Bethany council to look at beach rules this week

Bethany Beach Town Council members will look at a series of proposed changes to the rules for the town’s beach this week, at their March council workshop, set for Tuesday, March 14, at 11 a.m. at town hall.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet said the potential new restrictions are being put forward by the Charter & Ordinance Review Committee (CORC), after their Feb. 24 review of Part III, Chapter 223 (Beach) of the town code. The possible restrictions to be considered by the council include:

• restrictions on the use of umbrellas, tents and other fixtures on the beach;

• a prohibition on the throwing of objects and playing of games on the beach; and

• a restriction on the playing of audio and video devices on the beach without the use of earbuds.

The council is also set to discuss a possible amendment to the town code to include requirements and rules regarding the use of service animals on the beach and boardwalk. (There is a prohibition on dogs on the beach and boardwalk between May 15 and Sept. 30, but that does not apply to service animals.)

The March 14 council workshop is set to include discussion of the potential ordinances, which is standard practice for the council for items brought forward from town committees. At the workshop meetings, they generally review the information offered by the committee, including any recommended ordinances, and consider whether council members wish to have the issue move forward for possible formal introduction at a future council meeting.

Issues the council decides it wants to introduce for a possible vote are generally introduced at the following month’s regular council meeting, which would mean formal discussion of any proposed changes likely wouldn’t take place until mid-April. Issues they decide not to move forward can be put on hold for more committee consideration or research and input from Town staff, or can be dropped entirely, if the council wishes.

Some of the potential beach regulations have been raised in the town previously, and current beach regulations call for, among other things:

• No ball-playing, tossing objects, kite-flying or fishing during lifeguard hours (enforced at lifeguards’ discretion);

• No alcoholic beverages or glass containers;

• No boats or vehicles on the beach;

• No digging large holes in sand; and

• No fires.

That’s in addition to the town’s smoking ban, which covers its beaches, boardwalk, bandstand and parks, except for designated smoking areas.

The move for possible new regulations for the beach in Bethany comes directly on the heels of Rehoboth Beach commissioners introducing an ordinance that would ban canopies and tents on their beach (except for small canopies for babies) and would also ban umbrellas larger than 7.5 feet — all in an effort to reduce obstructions to lifeguards’ views and beachgoers’ mobility and eliminate “tent cities” that can be created when larger groups put multiple canopies or tents together.

That ordinance will be up for a vote in Rehoboth on March 17.

In Bethany, Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer said this week that he was in the process of getting background information on the committee’s suggestions, including whether the activities and items in the proposed prohibitions are a real problem for the town.

“Last year, there were questions about people putting up … big canopies,” he noted. “They were worried about their location on the beach blocking the potential view of lifeguard stands seeing people. But the people on the lifeguard stands say it’s not an issue — they’re always behind them — and the issue kind of disappeared.”

Graviet said he couldn’t recall any complaints to his office about tents or umbrellas, loud radios or “boom boxes” in the past few years, nor was there any record of such complaints having been made.

“Regarding ball playing and games — over a summer, generally one or two complaints will be called to my office, and we work with our guard captain, Joe Donnelly, to resolve them in the most positive way that we can,” he said.

CORC suggests new beach rules

Back on Feb. 24, Councilwoman and CORC Chair Rosemary Hardiman had said the request to consider the beach rules had come from Mayor Jack Gordon, following up on the tents issue from 2015.

“We were going to do something about it. We were looking at it from the idea that it was impeding the visibility of the lifeguards,” she said in February. “But the lifeguards said they didn’t have a problem and if they had a problem, they would ask people to move.

“It has become more problematic, in terms of safety,” Hardiman explained last month of the issue’s revival, “and people have been asking, since the beach is narrow, ‘Are you going to do something about it?’”

Hardiman said the Rehoboth ordinance was more extensive than what Bethany might be considering, prohibiting any kind of fixture on the beach, ranging from tents and umbrellas to fires, grills and portable toilets.

“But I think they’ve had more of a problem with that type of thing than we have,” she said. “I have seen more people changing at the footwash,” she added, “but I haven’t seen anything on the beach.”

As to tents and umbrellas, CORC members said they were concerned about the dangers of blown items, which can include sharp or pointed elements that could cause serious injury. They pointed to cheaper, lighter umbrellas that might be purchased for a weekend visit but would more easily blow away than a sturdier umbrella, such as those available to rent from Steen’s Beach Service.

The potential to impede lifeguards’ view of beachgoers was also a concern, but committee members also focused on the space taken up by tents behind the lifeguards and the resulting aesthetics — as they said tents on the beach can leave those behind them unable to even see the ocean, as well as potentially impeding access to areas of the beach.

Committee members found a consensus in February to recommend to the town council that Bethany follow suit behind Rehoboth, and that tents and canopies be prohibited on the beach, with the exception of “baby tents” with a maximum dimension of 36 inches in any direction.

“It’s common courtesy,” said Councilman Chuck Peterson. “You don’t need two-thirds of the beach for your family.”

They also favored the same dimensional limits for umbrellas that Rehoboth has proposed: 8 feet in diameter maximum and no more than 7.5 feet tall — the size of a typical commercial/rental umbrella. And none would be permitted to be placed where they would interfere with the view of lifeguards or their ability to exit their stands.

Committee members said they wanted to get information on any such restrictions out as quickly as possible, so as to warn local retailers that the items they may want to sell to beachgoers may no longer be permitted for use on the town’s beach.

An exception to the rule prohibiting tents would be for events with a permit from the town, such as a beach wedding, but the Bethany committee members favored specifying that the ability to set up a tent would extend for only as long as the permit applied.

Staking out beach territory could be thing of the past

Looking to address the time at which umbrellas should be removed from the beach daily, committee members identified an issue they said was causing problems in Bethany, even though it hadn’t been addressed in Rehoboth’s ordinance: people setting up groups of chairs, tents and/or umbrellas early in the morning and leaving them unattended for hours at a time.

Peterson said he objected to people staking out areas of the beach, leaving their items early in the day and not coming back to use the beach until much later. If people are going to leave their beach items unattended, he said, they should be considered abandoned.

“If they’re gone for an hour or two, they’re gone,” he suggested. “You can’t stake it out and own this — it’s a public beach.”

One committee member questioned whether the hour time period was too short, noting that people might be in the ocean for more than an hour at a time and leave no one with their items.

“The ones we’re talking about really stand out,” Peterson said, pointing to the presence of empty chairs and umbrellas at such encampments.

Others may bring the items down in the morning before later returning with a handicapped family member, the committee member noted, and they might need more time than an hour to do that or for the handicapped person to take a break for lunch or to use the restroom.

“Why do you have a right to that spot and I don’t?” Peterson replied. “You’re deciding it’s yours.”

“I think we’re more after people who set up five or 10 chairs,” Hardiman noted, with the committee finding some consensus that after more than an hour unattended, items should be considered abandoned.

In fact, committee members had said they were less concerned about exactly what hours the items weren’t permitted to be on the beach, such as 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., than they were about how long they were left attended.

“If [the owners are] on the beach, I’m not sure it’s a problem,” Peterson said of umbrellas on the beach late into the evening.

“This is no different from people parking their cars near the beach for the season,” he added, referencing the Town’s move two years ago to prohibit people using cars for storage after complaints that people were parking long-term near the beach and just using the vehicles to hold daily beach needs.

The committee found a consensus to submit the suggestion for an hour limit on unattended beach items to the council, as well as to continue to enforce the existing permitted hours of use for the beach.

Not so fast, slugger

Regarding games and ball-playing on the beach, committee members said they felt the existing rules weren’t being enforced strictly enough. Currently, restrictions on such activities are at the discretion of the lifeguards. If they feel the activity is safe in the current condition and location, they can allow it, rather than stepping in to enforce the rules.

In Rehoboth Beach, such rules are mandatory and are supposed to be enforced, regardless of conditions.

Committee members said their concerns were particularly strong at times like now, when the beach is particularly narrow, and focused particularly on areas where the beach is especially narrow, such as in front of the boardwalk, and at times like high tide, when it is even further restricted in size.

They recommended the council consider banning all games and ball-playing east of the boardwalk, between the boardwalk and the ocean, with the other areas of town beach being areas where lifeguard discretion would continue to apply.

Additionally, they voiced concerns about the types of balls and other toys that are being used — particularly the dangers of hard balls, such as lacrosse balls, and items such as flying discs. They also voiced concerns about putting lifeguards in the position of having to stop play under their discretion, rather than providing concrete rules for what is permitted.

They suggested that banning any type of ball, toy or play that involved a hard-surfaced item or where protective gear was required for the sport (or should be) be considered by the council.

And, in regards to enforcement, rather than having lifeguards potentially taking their attention away from the shoreline, they agreed to suggest to the council that two enforcement officers be assigned to patrol along the beach to enforce such rules.

Music sharers, ‘comfort dogs’ get no love

CORC members have also suggested that the council consider banning the playing of audio from phones, radios and other devices on the beach without the use of earphones. Hardiman noted that the problem of people blasting their “boom boxes” had disappeared for a while but had recently re-surfaced with the increasing popularity of plug-in portable speakers for cell phones and other devices.

“They can be pretty loud,” she said.

Hardiman said another issue that had come up regarding the beach and boardwalk rules was related to rules about dogs on the beach — particularly as applies to dogs aiding people with disabilities.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that service animals be provided with access to areas where pets would otherwise not be permitted, the issue of “comfort” or “emotional support” animals is not addressed in that law.

“There are no ‘comfort dogs,’” Peterson said during the Feb. 24 discussion. “That’s an FAA rule, not an ADA rule.”

The FAA, in fact, specifically includes emotional support animals in its definition of “service animal” and notes that such animals need not be specially trained for that role, though the agency does suggest that documentation of the medical need for the use can be requested if airline employees question whether the animal is truly a service animal.

Under the ADA, a service animal is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.”

No animals other than dogs meet the ADA definition for “service animal.”

The ADA specifies that a “psychiatric service dog” is “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches or turning on lights for persons with post-traumatic stress disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.”

Committee members agreed to recommend that town code regarding service animals that are permitted additional access be changed to comply with the ADA definition of “service animal.”

The March 14 council workshop is also set to include discussion of scheduling a public hearing regarding the opening of a Town-owned alley for pedestrian access behind properties on the 200 block of Central Boulevard.

“We had a citizen request that an unopened alley be opened,” Graviet explained. “We had the area surveyed. We will be asking the council if they would like to pursue this issue and how they would like to proceed.”