South Bethany beach reopens

South Bethany re-opened its beaches for dog-walking and exercise last week, but cold and windy weather on Saturday saw few people, or dogs, taking advantage of that, despite the sun. Bethany Beach's re-opening of its beaches on May 15 coincides with the start of its seasonal prohibition on dogs on the beach, so the beach there will dog-free until after September.

South Bethany was one of the first coastal municipalities in the state to re-open its public beaches, once again matching Gov. John Carney’s existing restrictions for state-controlled beaches to allow only exercise and dog-walking, rather than the total ban on beach use that municipalities have been permitted to institute under Carney’s emergency order.

Starting May 5, South Bethany’s restrictions on all beach activity reverted the lesser ones in place under the Delaware state declaration of emergency. That once again allows people to exercise or to walk their dogs, provided they follow the social-distancing precautions against COVID-19 as recommended by the CDC.

“Our goal in doing this was to create a situation where people could again walk on the beach, jog on the beach, but people are — even under the declaration — to keep moving,” Mayor Tim Saxton said during a May 8 town council teleconference meeting.

“I am just asking the public for their compliance on this new change. We cannot have people sitting on the beach, sunbathing, swimming at this time,” he added.

No one knows when the governor will further loosen state-of-emergency restrictions, “but we do know he’s trying … to follow the three phases of the CDC guidelines, and he’s consistently said he’s trying to follow those and follow science,” Saxton said.

South Bethany will also now allow dog-walking on the beach later into the season. Typically, dog-walking is prohibited on the beach starting May 15. But Council Member Derek Abbot asked that the privilege be extended until regular beach activities can resume (whenever that may be).

“Yes, give ’em a break,” agreed Council Member Carol Stevenson.

That motion passed, 4-3 (with dissent from Council Members Don Boteler and Sue Callaway, and Saxton).

Although the traditional summer season already looks different, summer parking and traffic rules in the town will be in effect starting May 15. The Cat Hill barricade will operate daily. Parking permits are required for all vehicles. Visitors are not allowed to park on streets east of the highway, unless a property owner loans them a hangtag.

Also, after a brief discussion on public parking, the council opted not to pursue any changes to the existing summer parking rules.

“That beach is publically owned, so the entire world can go on that beach,” said Saxton. “I do think it’s important that when we make decisions around the beach, it’s larger than just South Bethany.”

All Town-sponsored activities continue to be canceled through June 15, or until the end of the governor’s Phase 1 of reopening, whichever comes first. But most activities are up in the air, including fitness classes and social events, based on restrictions on group gatherings and “essential” businesses. The Town will also be writing its own safety plans, down to how the lifeguards operate.

The town fitness area is not being sanitized, so the public uses it at their own risk.

The mayor and Town Manager Maureen Hartman said they have spent countless hours on near-daily teleconferences with local, state and federal agencies of all kinds. The South Bethany Town Council will hold weekly meetings to monitor the COVID-19 situation.

“I do not want us making decisions very far out. … I want to see how things play out, is my recommendation, and see what other things the governor is doing,” Saxton said.

Revenue comes in over budget

The 2020 fiscal year wrapped up with approximately $577,000 surplus, although that unaudited number will decrease as the final bills of the fiscal year are paid.

“Clearly, we had another very, very fortunate year, in terms of transfer-tax revenue,” which piled in at 170 percent of the expected amount. However, “I think this coronavirus might be dealing us a potential slowdown in transfer tax revenue,” said Council Treasurer Boteler. Property and rental taxes are more stable revenue streams.

The council recently approved a similar 2021-fiscal-year budget, although they expect to be making changes as finances become impacted by COVID-19.

The council also reassigned some (audited) surplus money into specific reserve funds for future projects, including the ARM capital depreciation fund, operational reserves, beach access fund and more. Assigning South Bethany’s $2.7 million reserves into specific accounts will increase transparency, said Boteler, because future councils will need to vote to either spend or move funds around.

“If you look at the dollars out of context, it looks like we are very favorably positioned, but … all of these dollars are sort of designated for use,” based on projects for the 10-year Capital Improvement Fund.

In other South Bethany news:

• Former council member Jimmy Oliver was unanimously appointed to the Board of Adjustment.

“He also has built some houses here; he also has served on Charter & Code [Committee] — all of which we know is valuable to the Board of Adjustment,” Saxton said.

There were no new applications for the current vacancy on the board, although Oliver had previously applied to the board, which operates separately from the town council.

To encourage more interest in volunteer roles, Abbott asked that the town manager come up with a plan to increase advertising for all town committee vacancies, “to ensure we’ve got the best possible candidates for the job. … My sole interest is to try to get as much community involvement as we can, and talent.”

• The public can rate their satisfaction with Mediacom cable/internet service. The Town will email a survey to property owners with an email on file at Town Hall (one survey per household). Mediacom’s franchise agreement is up for renewal in South Bethany.

• Residents or property owners can apply to serve on the Charter & Code Committee by emailing a brief statement of interest and any applicable qualifications (although none are required) to Administrative Assistant Pam Smith at administrator@southbethany.org, or delivering a paper copy to Town Hall by Friday, May 22.

• Summer police officer Jahn Farrell has completed his mandatory training and was set to start patrolling on his own as of May 1.

• Manufacturing is under way for 16 art boards for the Ocean Drive Art Program, plus a 16-picture collage that will be placed on the back of the Ocean Drive information board. Installation should be complete by Memorial Day weekend.

The next teleconference meeting of South Bethany Town Council will be Tuesday, May 19, at 9 a.m. The agenda includes COVID-19 updates, summer events, the personnel manual and public comments. The public may telephone toll-free 1-877-568-4106 (access code: 180-584-445) to join in the meeting.

The annual council re-organizational meeting will be Wednesday, May 27, at 9 a.m., including the swearing in of unopposed incumbent and new council members for two-year terms. The meeting will also include COVID-19 updates.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.