Bethany Beach accepts donation of historic cottage

The Bethany Beach Town Council this week voted unanimously to accept the donation of the turn-of-the-20th-century cottage built by one of its founders, with plans to move the historic structure to Town-owned land on the undeveloped Maryland Avenue Extended.

The move did not come without controversy, as a group of neighbors of the parcel where the house is to be converted into a town museum continued to offer their objections to its conversion from an open green space their families have used as a sort of communal back yard for decades.

Due to the anticipated high turnout for the council discussion and vote, the council limited speakers on the subject to three minutes per person.

While most speakers agreed that the cottage would be a beneficial acquisition for the Town, the eventual location of the structure remained a point of disagreement.

Opinions ranged from the strong opposition of the neighbors to the Maryland Avenue site, to those urging compromise (and perhaps a third choice for a location) and, finally, those supporting the Maryland Avenue location and even expressing dismay that the Town had maintained the property as what they viewed as a semi-private park used almost exclusively by the neighbors.

To begin the discussion, Town Manager Cliff Graviet reviewed the history of the 1903 cottage, which has been in the family of owner Christina Edgar for 85 years but is to be moved to clear the way for redevelopment of the Garfield Parkway Extended lot it has sat on since the 1920s.

Its historic connections to the town include not only that long-lived presence but its origins as the only one of four essentially identical homes, built by four of the six men who helped found the town beyond its birth as a religious retreat around 1900, that is still standing. It also served as the town’s post office for about two years, back in the 1920s.

“If you want to talk about a window into Bethany Beach history, this cottage is certainly that,” Graviet said, noting its “unique and priceless record” with Edgar’s family, the photos of it and the family’s recollections of it through the decades.

With the cottage having been for sale for several months, Graviet said, Cultural & Historical Affairs Committee Chairwoman Carol Olmstead and the committee had begun a dialogue with Edgar and her husband, Clem, about its value and a way for the Town to acquire it, as well as, eventually, what mechanism might be used to make that happen.

Graviet said the Edgars had made a list of items they wanted to see done if they donated the house, including the Town absorbing all of the costs of moving the structure and restoring the lot and providing a letter of donation for tax purposes.

Another item on that list, which was mentioned at the November 2015 council workshop at which the donation was first formally discussed by the council, was the partitioning of the lot upon which the house sits, which the Edgars want to redevelop as two lots with lot lines similar to those they would have originally had in the 1920s.

That list item was another element of controversy surrounding the donation, as it was interpreted by some as a pre-requisite for the Edgars donating the house.

“This has been a learning experience for all involved,” Graviet acknowledged on Jan. 15. “I want to be clear regarding what the Town can and cannot do, and what it can’t or won’t do. The Edgars have a keen desire to see their cottage preserved. They are giving it to the Town whether the land is partitioned or not.”

Conditioning the donation on the partitioning of the land would be “highly illegal” contract zoning, argued attorney Robert Witsil, who represents some of the Maryland Avenue Extended-area property owners who oppose the location and spoke on their behalf in extended comments last Friday.

Edgar had addressed that issue as the first speaker during the public comment period.

“There never has been an agreement with the Town,” she asserted, saying the items on the note “flushed out of a file” by the opponents under the Freedom of Information Act had been a “wishlist” of sorts, of items they had wanted addressed in an agreement with the Town but that, to date, there had never been any agreement, formal or otherwise, between the Edgars and the Town.

“The partitioning of the double lot will be decided by the Planning Commission, not the Town Council, and will be judged on its own merits, not a request of ours,” she said, a day ahead of when the commissioners were set to hear the request for partitioning. She also denied that a real estate agent involved in the process had ever asked for a commission, stating instead that any possible commission would be refused.

Cost for move, update could top $100,000

Graviet said the Edgars had asked the council to facilitate the funding of all costs associated with the moving of the cottage, the removal of the remaining structure on the lot and a letter of donation based on the appraisal of the property.

“There is no time stricture on its removal,” he emphasized. “They are asking that it be removed as soon as practicable.”

Graviet pointed to the precedent of the donation of the Addy 3 cottage in recent years, as well as the letter of donation provided to the owner of a portion of the Loop Canal and Salt Pond when they were donated to the Town, both based on appraisals provided by licensed appraisers hired by the owners.

“The Town has not been so bold as to question the value provided by licensed appraisers,” he added, before recommending to the council that the Town agree to the Edgars’ three requests. He said the removal would be done with the aid of Town staff, at a time of year when other work cannot be done, and he reported that a home inspection by a licensed professional had yielded a positive report on the cottage, as well as no concerns from an exterminator.

As far as other costs, Graviet pointed out that his initial estimate of the project had only included actually moving the home and possibly updating it with an HVAC system.

“Since that time,” he said, he had gotten quotes from vendors on updating different areas of the house, “so if it is moved and completed, it would be very updated.” Those cost estimates included $5,000 to establish electrical service and rewire the home, $10,000 for the HVAC, $4,000 to re-brace floor joists and re-tie attic joists, $3,000 to build an ADA-compliant ramp to the rear of the cottage, $4,000 in engineering costs to move an existing sewer line and another $17,000 to actually move the sewer line.

Graviet emphasized that costs could change, particularly as related to the ADA accommodations, which might be reduced or eliminated if CHAC successfully applies for historic status for the home. ADA compliance might require the Town to widen doorways, retrofit a bathroom and make the downstairs accessible.

In all, the initial estimates total about $56,000 in initial financial obligation for the Town, which Graviet noted already had that funding available in the contingency line of its current budget. He added that CHAC had already volunteered to pay the estimated $46,000 in moving costs from its own funds, which have, in part, been garnered from its annual summer craft show.

The total cost estimate for the move and updates is $102,000, Graviet said. Its future operational costs would depend on how the structure is used, he noted.

“CHAC sees the home as a museum or as an extension of the museum at town hall, presented as a historic home telling the story of Bethany Beach through the decades,” he explained. With volunteer docents, such a museum could cost $8,000 to $10,000 per year to operate, whereas paid staff might cost an additional $15,000 per year, based on similar costs at the Town’s Nature Center, which resides in the relocated former Addy 3, which was also donated but required much more extensive renovation.

Maryland Avenue location recommended

Moving on to the more controversial of the two issues up for a vote last Friday, Graviet formally recommended to the council that the cottage, if accepted as a donation, be moved to the undeveloped parcel on Maryland Avenue Extended.

“It’s very close to town hall and downtown Bethany,” he said, “very accessible to walk and bike downtown, visible to tourists and motorists who drive through the intersection” of Routes 1 and 26. He added that the location would situate the house as if it was part of a Bethany Beach neighborhood and “present it as it has been for decades, just a few feet to the west.”

In fact, he said CHAC had asked if the house could be moved farther north and closer to the street than initially proposed, to better match the typical layout of the town’s residential streets. That would involve reducing the proposed parking in front of the structure, he noted.

While some had suggested the Dinker Cottage be moved to the existing Nature Center property, to create a cluster of historic homes, Graviet noted that the restrictions on the grant given the Town for the Nature Center would prohibit that.

The other proposed location — the park being developed on the former Christian Church/Neff properties at Routes 1 and 26 — was not recommended by Graviet, as he noted he had been directed by the council in the past that the park was to “remain open and natural and devoid of structure,” and that any “enhancements impact it only in a natural, minimal way.”

If he had interpreted those instructions incorrectly, he said, “I’m sure the council will inform me.” But he said that, as a result, the only site he could recommend for the cottage was the Maryland Avenue property.

Recognizing the opposition from the neighbors of that parcel, Graviet said he had sent them a letter, telling them the Town would do all it could to zminimize the impact of the move, with no public access to the property after hours, and with access gated and closed when the building was not open, as is already the case at the Nature Center.

He said the move “might result in one pine tree being taken down,” but that the Town would be planting flower beds and other landscaping around the parcel that it would maintain, as well as planting and maintaining any natural buffers requested by the neighbors. He said the structure, with its historic importance, could and would be maintained in such a way as to be an enhancement to the neighborhood.

Town Solicitor Max Walton noted that a defunct company had previously owned the parcel before it was deeded to the Town in 1987 and that it was zoned as MORE (Municipal, Open Space, Recreational & Educational) and that a museum would be an allowed educational use.

Walton said he believed the Town would not need to “vacate” or “abandon” the once-planned continuation of Maryland Avenue to proceed with the project, as “abandonment” would mean it would be surrendering title and jurisdiction over the property and the planned use wouldn’t meet the definition of vacation under state code.

He did recommend the council use a process established in Section 18 of the town charter, related to its dominion over its alleys and streets, to approve the relocation, citing a desire to ensure the process was clear. He emphasized that the new use for the “paper street” wouldn’t involve a denial of access to the neighboring properties, nor would it be a “taking,” which would involve denying all or economically all viable use of their land or a reasonable expectation of use.

Supporters, opponents aim to sway council

Neighbor Phillip Feliciano was the first opponent to address the council on July 15. Having referenced the “sale” of the cottage to the Town, he was quickly questioned by Mayor Jack Gordon about the term.

“I know we’re not supposed to debate, but [the Edgars’ requests] are a consideration, which is part of a contract,” he replied.

Feliciano continued by saying that the Town’s planning map referenced the Maryland Avenue Extended lot as being “open space” and that the future land-use plan identified it as a park. He further argued that, despite Graviet’s estimates of costs, “You don’t have that until all the engineering is done,” he said, asking for his remaining FOIA requests from the Town to be fulfilled.

Molly Feliciano said she and the other opponents were very concerned about the proposed move.

“It’s the natural beauty that brings the tourists that support this town,” she said. “We’re not a concrete beach town. That’s why they come — not necessarily for all the educational activities. The green space is essential to that also. It draws residents and visitors to that area from all around Bethany. Hundreds of people per week use that space — more than I believe will visit a museum.”

Neighbor Joe Tropea referenced a petition that he said contained more than 100 names of people who had said they were opposed to the location, saying that it might seem like the only people who were opposed to it were the neighbors, but that the addresses listed on the petition included even streets he hadn’t known existed in the town.

That number was one he said he thought was “pretty good, considering that this is the slow season here. We had to contact people in Florida, South Carolina, who we have asked — some of them have signed, some have not.”

Narda Namro told the council that her back yard backs up to the lot.

“We have enjoyed this grassy strip for a long time. We want to keep it green. We want to see everyone enjoy it,” she said, adding that she loved the Edgars and the Dinker Cottage, and that she thought moving it and making it a museum was a good idea.

“It’s just very hard to understand how to accept something when you feel like it’s wedged in your back yard,” she said, noting that her office is in her home and that she expected her dogs will bark at people coming to the museum, as well as it adding noise pollution for her children.

Tony Namro said that, with his background in construction, he thought anyone who thought the project would happen for the kind of costs estimated was “dreaming.” “The sewer line alone is going to cost that,” he said, adding that he was also skeptical of the projection of only one pine tree needing to be removed. “That whole area will be gone. … It’s going to butt up against my house, my neighbor’s house.”

He said an appraiser had already told him that “the devaluation of our homes is significant.” “If you stuff that back there, it will look like an apartment complex.” On the former Church/Neff park property, he said, the 1,200-square-foot cottage “will take up 1 percent, and people will see it.”

Their daughter Rachel described the parcel as a place “where we love to play with family, friends and our dogs. ... It becomes almost like our back yard.”

“I’m worried if you put a parking lot there, we will always have to watch out for cars. There will be lots of noise with cars coming in and out, so our dogs will bark a lot. If I could wish for one thing today, I would wish we could all make this work for everyone so we don’t lose our favorite place to play.”

Resident and CHAC member Theo Loppatto said that, speaking as a concerned citizen, “I feel strongly that the Town should not let this rare opportunity to accept and preserve a piece of the town’s history slip by.”

She referenced the Dinker Cottage’s presence in the town’s comprehensive plan, where it is cited as one of only 12 properties of the 141 in the town that had not been substantially renovated, demolished or added to. “So, shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity and use this piece of history to teach the broader history of our town.”

Loppatto said she felt the Maryland Avenue location was a good one for a town museum, offering accessibility, visibility and safety.

“With the property signage, proper exposure, it will get visited. The museum will be seen and utilized and easily accessible on foot and bike. This is a location that provides safety of access because of the two traffic lights. ... It would add, not detract, in that location,” she said.

Part-time resident Jane North said, “That small sliver of green space on Maryland Avenue is a godsend to my family, my four children. Not everyone comes down to Bethany to go down to those overcrowded beaches,” she added, noting that, for her autistic son, “going down to the beach is like a nightmare to him, with all of the noise and people. For him to have that small sliver of green space, that quiet space to walk in and reflect in, and to know he’s safe back in there…

“Are you saying all the children who play in that field should have to cross that busy intersection to have access to that green space?” she asked regarding the unofficially named “Central Park.”

She went on to criticize what she said was “the way in which these hearings were thrown together so quickly at a time of year when so many people are not here,” and that, after driving six hours to get to the meeting, she had only been permitted three minutes to speak. She suggested the cottage should be moved to the park property.

Alternative ideas suggested

Resident John Schmidtlein said that he agreed about the negative impacts on the neighbors, but he suggested a third solution — that the Town accept the donation of the cottage and then purchase the land upon which it sits, and eventually open the house as a museum on the same property it has been on for most of a century.

He was joined by resident Bill Zeigler in suggesting the Town put even more money into such a museum. “It is tremendously historic, as is the area it’s located in, and it needs to be located in an area like that. I think the costs very low. If you doubled them, it would be a bargain.”

But Zeigler disputed the impact on Maryland Avenue Extended.

“I think the traffic is being horribly overestimated in terms of threats and children’s safety. It’s a very quiet street and will remain quiet,” he said, noting what he had observed as minimal traffic at the Nature Center. “We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to preserve this home. … The costs are reasonable, and the location is acceptable.”

Resident Margaret Young, who was a member of the former Bethany Beach Historical Society, as well as CHAC, made an impassioned appeal to accept the donation of the cottage.

“We are being offered a wonderful gift. There could be no more appropriate use than as a museum, as the house itself is an artifact,” she said. “The cost of moving it — $46,000 — is already being funded by CHAC. And if the Town does not accept it, it would most certainly be demolished, and that would be a tragedy.”

George Watson was the first of several speakers to object to the idea that the Town has been maintaining the lot for the limited number of people who have used it as a park.

“I live just past where it would be put, and I was unaware that this was other than privately-owned property,” he said. “I was shocked to discover that the residents of the community there objected on two occasions to having park benches put on this public land, which I could well use as I struggle to walk that short distance.” (A previous proposal would have added passive exercise equipment to the property, but it was also strongly opposed by neighbors and did not move forward.)

“I’m really displeased to have taxpayer money support something that is, in effect, a nice park for the adjoining owners and their friends. I was not aware my grandkids could come and play ball there. I don’t feel they’d be particularly welcome, so I resent that part,” he said.

Former NPR radio host Liane Hansen, who moved to the town full-time five years ago but has long been renting in the area for the summer, said she, too, had been unaware that the property belonged to anyone but the neighboring homeowners. She also declared herself a longtime fan of the Dinker Cottage.

“I fell in love with the house before I fell in love with the place,” she said of Bethany Beach. “That house was the Dinker Cottage.”

Having gotten her tour guide certification last summer, she said, “On my own I decided I wanted to do an audio tour of historic houses in Bethany Beach, such as Journey’s End. When I found out the Dinker House was being offered as gift to the Town, I was amazed.

“And when I heard it might be turned into a museum where you could have a lot more than you have here,” she said of the museum area in the town hall lobby, “where people could go when it rained, when it sunny… Visitors are fascinated by the history of the town. I’m totally in favor of accepting donation of the Dinker Cottage, and I think Maryland Avenue Extended would be the perfect place to put it.”

Resident Henry Rodeski lamented the loss of so many of the town’s cottages over the years. “We’re losing our identity. What a great opportunity to preserve one of these cottages. Most of them are going to be gone, but this one I don’t want to see go. And I think Maryland Avenue is a wonderful location.”

Patrick McGuire said he not only favored the Town putting the cottage on that parcel but felt they should take the opportunity to create additional parking for town employees and employees of local businesses across the remainder of the lot.

Resident Joy Knox said she was one of those who refused to sign the petition against the location. “There was no objection to a museum from the residents I spoke to. Some residents are going to object to anything put on the property. If kids want to play, they have acres across the street.”

Resident Claudia Dieste acknowledged that she has a vested interest in the property, which she called “The Greens.” “It’s not about sharing it. I would be delighted to share it with you. The Greens have been there way before I was a child. It is the homes and the communities and the families that have grown up around it. … It’s something that I don’t want to have to be punished for, that we get to enjoy it.”

“We have an amazing park,” she added of Central Park. “The vision that I see for that park is anchored by this cottage.”

Resident Claudia McClenny said, “I can empathize with people on Maryland Avenue having to maybe give up your green space, but the Town did previously plan to put a playground there, and you all turned that down.

“I pray that you all will decide to do this,” she told the council. “I think it will be a welcoming sight for our town.”

Opponents’ attorney offers Town legal advice

Witsil, who represents neighboring property owner and location owner Robert Cohen, was extended five minutes to speak, but began his comments to the council by “strenuously” objecting to the three-minute time limit and stating that he felt the Town was violating due process with the proceedings.

“Despite what was said about a preliminary agreement, [the Edgars’ note] is smoking-gun evidence of contract zoning, which is highly illegal,” he asserted to the council.

“The preliminary agreement presented to you by the Edgars that states approval of the partitioning by the Planning Commission as a condition to their donation is highly illegal. I don’t know how you erase that now, except to re-begin consideration entirely,” he said.

Witsil further argued that the estimated costs exceeding $45,000 would require the Town to enter into a competitive bidding process for the project, with state minimum wage rates in place, which he said would “increase the amount of the contract significantly.”

He also said he disagreed with Walton on the issue of the need for the Town to officially abandon or vacate the paper street.

“It is platted and is identified as open space. I think you have to go to Superior Court,” he said, which might be a several-month-long process. He also said he believes the Town needs to amend its comprehensive plan, which references that current parks and open space areas were expected to be maintained intact.

“That’s not what’s happening here,” he argued, stating that he felt new ordinances would need to be drafted and public hearings held to update the comprehensive plan.

Council cites historic value, setting

With the conclusion of public comments, the council began their own comments specifically on the topic of accepting the donation of the house, with Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer stating that, “For any community to be considered successful … it needs to not only focus on the future but on protecting and preserving the past. The … town’s historic charm makes that town a very family-friendly vacation destination.

“In many ways, Bethany Beach’s past is very instrumental to its nature,” he said, agreeing that accepting the cottage was important for the reasons Graviet had pointed out. “The house’s history and architectural charm will allow historical artifacts that have never been seen before to be seen by the public. It will be a venue for events. … I have a feeling that not to accept the donation would result in the loss of a very important part of the town’s history.” Councilman Chuck Peterson said he agreed.

Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman noted that she’d taken a tour of the house and found it to be not only an historic treasure. “One of the things, for me, is it is in such good condition. I was asked if we were going to accept all of these all the time. No. This house is very special and has a very special place in our history. The inspector said it is in amazingly good shape for a house its age.

“The cost of ensuring that it is safe and open to public, I feel, is very reasonable,” she said before reiterating Young’s comment. “We would be housing the town’s history in a place that is itself an artifact.”

Councilman Joseph Healy said he thought accepting the donation and placing the cottage on Maryland Avenue Extended “helps us retain our rich history.” He added that the new Ocean Suites hotel “shows where we headed in the future. This helps us retain that rich history of what we have. There has to be a synergy between the two, and I think this brings that together.”

Councilman Bruce Frye said most of those he had spoken to thought it would be good to preserve the house and use it to showcase the town’s history, and that he supported accepting it.

Councilman Jerry Morris said, “I think it would be a tragedy … for us to give it up, since it is a part of our history and all of your history. We are losing more and more, and slowly but surely, we will turn into Ocean City if we don’t watch out.”

Gordon noted that “the Edgars can do whatever they want with that property,” including selling it. “I can’t imagine anyone else wants that house,” he said. “Our accepting that house as a gracious donation is something that the Town should do.”

The council then voted unanimously, 7-0, to accept the donation.

Walton again cautioned the council to follow the process in Section 18 of the charter in approving moving the house to Maryland Avenue Extended, stating that it should be understood that a council vote to move it there was subject to the approval of an agreement per that process.

Killmer noted, “We’re basically down to two possible locations — Maryland Avenue or the park. “The plans for the town park have already involved a number of public hearings and townwide surveys … in the planning stages. People wanted a simple design, no structures, which would prohibit placing this anywhere on that property.”

He also said access to the house would be difficult if it was placed on the park property, while the Maryland Avenue Extended property was large enough to be subdivided into four single-family building lots, “So, it’s obviously big enough to accommodate the cottage and can easily accommodate 12 parking spots for visitors.”

In addition, he said, there are no sidewalks on the north side of Route 26, which means people already walk on the south side of the road, and that it would thus be an ideal place for people to visit the cottage by foot or bike, as well as being close to the house’s existing location.

Peterson said the location was the hardest part of the decision and that he had received “a great deal of input.” While moving the house to Central Park was an option, he said, “At least six times, the idea of any construction on Central Park has been defeated. At some point in time, we’ve got to accept the public’s decision when they said no buildings in the park.”

He said the input he had received had fallen into three categories: (1) people who wanted no change and to maintain things as they stand on the property; (2) just about as many people “irate that their tax dollars were going to pay for ownership of this green space and maintaining the property in its current state, and who wanted to find better uses for it or for the Town to sell it to developers”; or — the largest in number — those who favored accepting the house and moving it to Maryland Avenue Extended. He said he agreed with that last group.

Hardiman noted that some had argued to her that, if people had known the Dinker Cottage might be donated to the Town in the future, the park location might have been supported during discussion of the plan for the park. But, she said, the 2013 survey had been clear about most people opposing structures on the park property, and a Bethany Beach Landowners Association survey had been more specific in posing the idea of an enclosed structure with HVAC and had received a negative response to that idea.

“I’m very empathetic with the people on Maryland Avenue. All of us have had green space next to us over the years that has been developed. It will fit in there. It will be in a setting that it’s accustomed to. … The comprehensive plan envisioned that that area would be developed,” she added, in recommending the house be moved to Maryland Avenue. Healy said he, too, agreed.

Frye said, “I wish there was a third option, but there is not. This is for the greater good of the entire town. I hope those affected will take some comfort that there is a large park across the street that will soon become even nicer.”

Morris again noted how many houses had been demolished in the town over the years. “There’s enough room there to put four houses, and we’re only talking about one of them. This way, we’re saving the history of the town.”

Gordon said, “I think the park has gone far enough down the line with our planning and all, that we would have to go out with another survey, and I have a feeling the neighbors where the house would be put on the park would be in the same position. With the only two options we have, I feel Maryland Avenue is the only appropriate location for the Dinker Cottage.”

The council then voted unanimously, 7-0, to approve the move to Maryland Avenue Extended. Graviet had previously set in motion the earliest preparations for making the site ready for the cottage so that the work could be done this winter and spring.