regularly, with sometimes as many as two tractor-trailers parked on her street, often in the wrong direction, not only blocking residential traffic but also causing a safety hazard by blocking the view of oncoming vehicles in a way that could put pedestrians — particularly children — at risk. The need to address the issue is imperative, she emphasized.

“I don’t want to wait until there is a disaster,” Warburton said.

Warburton suggested that the town require delivery trucks to park in the parking lots of associated businesses while making their deliveries and strictly enforce prohibitions on the trucks parking along residential streets. That idea, she said, had been endorsed by some of the town’s police officers when she talked to them about the problem.

Mayor Peter Frederick asked Warburton if she had called police about a recent incident of trucks parking illegally on her street. Warburton admitted that she had not in that case, noting that she believed the trucks were likely to be gone by the time police responded. But, she said, she had reported other problems in the past, with mixed results.

Police Chief Colette Sutherland had expressed an unwillingness to ticket the trucks in the past, Warburton alleged, due to concerns about relations with the business community.

While some officers did ticket the trucks, Warburton said, residents were reluctant to call every time. They recognized the officers had more important things to do and did not want to become a nuisance.

Council Member and former Public Safety Commissioner Theo Brans said Sutherland had noted a lack of complaints about the problem when he discussed it with her in recent months. Warburton noted a number of calls she recalled making during that period and questioned whether they simply hadn’t been recorded.

Further discussion raised the question of whether it had been a matter of no complaints or merely that Sutherland had told town officials the problem was “under control.”

Brans said he opposed pushing the trucks to park in the parking lots, saying he believed it was actually more dangerous due to the possibility of an accident as customers attempted to get around the trucks in the lots.

Brans and Frederick both emphasized the importance of residents reporting violations, while Brans said he hadn’t acted on the problem because Warburton had ceased to complain to him directly.

Warburton noted the petition she had previously delivered with some 60 signatures collected in just two days in support of stricter action on the problem. “Nothing has changed,” despite that, she said.

Frederick said he didn’t believe the town could do anything in terms of an ordinance to improve the situation. The delivery trucks are not supposed to park on residential side streets according to existing ordinances, he said, and there is no way for the town to force the trucks to specifically park on private property – namely in the parking lots of their delivery destinations.

Residents spotting violations should call police, he emphasized.

Brans said he would raise the issue with Sutherland again this week, during meetings with her and new Public Safety Commissioner Audry Serio, and investigate whether there had been real improvement in the situation since appeals to the business owners to corral their delivery trucks and urge compliance with parking ordinances.

Warburton questioned whether the business owners were making enough effort when she continued to spot employees parking in designated loading zones that would allow the trucks to park within the lots and not on the residential streets.

Warburton also expressed interest in a possible ban on franchises within the town. She pointed to a recent article she had read regarding such a move in a coastal town in Maine. The restriction was meant to preserve the character of that town, she said, much as some have endeavored to protect the character of Fenwick Island and other local towns.

In particular, the objection to franchises has been focused on standardized architecture — less of a problem in Fenwick Island, according Council Member Vicki Carmean, who said architectural compromises were often reached during the planning stages of such businesses. Still, Carmean said, the idea was worth exploring.

Frederick noted that the town was currently only able to limit businesses based the use planned, not on aesthetic or franchise grounds. If the town permitted the serving of hamburgers, he said, it would have to allow both a small local proprietor and a McDonald’s franchise.

Council Member Harry Haon pointed out that Fenwick Island does not allow drive-through service at businesses, on the grounds that it is a safety hazard. That would prevent many franchises from opening, he opined.

The aesthetic element could be handled through an architectural review board, he said, but doing so at this point in the town’s development would be difficult.

Brans said he felt the town had to be careful in not sending the wrong message to the business community in dictating it doesn’t want some types of businesses. (The town has been making an effort to retain its small commercial district.)

When Warburton pointed to cigarette shops as an unwanted type of business, Frederick noted that use restrictions could eliminate such a use, but would likely be subject to grandfathering – thus failing to eliminate the problem to which Warburton pointed. The issue was dropped.

Questions were also raised Oct. 8 regarding idling Fenwick Island police cars. Residents questioned whether it was truly necessary for the cars to be left, unattended and running, outside the FIPD for in excess of 90 minutes, as had apparently happened in recent weeks.

The safety of an unattended, running car and the cost of gasoline used in idling for that length of time were cited as reasons for concern. Sutherland had been questioned about the issue and denied it was a safety hazard, residents said.

The reason for leaving the cars running, they were told, was that the equipment in the cars needed to be kept running — namely computers and radar devices that take time to recalibrate and restart when the car has been shut off and thus would not be quickly ready in an emergency.

Further investigating that claim, residents said they were told by Ocean City police training officers that the OCPD policy was not to leave cars idling for lengthy periods of time, but to place equipment in standby mode for a quick return to service once the cars were turned on again.

The exception to that rule is for K-9 units, due to the environmental needs of the canine officers.

Delaware State Police offered the same response, they said. And did the officers leave the cars running while refueling, contrary to standard safety procedures? Were the cars left running essentially 24 hours a day for all duty shifts, if restarting systems was so time-consuming and constant readiness so vital?

Brans said he felt a police car sitting unattended and idle for 90 minutes was, indeed, excessive. But, he said, it did take some time for the police equipment to restart and be recalibrated – time that could be vitally important in the event of an emergency.

Carmean noted that she and other council members had not received a letter reportedly sent to them some weeks ago by residents concerned about the issue. The residents sending the letter reported a response from Sutherland, though. Carmean said she would investigate the issue.

Frederick answered some follow-up questions regarding the lawsuit of a former police officer against the town. The suit was recently settled out of court by the town’s insurance company, with all parties signing agreements not to discuss the settlement. Residents have thus been left in the dark as to what the case meant to them.

Frederick said the only cost to the town had been a $5,000 deductible according to the insurance policy, with minimal additional costs paid to Town Solicitor Tempe Steen for her work advising the council as a party in the suit.

Council members also expressed their concern regarding the Indian River Inlet Bridge project, which recently hit financing snags in the midst of a larger Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) financial crunch.

Brans suggested the town send a message to the state as to the importance of the bridge, focusing particularly on the need for efficient transportation routes to Beebe Hospital in Lewes.

He said politicians from the northern parts of the state were looking at the bridge project as something that enabled people to get not to the southernmost coastal towns of Delaware but to Ocean City, Md. The benefit of the bridge they saw, he said, was not to Delaware businesses and tax coffers but to Maryland.

And on those grounds, he said, they were rethinking spending the bid price given for the project.

Carmean said she felt state funds were already disproportionately spent in the north of the state, compared to where they were raised.

Frederick noted concerns that the state would end up paying for the bridge project by pulling funding from real estate transfer tax funds that normally go to the county and municipalities. Sending letters of support for the bridge, he feared, would push the state to take those transfer tax funds rather than look for other alternatives.

The Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) had recently suggested that the state consider raising funds for DelDOT by raising fees on licenses and registrations, Frederick said — potentially raising between $2 million and $9 million in additional funding each year with modest increases to fees that are considerably lower than those in neighboring states.

Frederick noted a letter he had recently sent to the state on behalf of the town, supporting the bridge project but adamantly opposing the redistribution of the tax revenues away from the county and municipalities. He categorized the funding issue as a geographic one — north versus south, along political lines.

The council members referred to Building Official Patricia Schuckman allegations that at least one home in the town has well exceeded the town’s maximum of five bedrooms, four bathrooms and one kitchen per home.

Frederick noted that once a certificate of occupancy was issued for construction, home owners were free from most of the oversight that would prevent them from illicitly exceeding the limits, meaning Schuckman has to investigate complaints as they arise rather than being able to prevent such intentional excess before it happens.

Carmean took the opportunity of the meeting to propose a new floor for the police department’s workroom, citing unsanitary conditions in what is often used as a holding room for prisoners.

She said the existing carpeted floor has often been the recipient of bodily fluids due to that double duty and that cleaning the carpet is itself a health hazard. Instead, she proposed the town pay for new flooring of a hard and seamless variety that could be easily and safely cleaned.

Though renovations of the existing town hall are anticipated in the next two years, she said, replacing that flooring was needed as soon as possible.

Finally, Frederick noted a recent problem related to the town’s beach reconstruction project. Signs dictating where drive-on areas for permitted fishing vehicles begin and end were removed during the work, leaving some fishermen confused and in violation of the town’s protected zone.

Police had been called numerous times in recent weeks to enforce the no-vehicles area of the

town beach, he said, until one fisherman noted he’d been told by the shop selling him his vehicle permit that he could drive onto any beach and hadn’t seen any signs to the contrary.

Once the connection was made between the overzealous fishermen and the missing signs, Frederick said, he called Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) Tony Pratt, who has been acting as a liaison between the town and the dredging contractor. The signs were quickly put back in place, he said.