Bethany moving ahead with South Atlantic Streetscape project

If nothing else, South Atlantic Avenue in Bethany Beach — the south end of the town’s easternmost north-south street, running along the beach block — is in need of repaving. And it’s due for that work, already scheduled to get some attention in the Town’s 2018 street paving plan.

But while they’re at it, the Town is now planning to take even better advantage of the down-time and money for that repaving project by doing a full Streetscape project there, aiming to improve drainage and the water mains, provide better access to pedestrian facilities and ensure better safety by re-engineering the roadway and its environs.

A key feature of the project is a multi-use path on the east side of the road that is separated from the parking and travel areas of the road. It will provide both room for pedestrians and a bicycle lane, behind the safety of a landscaped buffer of groundcover plants and with room for the doors of parked cars to be opened for ingress and egress without endangering pedestrians’ knees or cyclists’ balance.

There will be an additional sidewalk on the west side of the roadway for more pedestrians to walk along the roadway — which is something town officials hope people will do, rather than walking down the street, at risk from drivers, as is often the case today.

In addition to the path and repaving, the project involves paving the existing stone shoulders for improved use as parking. The elimination of the haphazard parking areas that exist there in favor of ordered spaces is expected to increase the number of parking spaces in the area by around 15 spaces — a side benefit of the layout, rather than an impetus for the project.

Additionally, the project will re-grade the roads to improve the flow of stormwater and redirect it to the vegetated areas, where it will better infiltrate the ground, rather than ponding and flooding.

At the May 19 town council meeting, engineers said the exact dimensions and locations of the Streetscape features were still under discussion, but the estimated cost of the project is $1.49 million, including the necessary relocation of some utility poles.

While town officials and engineers emphasized the safety improvements from the plan, the design drawings concerned resident Nancy Gray, who said she felt it would be even more difficult for residents of the east side of the street to safely back onto the roadway with the multi-use path and landscape buffer between their homes and the parked cars.

She particularly questioned the “beautification” elements of the drawings, which included flower boxes, as not only being unneeded but posing an additional challenge for drivers.

But Town Manager Cliff Graviet clarified that the drawings were only loosely representational and didn’t accurately reflect the details of that landscape buffer.

“Those plants — that area will be alongside car doors, and they will be essentially groundcover,” he explained. “They’re not there for aesthetic purposes but as a way to … help absorb the water and help us overcome some of the permitting issues” involved in the project, he said.

Graviet said he felt the change would provide more of an “open vista” for residents backing out of their driveways than it does now.

“You will have more of an opportunity to see pedestrians … than you do now. You will have a 9-foot and a 3-foot stretch to see people coming on both sides of the street. … Right now, there are no usable sidewalks, so the pedestrians and cyclists were in the street. Now they have a place to go that they didn’t before,” he said.

Engineers acknowledged that the resulting travel lanes may be a little narrower than they are now, “but not significantly,” and they emphasized that they will meet the existing standards for a travel lane.

Of the landscaping specifically, Graviet emphasized, “They’re not going to be planters. They’re going to be low-growth plantings, so you can open a car door and the door will go over it. We don’t want them opening their car doors into people.”

Councilman Jerry Morris noted that South Atlantic Avenue’s “deteriorating conditions” mean that it does require being repaved “as soon as practical.” The project, he said, presents improved safety, compliance with ADA regulations and enhanced drainage.

“Given the severity of these problems, it would seem ill-advised and poor use of municipal funds if we just repaved it without correcting the problems we have.”

The council unanimously approved the project on May 19, with construction to take place later this year. That will give the council time to consider whether the results make them want to expand the project to North Atlantic Avenue, which has even more residential properties.

“From my office’s perspective,” Graviet said, “we want to see how this proceeds and what the outcome is.” He said the council could review the project over the winter and consider how they want to proceed with North Atlantic after that.

“That part needs repairing, so it is something we need to consider very early on,” Mayor Jack Gordon said.

“I’m hoping that the South Atlantic project will be such an enhancement that people on North Atlantic will say, ‘We want that on our side.’ I hope it works out as everybody wants and we get all these families off the street … which always worries me,” said Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer.

Funding from the project will come from a combination of existing reserves, Municipal Street Aid funding from the State and the Town’s existing street-paving budget for the 2018 fiscal year. The capital reserves are at $5.17 million total, Morris noted, which is $1.527 million more than the recommended amount for the reserves and “more than enough to complete” the project. But rather than pull all of that money from the reserves, the Town will also use $107,000 in MSA funding and $100,000 from the paving budget.

Council members also unanimously approved the proposed funding on May 19.

Bethany helps fund additional firefighters

The council on May 19 also voted unanimously to provide some additional funding to the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company, to fund some paid firefighters for the summer. Citing changes in demographics and reduced volunteerism, the BBVFC has come to the town, and its neighbors in their fire district, for a second summer, asking for funding to ensure that there are enough qualified firefighters to answer the call during the busy summer season.

Last summer, Fenwick Island, South Bethany and Bethany Beach, along with Sea Colony, provided the requested $42,824 for four additional firefighters from May through August. Bethany’s per-capita share of that cost was $16,659. But Gordon said the BBVFC ended up not needing all of that funding, carrying over $10,188 for this year.

With “little additional progress made over the past year in finding a long-term solution” to the manpower issue, the fire company came back to the towns and Sea Colony this year, with a request for $28,556, including the carryover from last summer. The resulting $18,367.50 needed by the fire company is again being split according to the number of properties in each community. Bethany’s share is $7,181.

Gordon said they plan to continue work with the fire company on finding a solution to the manpower problem, but with public safety on the line “at our busiest time of year, that makes this a prudent course of action to take.”

Councilman Joe Healy asked whether the town had a financial statement from the fire company, saying that the “one piece of paper” he’d seen was “out of context” and that he would like to see how the funding tied into other financials.

Graviet noted that while the ambulance funding group reviews the related financial documents in great detail, they had not, that he was aware of, yet asked for financial data from the fire company.

“If we proceed down this course, I’m sure there will be a review of the fire company’s books in great detail,” he said.

He emphasized that of the 32 volunteer fire companies in Delaware, 31 of them are generally able to provide funding for both fire and ambulance service through donations, fees and state funding. The BBVFC, he said, takes all of that funding and puts it solely into the firefighting end of its operation, while the ambulance service is currently being funded solely by the three towns and Sea Colony.

“It’s the only one like that in the state,” he said. “As we move forward with the fire company, you need to keep that in mind.”

One member of the fire company pleaded with the council to “seriously consider the amount of money you’re talking about relative to the amount of public safety it affords,” noting the “logistics nightmare” of trying to deal with even a small fire during the busy summer months.

Dog ordinance updated for ADA

On May 19, the council also held a first reading of a change to its code regarding dogs, in an effort to make the code consistent with the ADA. The changes define “service animals” as per the ADA, which means it excludes non-canine service animals and so-called “comfort animals” from being exempted from leash laws and prohibitions for dogs on the beach, for example.

Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman noted that the “running at large” law in the town would now have a specific exemption for service animals to be without a leash or harness, so long as they are under control but only when a leash or harness would interfere with their duties as service animals.

She pointed out that Killmer had suggested additional explanation in the updated definition of a service animal, to explain that comfort dogs, while allowed on airplanes per the FAA, do not qualify for exemptions under ADA guidelines.

The new code also specifies that dogs performing functions for law enforcement or as service animals would not be included in the Town’s prohibition on dogs on the beach and boardwalk from May 15 to Sept. 30 each year.

The council also supported determining citizen interest in possibly annexing the Town’s Public Works maintenance yard and the Delaware National Guard training site directly north of existing town limits.

Gordon said he had broached the idea in January of 2016 and had received a positive response from the National Guard, but that he was told last spring that the Guard had not yet made a final decision.

More recently, the Town got an inquiry from the Delaware Attorney General’s Office as to the status of the idea. The Nation Guard has since expressed an interest in receiving a proposal on that front, Gordon said, adding that it “would be a somewhat extended and complicated process, involving staff time and legal costs.”

Also on May 19:

• Graviet reminded townsfolk that the town trolley is back to a single trolley route this summer. They have also introduced a trolley tracking system that can be pulled up on a computer or smartphone.

“People would spend a long time waiting for a trolley,” he said. “This should take care of that.”

The Town planned to send out a mailing in the coming week or so that will detail the new route and directions on how to access the tracking system, as well as information on bicycle safety, beach safety, the bandstand schedule and a book on storm preparedness.

He also reported that parking enforcement officers are using new handheld parking units this summer that give them immediate access to data from the ParkMobile parking payment system, as well as to snap a picture of a parking infraction when the see it and attach it to the ticket in the parking system.

Graviet also reported meeting with the Town’s engineering consultant on concerns about traffic volume and speeding. He said they were due back in the coming weeks to offer recommendations for improvements or a whether the issues need to be addressed at all.

• Graviet said a redundant aerator system and a new mini-aerator to be installed at the Town’s water plant are expected to bring the water PH in the system back to around its preferred 7.5 to 7.6 level, which is needed due to naturally occurring carbonic acid in the water. An aerator installed in 2008 recently failed, but Graviet said the redundant system has managed to keep the PH level around 7.3 to 7.5.

He said the Town will not re-contract with the company that installed the aerator, which had asked about $90,000 to make the repair, but would instead revisit the issue in the off-season to see if they can’t do the repairs in house, with a local contractor, given the investment it has already made in the aerator.

• Addressing an issue that’s been dragging around since this spring, Graviet said, wryly, “I can’t be certain, but I believe at some point in the near future, the Dinker Cottage will be moved.” Multiple delays have pushed back the historic home’s move to a nearby piece of Town property for use as a museum.