Bikes in South Bethany

In South Bethany, bicycles parked the "wrong way" could get moved to a nearby bike rack — or to the police department.

South Bethany Town Council worked on some hot topics at the Dec. 17 workshop, just before the Christmas holiday and their January hiatus.

In an attempt to clean things up, literally, they’re planning amendments to Town Code Chapter 30 “Animals.”

“The idea is to get some accountability for pet owners” and possible relief for neighbors, said councilmember Derek Abbott.

“This ordinance would effectively broaden the structure around what you can and cannot do with animals and pets in South Bethany ... you can’t keep a pet in a manner that creates noise or property damage or endangers the health or welfare of the community though odor, cleanliness, that sort of thing.”

“Our issue does not appear to be related to feral cats [this time]. It appears to be related to pet owners,” said Councilmember Carol Stevenson, who several years ago helped write South Bethany’s prohibition on feeding feral cats.

Many recent complaints have stemmed from pet waste on yards, cars and even boats, plus cats hissing and meowing late night.

“Our town has pretty good ordinances if a dog would do it, but if a cat does it — it’s not very strong,” said Police Chief Jason Lovins.

Importantly for the police, Lovins suggested changing the penalty from a criminal summons to a civil violation. This might sound less severe, but it would actually give officers more

room for enforcement. A criminal violation requires burden of proof, so officers must actually witness the cat’s transgression. But with civil violations, the police or the town’s code enforcement constable only need “a preponderance of evidence that someone saw cat, and feces were found” in order to write the citation. Violators would still have an official method for appeal, or for paying the fine.

Plus, if some kids accidently release a dog outside, “I think it’d be a little harsh for the police to come and issue a criminal summons and [them] to have a record on that,” Lovins said.

Delaware law already has pet license and registration rules. But the draft also enunciates that any pet cat which is allowed to run outdoors would be required to wear ID tags with owner contact info. (Dogs are still prohibited from running at large.)

The draft says that all pet owners are responsible for removing excrement from other people’s property for all pets (not just dogs).

The draft also imagines more “public nuisance” scenarios, such as when pets “damage the property of anyone other than its owner, including, but not limited to, turning over garbage containers or damaging gardens, flowers or vegetables, or defecating upon the property of another” or produce loud, untimely and excessive noise.

But several council members chafed at a proposal that “it shall be unlawful for any household to have more than four cats which are allowed to run at large outdoors,” suggesting that the number is not the Town’s business, unless their actions are disturbing neighbors.

“I can’t really expect my officers to be counting cats,” Lovins said.

“Mostly we’re getting complaints about defecating. I never got complaints on how many animals a person owns,” Chief Lovins concluded, after much town council discussion. He also requested clear language and procedures for if a cat is running loose — he’s not looking to send officers after a clawed animal in order to try reading its collar and tags.

“I don’t think anyone expects the police to act as animal control. They can respond to a call,” Abbot said, “but they’re not out actively patrolling for cats.”

Stevenson, who has worked on this ordinance in years past, took the time to thank local volunteers who pick up stray kittens for adoption and also maintains a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for feral cats in town.

The Charter & Ordinance Committee worked on draft revisions on Dec. 18, and Town Council will prepare for an official first reading in February.

Passion, but no action yet, on Cat Hill barricade

South Bethany’s westernmost neighborhood, Cat Hill, is often used as a shortcut for beach-bound traffic. For years, the Town has erected a summertime barricade, for three hours a morning, to prohibit all of Kent Avenue from entering the neighborhood at Black Gum Drive. This means everyone, including residents on those streets, must go the long way around.

Several times a year, various residents will propose a property owner “pass” to get around the barricade. But the answer is always “no.” The rules of the road must be applied equally to all drivers, or the road would be considered privatized, and the Town doesn’t want to risk losing state road funding (besides the traffic congestion caused by checking every driver or turning them around again).

Town Council has not announced any intention to change the barricade. But they recently heard two opposing arguments on the ever-controversial traffic-control measure.

“There is no action in place by town council on this item,” Mayor Tim Saxton said. “We are trying to be transparent and listen to the individuals” on all issues.

In October, Kent Stephan asked the Town to reduce the barricade schedule. He lives near the neighborhood on Anchorage Drive.

“The Town has no obligation to keep drivers from using the road simply because some people hate the traffic,” said Stephan.

He proposed reducing the barricade to just weekends and holidays (instead of daily) in summer. He also disputed whether previous decisions were made with all of the necessary data.

“Prohibiting owners from using one of the town’s roads requires some justification ... the council and the [ad hoc] Traffic Committee of four years ago never even explained why the barricade was a benefit to the town,” Stephan argued.

Councilmember Stevenson was willing to try Stephan’s suggestion of weekends and holidays. She had served on the Traffic Committee, and she remembered the property owners’ passion: “They were so afraid they were going to be hit by a car when they were walking ... we’ve done a lot for them. We’ve done the stripes. We’ve done the [speed] bumps, we have police there. ... Let’s try it. If we find out we have huge masses of people coming to town council meetings, yelling and screaming and ... we can revisit it. I think we ought to give it a whirl.”

But several Cat Hill residents had taken offense at being called “these people” throughout the October discussion.

“Why are these people crying about less than five minutes of inconvenience when it means safety for a whole heck of a lot of people?” snapped Bob Smith on Black Gum Drive, who supports the barricade.

“We’re very passionate about the barricade because it is a safety issue, not just a convenience issue ... We just have to say things a little louder because it seems like some people don’t listen,” said Teresa Hart on Black Gum Drive.

As his official response in December, Gil Geldon of Tamarack Drive said many Cat Hill residents want the barricade to remain. It provides a few hours of quiet and reduced traffic — rather than the residential neighborhood being a high-volume pass-through.

“We are part of South Bethany. We pay taxes and vote just like other South Bethany property owners. We are not outside agitators. We are very concerned about the safety of our families, neighbors and guests ... and you should as well,” Geldon said.

“The Town should not review every decision that was made in the past, unless circumstances have changed significantly,” said Geldon. Although the Route 26 construction is done, housing construction continues to boom west of town, with thousands of units expected over the next few years. All of those new residents will want to go to the beach. “The barricade needs to be in place when those volumes [arrive].”

Stephan responded by calling the neighborhood an “enclave of entitlement” and reiterated his desire for the barricade’s removal.

“There’s no official action started by the Town Council on the barricade,” Mayor Saxton reiterated afterward, but he said councilmembers are welcome to broach the topic if they wish to take further action this winter.

“People on Black Gum don’t want the cars going through, and the people in the rest of town don’t want the inconvenience, and never the twain shall meet,” so it’s up to Town Council to weigh the two, Councilmember Dick Oliver had mused.

In other South Bethany Town Council news:

• This past summer, bicycle racks were added or moved for the beachfront areas. Typically, police would just move improperly parked bikes to the nearest rack, when they were leaned against road signs or dropped on someone’s private property. This winter, the town council and the Charter & Ordinance Committee will consider a new $15 fee for bicycles that are improperly parked and confiscated to the police station (Town Code Chapter 94 Parking).

• After a through discussion, the council was not interested in South Bethany’s hosting and sponsoring a new “Artisan Walk” in conjunction with the Bethany Beach Arts Festival in September of 2021, organized by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.

• Town finances are doing comfortably for such an uncertain 2020. Income from realty transfer taxes has exceeded the budget, and everything else is about in line with what’s expected, said Treasurer Randy Bartholomew.

Town Council’s regular monthly meeting will be Friday, Feb. 12, at 10 a.m., conducted electronically.

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.