After roughly two months of light-handed enforcement of a new rule limiting shading devices on its beaches to “standard” umbrellas and so-called “baby tents” — banning canopies and tents of all descriptions — Bethany Beach officials have now moved to loosen that restriction… just a little.
At their meeting on July 21, the town council voted 5-2 to approve a new definition of “baby tents” that expands from the original 36-inch limit in all dimensions to a 36-inch height, with a maximum of 4 feet and 5 feet in size in the other two dimensions.
Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman said in introducing the amendment that the original allowance for 36-inch “baby tents” was designed to allow such devices for the protection of infants and small children, with dimensions that do not create hazards or disrupt enjoyment of others.
“It came to our attention that there are other suitable baby tents that vary slightly from those dimensions,” Hardiman said, offering an example of a baby tent she had been shown that was 31 inches high, 40 inches deep and 58 inches long.
She said she felt expanding the definition to eliminate all but the 36-inch height restriction for “baby tents” was “consistent with the intent” of the original legislation but less restrictive, allowing for the use of a device such as the one she’d been shown and similar devices that might vary somewhat in dimensions but still comply with the council’s intent.
“It’s within the intent of the ordinance, but there’s more protection provided.”
Resident Robyn Zimmerman had earlier in the meeting told the council she wanted a less restrictive ordinance. With her daughter, son-in-law, and 3-year-old and 6-week-old grandchildren visiting them in Bethany for a month, she said, she had quickly grown concerned about the canopy restrictions.
“They are more challenging than I would have thought,” Zimmerman said. “One day something is fine, the next time it’s not. I realize, with anything new, there may need to be some tweaks.”
Zimmermand said that on “an extraordinarily windy day” her family had erected “a small shell,” at the back of the beach, to avoid blocking anyone’s view.
“My daughter was sitting back with the baby, and is still nursing — it’s much better for the baby to be in a small shell, and we were told we had to take it down. We have also seen parents with toddlers still nursing told to take them down,” she added.
“This is a family beach, which is why we love it. We raised two children here, and we had looked forward to having our grandchildren here,” she said, reporting that another parent trying to nurse a baby on the beach had been told to “just use a towel” for privacy.
Zimmerman said she was requesting dispensation from the Town to allow for not setting up a canopy or shell at the water line, but instead at the back “of a very much larger beach,” post-replenishment.
She said the family also owns a 6-by-6-foot cabana that she had purchased knowing she could set it up by herself, despite her arthritis. It has a similar footprint to the permitted “standard umbrella,” but even though it was within the height and diameter restrictions, she said, “We couldn’t use it … because it’s not an umbrella.”
“I agree you can’t have huge tents, but I’d request an amendment to have nursing moms to be modestly protected with a small structure,” she concluded.
Hardiman acknowledged that the Town was still working on the issue during this first summer after its adoption. She said that while the proposed amendment wouldn’t directly address Zimmerman’s concerns, she’d like to get together with her after the meeting and perhaps see the devices Zimmerman’s daughter was using — with no guarantee there would be further changes proposed.
“In theory,” Zimmerman said, the ban “is fantastic and has a lot of pluses,” but sometimes, she said, such regulations need adjustment. “A 3-by-3-by-3 is not big enough — especially with a 3-year-old and an infant.”
Enforcement issues amidst requests
Council members were divided on the issue — some favoring a slightly larger size but not eliminating the depth and width restrictions entirely, and others expressing concern about the difficulty town officials have had explaining to beachgoers exactly how the new restrictions work and why some devices are not allowed.
“I think it’s a good compromise,” said Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer of the expanded limits for baby tents, suggesting that finding high-quality baby tents that meet the original 36-inch dimensional restriction could be difficult. “At the end of the day, this is another example of getting into [enforcement] and we have to tweak it. You have to see what’s being sold.”
He emphasized that other beachgoers’ views blocked by taller tents was one of the primary issues behind the restrictions.
Councilman Patrick Shepley expressed concern about eliminating some of the details of the restriction, asking about the potential for a 36-inch-high canopy.
“Is that going to give us a problem?”
Town Manager Cliff Graviet replied, “A good majority of these canopies have legs in two segments. You could have an 8-by-8- or 10-by-10-foot canopy that’s 36 inches high.”
Council members questioned whether that would open the door to groups of teenagers, for example, gathering under a 3-foot-tall canopy that would be permitted as a “baby tent.”
“There should be babies in baby tents, not adults,” Killmer said. “If there’s no baby in there, it’s not a baby tent.”
Graviet said the Town would then have to define “baby” for the enforcement officers to enforce the rule. He pointed out that the exiting ordinance defined “baby tent” as a tent “designed or used” to shade a baby. “So if I put a baby under it, it becomes a baby tent.”
Mayor Jack Gordon said he’d had a lot of discussions with those monitoring and enforcing the new restriction, and he favored the idea of a 36-inch height limit while not agreeing to leave the other dimensions unchecked. He suggested a limit on depth and length of 48 inches, to go along with the 36-inch height limit.
Hardiman said she felt the 48-inch dimension was too restrictive, suggesting rounding out the limits to 3 feet high, and limits of 4 feet and 5 feet for the other dimensions.
“Enforcement should use common sense,” Killmer said, favoring just the height limit. “We’ve got to protect young children from the sun. They’ve got a lifetime of exposure, and we’ve got families coming here with babies and young children. If you get more specific, you’re just tying their hands. … I think we should be more flexible.”
Gordon said he’d been told the 36-inch limit in all dimensions was still in place in Rehoboth Beach, which was the first local town to adopt such restrictions on shading devices, “And they don’t seem to have any problems with enforcement.”
Shepley said he agreed that the Town should be more flexible, “But where do we draw the line?”
Hardiman said she felt sympathy for the code enforcers, too, as she knows they have ended up arguing with people over the issue.
“One of the problems they have — you talk about using common sense — some people want some latitude, and 10 feet down the beach, they want it enforced,” said Graviet.
“Beachgoers are very creative,” Gordon said, expressing concerns about what would result if they were not given parameters.
“If we didn’t have all these rules, they wouldn’t have to be creative,” Killmer replied.
“I would say any device designed to shade babies — I think we should allow for four babies or small children but not teenagers,” Shepley added, while Hardiman noted that the ordinance, as previously adopted, already prohibits canopies of any height.
Zimmerman suggested the Town could offer pictures of what is acceptable under the new code.
“I would buy one,” she said of a suggested compliant device. “Nothing in life is black-and-white. They need to be given a bit of logical latitude, with some pictures, and they’ll do just great.”
Resident Joan Gordon said she’d had many discussions of the issue, after spending much time on the beach with enforcement officers, and “I think we would be doing them a great disservice if we don’t have dimensions other than 3 feet high. You can’t believe what people will do on the beach unless you’re there and see it.”
Complaints rain in
Graviet told the council that the Town had of late been receiving one or two complaints every day “from people who are confronted” about banned devices “and don’t like it.
“They’re in a bad place right now,” he said of the enforcement officials. “It’s hard to please everyone. Not everyone wants them to find that middle ground — they want hard enforcement. Other people want the middle ground.”
He told the Coastal Point that he estimated between 25 and 30 complaints about the policy had been emailed to the Town over the course of the summer thus far. He said the complaints had largely been “general unhappiness regarding the ordinance and extolling the virtues of canopies over umbrellas.”
Despite the confrontations and the complaints, Graviet said all who had been asked to remove a banned device had complied with enforcement officers.
In light of the complaints, council members during the July 21 meeting haggled over the appropriate dimensions for a relaxed baby tent rule, with Hardiman agreeing to a compromise of a maximum 36-inch height and 4-foot and 5-foot limits for the other dimensions. But she refused to consider Gordon’s suggestion of limiting that third dimension to 4 feet.
Council members found consensus behind the 3-by-4-by-5-foot rule, which still retains the 36-inch height limit for baby tents but gives parents a little more room for growing kids and growing families. They voted 5-2 to approve the relaxed restriction, with a suspension of normal council rules allowing that change to go into effect immediately, under the support of the five-member council supermajority, rather than requiring the usual two readings before a vote.
By M. Patricia Titus