Bethany moves to ban canopies, tents, oversized umbrellas

Date Published: 
Dec. 15, 2017

Bethany Beach will be following in the sandy footsteps of one of its neighbors this summer, if the Town follows through on its intention to officially ban canopies, tents and oversized umbrellas on its beach.

At a Dec. 12 town council workshop, the council voted 6-1 to direct the Town’s Charter & Ordinance Review Committee to draft beach regulations that would ban from the beach all tents and canopies, as well as any umbrella larger than 8 feet in diameter. The only exception to the ban is so-called “baby tents,” which could measure up to 3 feet in any dimension.

The vote came on the heels of discussion over the past few months of concerns expressed by some residents heading into the summer of 2017 that the larger shading devices were a problem that was growing out of control.

The complaints particularly targeted people using large canopies and tents, placing multiple devices in groups or spreading out towels and chairs around them, placing tents in locations that blocked the view of the shoreline (thereby preventing families from monitoring children from a distance) and setting them up very early in the morning but not making use of them until later in the day.

CORC studied the issue over the summer, taking photographs to document how the devices were being used and collecting comments. That led to the council asking for a townwide survey on the issue, which was approved in mid-October and opened to responses before Halloween, with a Dec. 1 deadline to respond.

Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman, who heads up CORC, noted that while the committee and council had discussed for several months the issue of shading devices and whether to prohibit them or restrict them to certain parts of the beach, they had heard from a small number of people who opposed a ban but, she said, they didn’t have an understanding of the opinions of the wider community.

“I don’t consider surveys advisable in every situation,” she said at the Dec. 12 workshop, but “because this will potentially affect the quality-of-life of those who use the beach and those who rent properties for summer,” she felt a survey was needed.

With encouragement from the Bethany Beach Landowners Association and some local Realtors, property owners and residents were asked to respond to the survey. The Town received 1,253 electronic responses and another 26 on paper.

Hardiman said there had been some concerns expressed “about people who don’t own property here sneaking responses in,” but Town staff did check the eligibility for all submissions. That led to 80 of the survey responses being disqualified, but Hardiman said those 80 were still reviewed for comparison against the results of the survey as a whole, and including them didn’t change the results “by much, and they certainly don’t change the outcome.”

With the disqualified responses included, she said, the numbers were only slightly higher for support of a prohibition on oversized umbrellas and slightly less for both a ban on tents and one on banning all shading devices.

Relying primarily on the results from the electronic surveys, Hardiman said, 99 percent of respondents said they had used the beach this summer or had had people stay at their Bethany home who had used the beach this summer.

“I think we have a fairly good representation of people’s experience on the beach and what they would like to see,” she said.

Of those who said they had used the beach, 90 percent said they used regular beach umbrellas (up to 8 feet in diameter), while 3.67 percent said they used oversized umbrellas, 8.62 percent said they used canopies, 5.43 percent said they used tents and 6.78 percent said they used no shading devices at all.

“An overwhelming number of people use a standard umbrella,” Hardiman emphasized.

Asked about the idea of banning some or all of the shading devices, respondents were split on oversized umbrellas, with 46.45 percent favoring a ban on devices larger than 8 feet. But a substantial 70.55 percent favored a ban on canopies, while 73.58 percent favored banning tents on the beach. About 17.5 percent opposed any ban.

Those who said they supported a ban on some or all of the devices, Hardiman said, had expressed negative comments about canopies and tents, but particularly about canopies. She said complaints ranged from about how much space they take up on the beach to the problem of people setting them up early, or spreading out around them, or the danger of them blowing away if left unattended.

People also expressed frustration at the difficulty of navigating around them — particularly with multiple devices placed in groups. They said they found it easier to navigate around standard umbrellas and blankets.

Those who supported allowing the devices said they felt they were more practical for large families, those with special needs and for general protection from the sun, she said, adding that many who supported banning tents had clarified that they had no objection to the 3-foot “baby tents.”

More than half of those supporting a ban (51.34 percent) said they would not support allowing the devices even if they were restricted to a certain area of the beach, such as back against the dune, or even if they restricted in size. About a quarter of them said they would consider allowing oversized umbrellas in a certain location, while about a third said they’d consider allowing tents or canopies in a certain location.

“In the spirit of trying to find a compromise,” Hardiman noted, “at least a third of the people who responded that they did not want them” said that if they were in a different location, they would be willing to consider allowing them.

The survey had also asked respondents to offer any other beach issues, besides shading devices, that were of concern. She said most of the comments had broken down into two types: (1) those who would accept a compromise, such as restricting the devices to a certain location, but who struggled with practical issues, such as enforcement, the designated location and impacts on areas for play and trash collection, and also those who said the dunes were already not being respected; and (2) about 5 percent of respondents, who said they had concerns about people setting up encampments early in the day and leaving them unattended until later.

Hardiman said she felt the survey results had addressed the quality-of-life issues and the financial issues for rental-property owners. She noted that the Town’s finance director had queried seven real estate agencies that rent properties in the town, and each of them “felt there would be no impact on rentals.”

Council looks

for compromise,

doesn’t find one

Having reviewed the survey results, the council was left with three basic options to consider moving forward, Hardiman said: (1) do nothing; (2) prohibit all shading devices except umbrellas 8 feet in diameter or smaller, as well as baby tents; or (3) try to find some middle ground, such as confining the other devices to an area at the back of the beach or the ends of the boardwalk.

“I would prefer the middle ground,” she said, “but I’m not sure I see a practical solution as to where to put them or how to enforce it that isn’t problematic. In deference to the 70-plus percent who voted to prohibit” canopies, tents and oversized umbrellas, Hardiman said she was left recommending the council prohibit all shading devices except standard 8-foot umbrellas and baby tents.

Several of the council members said they, too, had come into the discussion thinking that some kind of middle ground should be found.

Councilman Jerry Morris said he’d come in with the idea that canopies should be allowed on the beach. But, “After reviewing all the options, I don’t see a practical way of accommodating everybody. … I don’t see any practical way of coming up with a solution that makes everybody happy, other than banning them.

“We do have a very short beach, and I think if we don’t do something now — we’ve seen over the last couple years, there’s more and more canopies showing up, and more and more people ganging them up two or three together. … In the end, I just can’t see us allowing them to be used.”

“The majority of people … just don’t like it,” Morris added. And while there is a potential problem for elderly people who need shade, he said, “In the past we had umbrellas. I’m not sure that’s a viable alternative, to say you need canopies.

Councilman Joseph Healy said he, too, had initially considered recommending canopies be allowed back near the dune line.

“I thought that might be an alternative. But I looked at the beach — it’s so, so narrow, and there just wasn’t enough room. So, in rethinking the subject, I couldn’t come up with a solution. I have to mirror what [Morris] said.”

Councilman Patrick Sheplee said he had been influenced significantly by the results of the survey.

“No question about it — an overwhelming number of people who responded preferred to ban everything except umbrellas,” he said. “I still struggle with the canopies. I would be strongly in favor of limiting the size of canopies, should we allow those, to the same dimensions as the umbrellas. They don’t block the view. They don’t have sides. They take up slightly more space and have four poles instead of one. I would be in favor of not allowing supports to extend outside the perimeter of the canopy.

“I don’t see a practical solution with their location,” he added. “I would like to continue to discuss that possibility as a compromise. I do see specific reasons in the comments for use of canopies,” he noted, including those with special needs and the elderly. “I would like to continue discussion of the compromise of allowing them to be restricted to 8 feet square.”

Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer expressed concerns that the Town was trying to address something that wasn’t a big problem and might, in the process, cause difficulties with the large families who come to Bethany year after year.

“Bethany Beach is a family-friendly community,” he said. “We see every summer a large gathering of families who come back here year after year. Because of that, it’s important that we consider those kinds of people who come here to enjoy our beach. The survey said 90 percent used a standard umbrella, and only 9 percent used canopies.

“That being said, are we trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist? If 90 percent area already using umbrellas, why are we creating all these regulations for our beach? I’d suggest if canopies are used, especially for the elderly and young children who need shade (especially in this age of growing [concerns about] skin cancer), I’d suggest allow canopies, but with no sides.

Killmer said he also had questions regarding enforcement, such as who is going to enforce the rules and when, and what happens if people set up a banned device and there’s no one there when an enforcement officer comes by.

“Do we leave a note and say, ‘Come pick it up at town hall’? What are we trying to accomplish? We’re responding to a couple people who say they don’t like to see canopies on the beach, but a replenished beach will create less crowding. The dune fences will be put back up. We can also put up signage.”

Some support for 2019 implementation

Killmer said he favored communicating regulations to everyone in the community, and that if the ordinance were to be adopted, he’d prefer to have it become effective not in 2018 but in 2019, to allow more time for the Town to communicate the new rules to the public. Healy said he agreed.

“All these people come down and bring canopies…” he pointed out.

Hardiman said she’d struggled with the issue “for a long time” and had been “reluctant to come to the conclusion that the best way to go was to ban canopies and umbrellas.” But, she replied to Killmer, “When you say there is no problem — if you read the comments, 70 percent feel there is a problem.”

“I do agree there are people with legitimate needs for canopies,” she added, pointing to photographs the committee had taken as an illustration of people “who use them the right way and are considerate, but that hasn’t been the experience of 70 percent of people who go down to the beach.”

Hardiman said the rental agents the committee had asked about the timing on enforcement of the ordinance had responded that, if they got the decision by March, that would be sufficient time to notify all the people who come to Bethany as renters.

“We’ll make a communication effort. We’ll send another postcard to those who live or own here, and we’ll make use of the media to get word out to surrounding communities. There probably will be some people coming here” who won’t be aware of the change, “but I would not want to put it off to 2019.”

Councilman Bruce Frye said he valued the survey for having let him see how his constituents felt.

“I agree with that emotion — 70 percent don’t want canopies and tents. Rehoboth did this and had very little pushback. Based on those two facts, I’m fine with the motion.”

Mayor Jack Gordon, noting he spends “an awful lot of time on the beach,” said, “This may be a small problem now — though 70 percent think it is a problem — but I’ve seen it grow, and it can’t get anything but worse than it is now. I think we’ll have to face it in the future if we don’t face the thing right now.”

Gordon, calling himself “pretty elderly,” said he sits under an umbrella and has seen people who needed to be pushed onto the beach in a wheelchair use them as well. “I don’t think there’s a problem with an umbrella, as opposed to a canopy.”

“I’m affected by the 70 percent who say there is a problem in the town. Initially, I thought we didn’t need a survey … that we should go ahead. And the survey did show what it did show and I was happy with how it came out, because I thought it was a problem before we went with the survey.”

“I don’t want to delay,” he added. “All we need is education. We need signage, to let the Realtors know as soon as possible what the problem is. I’m impressed [they] didn’t think it would be a problem, as far as cutting down income for rentals.

“We’re going to have a big beautiful beach this year, and we’re going to have fences to keep people off the dunes. But if you recall, three years ago we had a big beautiful beach, and look at what we have now. I don’t think it’s a problem that can be solved.

Enforcement could

follow smoking-ban model

“It’s black and white, as far as I’m concerned,” Gordon added. “I don’t want beach police running up and down with their tape measures. … I don’t want enforcement to become a problem. I think we ought to do this on the front end.

“We may have somebody, initially, going up and down the beach to make sure in the first years that people are familiar with this,” he said, “but in the survey there were a lot of other problems this person could address while doing that. … I’m totally in favor, and it should start in 2018.”

Town Manager Cliff Graviet told the council that when the Town imposed its beach smoking ban, the policy in the first year was only to warn violators and not cite them. In fact, he said the Town has never issued a citation for a smoking violation. He said a similar policy might be a good compromise between enforcing the canopy ban in 2018 versus full-enforcement 2018.

“There would be no penalty this year,” Gordon said. “We’re not going to confiscate them.”

“With smoking, we found warnings work with our constituents on the beach,” Graviet said.

The council voted not to push back enforcement until 2019. They then voted, 6-1, with Killmer the lone opponent, to direct CORC to draft an ordinance that would ban canopies, tents and oversized umbrellas from the beach, starting in 2018.

With the measure requiring two readings before a vote on adoption, Killmer suggested the council not take the draft to another workshop but instead to discuss it at a first reading at their regular January meeting, make any changes they felt necessary and then vote on the regulation, with any changes, after a second reading in February.

Hardiman inquired whether the council wished to have the ban in place year-round or just for the summer season, noting Rehoboth’s ban is a year-round one. Graviet said he would look at the effective dates for other seasonal ordinances to provide a consistent date if the council chooses to make the ban a seasonal one, and the council will be able to decide at the first reading whether the ban should be seasonal or year-round.