South Bethany hits the pause button on bulkhead talk

It took about 2.5 hours for the South Bethany Town Council to cover regular business at their meeting on July 10, when discussions ranged from zoning to law enforcement and touched more than briefly on the continuing controversy over FEMA flood plain designations.

After hiring an independent study of South Bethany’s flood plain maps, the council unanimously agreed last week to submit a list of follow-up questions to consultant Taylor Engineering.

“Today, we’re just talking about further communication,” Mayor Pat Voveris said, “just clarification on the report they gave us.”

Although Voveris got a verbal indication that a 10-foot base flood elevation (BFE) is unlikely to garner approval through the FEMA appeals process, council members said they wanted a few calculations.

For instance, if they got further analysis on waves overtopping the dunes, as recommended, what kind of results might they get? Also, they wanted an estimate on the cost associated with such studies or calculations.

Although the engineer was concerned about a conflict of interest because Taylor Engineering is also contracting with FEMA, Voveris said the company vice-president assured her that the report is valid and can be presented as evidence.

She was also confident that the company won’t display false confidence to encourage South Bethany to pay more to fight a hopeless cause.

“They are a very solid company, and they have instructed other companies on how to do this kind of work. They’re not ambulance-chasers … just to get a big bill. They want truth, and they want accuracy,” said Voveris.

Meanwhile, resident Kent Stephen said he was still frustrated after last fall, when he said, “the council stomped all over the ‘Sunshine Laws’” in its discussions regarding mandatory freeboard. The proposal was originally slipped into a FEMA-mandated zoning proposal, but ultimately voted down, to become optional for property owners.

“A wildly unpopular freeboard mandate … was not published in the agenda. The same mandate had already been voted down twice by the Sea Level Rise Committee, once by the Planning Commission and once by the council itself,” Stephen said.

Stephen alleged that “the FEMA document had not been made available to the public, so the law was broken on this basis.” Until the council officially votes to repeal the measure, he said, he sees that as setting precedent for future councils to skirt the government transparency laws.

He noted that the mayor had seen there was a breach of propriety and had even discussed the matter with the Delaware Attorney General’s Office.

“I was made aware that I could have taken action, and I saw no sense to … when the [issue] was corrected” and replaced with a voluntary freeboard option, Voveris answered.

“Nobody comes here with underhanded items. Nobody comes here intending damage,” she said of the council.

Later in the meeting, Councilman George Junkin reported that the Town is brainstorming some “low-hanging fruit” to earn points toward a community-wide discount on flood insurance. Mandatory freeboard for new construction alone is under consideration. But the Town would only get points if substantial repairs were included in the freeboard mandate.

“But I’m not ready to bring this to council. The community does not like mandatory anything,” so more education is needed, Junkin said. Meanwhile, “If we educate our community, we get points on [the Community Rating System].”

How much space?

After a zoning ordinance lost support from even the committee that had written it, the South Bethany Town Council voted this week to not approve a spacing requirement for houses.

Ordinance 179-15 stemmed from the code enforcement officer’s request for clarification of the minimum spacing between first-floor enclosure boards, such as lattice. These usually form the walls of otherwise open spaces used for storage, so as not to be counted as interior space and included in the houses’ floor-to-area ratio (FAR).

“Our recommendation to the council tonight is that you do not pass this ordinance,” said C&C Chairman John Fields.

The C&C’s Bob Cestone explained the background of FAR and lattice spacing, which was developed when he was on the council.

“When the council at that time was writing the ordinance, we were trying to limit the bulk of the house. Back then, the talk was of ‘McMansions.’” To be less restrictive, the council allowed people to enclose the bottom floor — as long as visible space remained between each slat — without it counting against the FAR. The goal was to reduce a house’s bulkiness.

“Unfortunately, we never really put the dimensions,” and a builder recently asked for a specific dimension, which the code enforcement officer couldn’t provide, since the council had never designated a minimum space.

Charter & Code members suggested .75-inch minimum spacing, but disagreed with the council’s eventual idea to reduce that to .25 inches.

“It looks like it’s solid — so what’s the point?” Cestone said of the smaller minimum. “That’s our take. You need some space in there to meet the original intent of the code.”

“To me, this feels that this has not been thought out enough,” said Voveris. “I think we all need to be educated on this before we do anything.”

Councilman Tim Saxton wanted to eliminate FAR altogether. He and Callaway said they wanted people to have storage space without others being able to see inside.

The council voted, 6-1, against the ordinance, which also included clarification of “substantial improvement” and “substantial damage.” Junkin gave the only vote in favor.

In other South Bethany news:

• Bulkhead issues were tabled after much discussion, as the council seeks more education on the topic. No one seconded a proposal to allow homeowners to build their bulkheads 1 foot higher than the adjacent road elevation.

The current code doesn’t allow people to build higher bulkheads than their neighbor, which has always been interpreted to be the same height, Junkin said. But bulkhead heights vary all over town, he reported.

“I believe we should allow a homeowner to raise his bulkhead to a reasonable height. Our committee picked 1 foot,” said Junkin, adding that higher bulkheads would allow a downward slope for stormwater to the road drains.

But Carol Stevenson suggested that the council just clarify overall alignment.

• Discussion was brief on a proposal to remove grandfathering for homeowners who currently pipe stormwater and outdoor shower drains into the canals.

“With our high-density population [roofs, roads and driveways], we’re close to 50 percent impervious surfaces,” which means a lot of unfiltered water flooding nutrients into the canals, Junkin said. He estimated that hundreds of drains still lead to the canals, although new construction is prohibited from doing it. Junkin noted that it would be unpopular, though the Canal Water Quality Committee wanted to “do what’s right.”

Although several property owners had questions, the entire conversation stopped when the motion failed to get a second.

After talking to code enforcement, Junkin confirmed that gutters cannot drain through new or substantially improved bulkheads.

“If you replace your bulkhead and you’ve got rainwater gutter running through it, you have to disconnect it, because it’s a substantial improvement to your bulkhead and you have holes in it,” Junkin said.

• Callaway noted that the Community Enhancement Committee had been reminded that “we’re not an HOA,” and there’s a difference between a poorly-cared-for property versus a code violation. A code-enforcement constable drives the town every day to review properties and construction. Meanwhile, people can submit anonymous complaints on the Town website, and he’ll investigate.

It’s a “contagious thing when people start fixing up their properties,” Callaway said.

• “The Assawoman Canal Trail is nearing completion just north of Route 26, and it’s coming our way,” Stevenson said of the trail, which will have restrooms, informational bulletin boards and a dedication by summer’s end. “It’s going to be an asset to our community as it comes toward us.”

• Grants are available for wetland restoration, Junkin reported, responding to a citizen’s question from May.

The State is coming in July to take a look and recommend action, since the Town’s Planning Commission said it’s not in their purview, said Voveris.

However, neither councilmembers nor the citizen who broached the topic are able to pursue the grants, lacking either interest or free time, Junkin said.

• When asked why not every property has to pay for fire hydrants, Town Manager Melvin Cusisk said, “We don’t own the water system. It belongs to Artesian [Water], and they have a hydrant … charge.”

However, some properties don’t contract with Artesian, so they could benefit in the event of a fire, despite not paying such a fee.

“I believe [Artesian] said it wasn’t worth their effort to go after people” who aren’t even in the database, since they don’t receive a bill, Cusick said.

“So you’re being a good neighbor,” said Voveris, who noted that she’s still on well water and has asked Artesian to report on how many other properties aren’t serviced by Artesian. “If you’re not a customer, they can’t bill you.”

The topic came up exactly one year after Cusick last reported the information.

• A resident said she hopes Town staff have the correct tools for responding to broken pipes. She said she got a $1,000 water bill after a pipe burst this winter. Although the Town responded to her house, the leak continued because the dispatched vehicle didn’t have the correct tool to shut off the valve.

• Megan Loulou was sworn in as an officer in the South Bethany Police Department. The new recruit had to be sworn in before she graduates the police academy this summer.

• An assault that occurred early Sunday morning appears to have been targeted, so people shouldn’t fear their neighborhood, said Police Chief Troy Crowson.

“We’re looking for help with it. There’s not a lot of information there,” Crowson said. “We’re not out to describe it. We’re trying to get information.”

• Teenage “June bugs” presented fewer problems than usual, Crowson said. One party even broke up before complaints were made, just because a patrol car drove by, he said.

• People are being encouraged to lock their bicycles when parking in public.

• Since the canal oxygen diffusers have not appeared to significantly improve water quality during the project’s testing phase, they will be removed and sold.

The Canal Water Quality Committee is contracting with University of Maryland to analyze water samples, since Delaware’s free testing was severely backlogged.

• The movie on the beach “Dolphin Tale 2” has been rescheduled for July 25 at 8:30 p.m. at South 3rd Street. The rental companies agreed to return at no additional cost, if the event is rescheduled within a month. The council allotted an additional $300 for additional supplies for that night.

• The treasurer’s report was adjusted so grants stand out more clearly from the regular budget. The first two months of the 2016 fiscal year have been “really, really good” for transfer tax, which has already hit 31 percent of its expected budget, Saxton said. Building permits are already bringing in big dollars, too. But property tax income is only showing at 66 percent because of a backlog in processing payments, which were due two weeks prior.

• After a “significant” algal bloom this spring, Cusick said the State did an “excellent job” cleaning the bloom, although it took some time for the algae harvester to actually arrive.

• A local pedestrian path must be widened to 8 feet if it is to legally become a shared pedestrian/bicycle path, said Crowson. It’s currently about 6 feet wide and would require an investment of signage and striping, too.

• South Bethany’s float won two awards at the Bethany Beach’s Fourth of July Parade: Best in Parade and Most Patriotic. Local musician Eric Tsavdar wrote a town song for South Bethany, which was played on the float.

The next town council workshop is Thursday, July 23, at 2 p.m.