While the issue of “Harry's bladder” has become a source of humor in Bethany Beach in the years since former Bethany Beach town councilman Harry Steele first championed a bladder dam to help address the town's recurrent flooding problems, as of October 2018, that vision once again could possibly become a reality.
Town Manager Cliff Graviet at the Oct. 19 town council meeting told the council that Bethany Beach Administrative Services & Code Compliance Manager John Apple and the Town's engineering consultants were in the process of meeting with officials from DNREC, FEMA and the University of Delaware to discuss the “ongoing work to find a solution to flooding,” in the form of work at the Loop Canal and at Fred Hudson Road that Graviet said would go toward reducing “a good bit” moderate flooding problems in the town.
Graviet noted that the arrival in the area on Oct. 12 of the remnants of Hurricane Michael had been “an interesting experience.” In the hours before dawn, he said, the storm had dropped about 5 inches of rain in a very short time.
“Almost simultaneously, the Loop Canal rose 2 feet,” he noted.
The result, he said, was that some Bethany Beach residents woke up with water in their yards, unexpectedly, and in the streets, unexpectedly. And that water had nowhere to go until it receded down the Loop and Assawoman canals.
Despite it happening somewhat unexpectedly this time, Bethany Beach has a long history of flooding, since most of the town is barely above sea level. Over the years, smaller projects have been done to try to address some portion of the problem by improving stormwater flow and limiting intrusion of water from the Loop Canal, but a “solution” has remained elusive, as the costs of potential projects have been deemed excessive, their effectiveness questionable or their longer-ranging impacts too severe.
One project that saw its time in the spotlight, more than a decade ago, was the idea of a bladder dam that could be erected when excessive water flow from the Assawoman Canal into the Loop Canal was expected. To prevent the floodwaters from entering the Loop Canal and rising along its banks in Bethany Beach, the bladder dam would be raised to simply block the excess water from entering the Loop Canal at all.
While such a project hasn't been considered a solution to all potential flooding, or even all tidal flooding from the canals, it has generally been considered the best one available.
“This was determined to be the best method — not the best cost; it has nothing to do with cost,” Graviet had said in discussions back in 2005. (The estimated cost, when considered several years prior to that, was $1.3 million, he said.)
Indeed, the U.S. Army Corps, he said in 2005, had itself considered and rejected the idea of a swinging flood gate as likely to cause deleterious “scouring” and had instead recommended the inflatable dam to the Town.
Graviet said on Oct. 19 that Apple was meeting with the various other parties to see if such a project could garner federal or state interest to help make that concept a reality.
Though Steele himself is alive and well, Graviet this week named the potential project, with some mirth, “the Harry Steele Memorial Bladder Dam,” which, if it becomes reality, would be built at the intersection of the Loop and Assawoman canals. Areas of concern at Fred Hudson Road, he said, could possibly be gated.
Graviet did address what may have been the biggest concern about the project in the past, aside from the cost: its potential for shunting downstream the floodwaters it would prevent from entering the Loop Canal.
In December of 2004, Steele had presented at a Drainage & Flood Committee meeting preliminary findings from an engineer employed by the Town regarding potential flooding problems the dam might cause in Ocean Way Estates, just on the other side of Assawoman Canal from the town and near the proposed location for the dam.
Those findings had suggested the potential for increased water intrusion from the canal onto at least two properties in that community in the event of a flood of the magnitude of that from the 1998 storm — the level for which the dam project was at that point designed. Residents of nearby Savannahs Landing joined their neighbors in Ocean Way Estates in expressing concern.
At the time, Steele told them, “We will not do anything to damage your properties or to create problems for you.”
More than a decade later, on Oct. 19, Graviet said he believed the impact of an 18-inch bladder dam would not be significant in terms of resulting flooding elsewhere, due to the scope of the Assawoman Canal. While some engineers had said there might be reason for concern, he said, other engineers said the impact would be minimal.
“We're looking to put a fine point on it, that the Corps and DNREC would have information that they'd accept. It ought not to have a dramatic effect on the Assawoman Canal,” he said. “I think if we can find out the impact is going to be minimal — an inch or two — there's enough interest at the state and federal level that we could pick up some consideration for funding.”
Mayor Lew Killmer expressed some concerns about potential impacts within Bethany Beach as well.
“The relief valve for the Assawoman Canal is at [Route] 26 at Turtle Walk, and there are times when … there is water on the road,” he pointed out.
Graviet said he felt that with the floodwaters usually running from north to south in that area (with Superstorm Sandy a notable exception), the potential impact of a bladder dam on that area of the town wouldn't be an issue.
With meetings on the subject of a possible bladder dam still in their earliest stages, the project has a long way to go, and many hurdles between it and fruition. Further council consideration, public hearings, funding requests and bidding on such a plan will all take time, even if the go-ahead is eventually given.
In the meantime, as Killmer said, “The only solution” to the town's flooding problem “is what Jane Fowler suggested many years ago: Boots.”
Also on Oct. 19, Graviet put on the list for possible future approval a renovation and expansion project for the Town's restroom facilities at the boardwalk.
“Our restrooms are one of the most popular destinations in Bethany Beach,” he joked, noting more seriously that the facility had been designed with no room to expand. “They desperately need to be renovated and expanded,” he said.
Having had an engineer look at moving the structure's walls to the east, south and west, Graviet said, they felt the Town might pick up enough room to add more stalls and other facilities.
More information would be forthcoming in the next month or so, he said, adding that he might be able to bring the idea back before the council for possible funding and approval in time to have any such renovations done before the 2019 summer season.
Also on the slate for renovation is the historic Dinker-Irvin Cottage, which was moved earlier this year to a Town-owned piece of land just a few parcels from its location of more than 100 years. The cottage is to become a town museum, and in order for that to happen, it's going to need some repairs and renovation.
“Even though it was a very short distance” over which it was moved, Graviet said, the structure “had sat in place for more than 100 years,” so the move resulted in some damage to its plaster walls and the front porch had begun to detach itself from the structure, he said.
In order to prepare the cottage for its transformation into a museum, Graviet said, he had requested bids on rehabilitating its interior and exterior to approximate the appearance it might have had when new.
He recommended the council approve a $99,430 bid from local contractors Miranda, Hardt & O'Leary, with $30,000 to $40,000 of that amount for repairs needed after the move.
The rest will go toward elements including the replacement of its deck boards with more durable Trex material in a similar finish to the original wood boards, to refinish the outside of the cottage and the tongue-and-groove floors inside, and to repair the tongue-and-groove ceiling.
The project will also include removing the downstairs powder room, refurbishing the kitchen to mirror its appearance when it was new and refurbishing the former town post office section of the structure. The Cultural & Historical Affairs Committee (CHAC), he said, had requested the removal of some doors, to better facilitate its flow as a museum, and the project would also include refinishing all of its natural woodwork to mirror its appearance when new.
Graviet said he was recommending the Miranda, Hardt & O'Leary bid over one about $7,000 less due to the higher level of deck material proposed by the company, as well as their previous experience restoring the structures of the Ocean View Historical Society's site in the neighboring town.
“They have a lot of knowledge and experience of restoring homes of this nature,” he said.
While about $75,000 of the needed funding will come from the Town directly (with $150,000 budgeted already to cover expenses for the project), Graviet said $25,000 of the funding will come from CHAC, which brings in revenue from its Seaside Craft Show each June.
Another reason for recommending that bid, he said, was that Miranda, Hardt & O'Leary could begin the work almost immediately, in time to get the project done before spring. Then, he said, the Town would discuss with CHAC the development of the museum and potentially have some aspects of it ready for next summer.
The council voted unanimously to approve the contract with Miranda, Hardt & O'Leary.
“This has the potential to be real showplace for the town,” Killmer said. “I'm glad we're preserving our history.”
Beach towns, Sea Colony make five-year ambulance agreement
Vice-Mayor Rosemary Hardiman reported to the council on Oct. 19 that the Towns of Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island, as well as the Sea Colony Recreation Association, had recently come to an agreement with the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company on its continued provision of ambulance service to those towns.
Hardiman said the agreement runs for five years, with no increase in ambulance service fees to be paid by property owners in those towns.
“Previously, fees were not stable or predictable,” Hardiman noted, pointing out a 75 percent increase in the fees over the course of the last eight years. “This locks in the cost for five years,” she said, offering kudos to Graviet, who she said was “instrumental in drafting and shepherding the agreement,” and to former mayor Jack Gordon and Killmer for their work “in making this become a reality.”
“There is nothing in the agreement that allows for any increase in the fee,” Graviet confirmed.
Graviet reported on Oct. 19 that a generous citizen had recently come into town hall and handed a $1,000 check to a staff member, advising the Town in an email that he had interest in making a scholarship contribution to a town employee or a child of a town employee for “technical training.”
“The check was not brought to me — I would have immediately returned it and had a conversation with the gentleman,” Graviet acknowledged, advising the council to return the check to the donor “with a heartfelt thank-you” and to ask him to develop an application process and deadline, advertising flier with criteria for applying and awarding the scholarship, and a clear definition of what constitutes “technical training.”
Graviet said a provision could be made for the awarding of the scholarship to be made at a future council meeting, but “I don't know that we should be involved in administering that sort of scholarship.”
Kilmer said he agreed, believing that they should do what they could to make sure the process supports what the donor is seeking to support.
“He or she should be the person who makes that final decision — not the town manager or a town employee,” he said.
The council voted unanimously to return the check with thanks, and to ask the donor to develop a flier that the Town could post in its work areas, while the rest of the process would remain in the donor's hands.
Also on Oct. 19:
• A review of the Town's finances at the end of the second quarter of its fiscal year revealed that for the first six months of the fiscal year, the Town's General Fund revenue was down by $124,000, or 2.3 percent, over the same period last year, with transfer tax revenue coming in 20 percent lower. Councilman Jerry Morris said he felt it was an “indication of the moderating of the housing market,” but that he still expects revenue to significantly surpass budgeted amounts.
The Budget & Finance Committee will meet in January to start its work on the budget for the 2020 fiscal year.
• Chairwoman Carol Olmstead reported that CHAC had discussed at its Oct. 9 meeting possible cultural evenings for 2018-2019, with plans to potentially have the first event in November, and others in March and April. The group's major project for the next few months, she said, will be putting together its input on the Dinker-Irvin Cottage museum, for development of a proposal to design the museum's displays.
• Planning & Zoning Commission Chair Mike Boswell reported to the council that the group had at its September meeting discussed changes the Town might make to address pervious surfaces to help mitigate ponding and flooding in the town. He said two commissioners were putting together a set of definitions that the commission might act upon in the future.
Boswell reported that the commission had also reviewed plans for a five-home development in September but had taken no action, upon finding that the application was incomplete. Neighbors of the property, he said, had expressed concerns about stormwater runoff, and the commission was set to further consider the application at their Oct. 20 meeting.
• The council voted unanimously to approve committee guidelines and the Town's standing committees, as part of an annual review. Committee appointments were also approved unanimously.
• Appointments to the Board of Adjustments included one familiar face, as former major Jack Gordon fills a seat vacated by Doug Mowrey. The other board members are Vahan Moushegian Jr., Mike Farrar, Len Kidwell and Sherwin Weinstock.
• Graviet noted an impending appearance by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper at the boardwalk on Oct. 26, as he speaks to local officials and residents about the recently passed federal water infrastructure bill, which sets aside $75 million in funding for beach replenishment. Graviet said the funding should guarantee that replenishment along the Delaware shore can be done all at one time, rather than staggered in sections, across two or more years.
“This provides for, I would think, at least two future replenishments,” he said.
By M. Patricia Titus