Fenwick makes changes to yard waste service, retains council

As Fenwick Island prepares to start its new fiscal year on Aug. 1, some things are changing, while others will remain the same.

One thing that won’t change is the makeup of the town council, as only incumbents Diane Tingle, Gardner Bunting and Bill Weistling Jr. filed to run in the council election for 2014. That means the planned Aug. 2 election has been canceled, with four seats up for election in 2015. New voters can continue to register with the Town, since there is no election cutoff looming.

Perhaps the biggest change Fenwick Islanders will see in the coming year is in who is collecting their yard waste. Starting July 17, it won’t be a contractor who gathers up leaves, grass clippings and broken branches once a month — it will be the Town’s Public Works Department.

Town Manager Merritt Burke told the council at their June 27 meeting that the basics of the yard-waste service are going to remain the same. It will still be picked up once a month through the summer (five months in all, followed by a hiatus until spring), using the same rules for packaging up the waste that have been in place.

“We hope to offer better customer service than the private sector,” Burke noted. “We’ll look to exceed expectations while saving the Town money.”

Public Works Supervisor Bryan Reed noted that some property owners and residents have had problems complying with the yard-waste rules, including 10 who had recently been notified by the Town that they’d violated one or more elements of those rules.

“We’ll explain the problem if they’re home, or we’ll leave a note on the door or in the mailbox if they’re not,” Reed said of the low-key treatment of first-time violators. “We tell them we will pick it up this time but not the next time.”

One particular problem area in terms of the yard waste collection rules has been people putting the yard waste out in black plastic trash bags, Reed noted.

“That’s not allowed by state law,” Burke emphasized, noting that the Town has to pay additional fees if any of the yard waste it delivers is in the forbidden bags.

“We’ve picked up quite a few of the black plastic bags,” Reed added. “People need to go to … hardware stores and get paper bags, which are acceptable to the local recycler.”

Burke also pointed out that the Town had recently revised its solid-waste collection calendar, which will mean changes for when services take place, so property owners and residents should make sure they’re using the updated calendar.

Burke said plans were to re-evaluate the yard-waste service options during the budget amendment process later this year and in the spring of 2015.

Budget approved

The council last Friday also voted unanimously to adopt the proposed 2015-fiscal-year financial plan and schedule of fees.

Burke said changes from the core 2014 budget were minimal, with those changes including business license fees increased from $50 to $75 for smaller businesses and from $150 to $175 for larger businesses. The Town’s returned-check fee increased from $50 to $100, while the issuing of collection letters is increasing from $150 to $200. The fee to rent town hall is also increasing, from $20 to $40.

Burke emphasized that there was no planned change in the Town’s real estate tax, which remains at $1.95 per $100 of assessed property value.

The 2015 financial plan was described by Burke as “the highlight of my appointment as town manager,” as he noted the time spent with department heads and thanked the staff, budget committee and town council for their work on the plan.

The Town’s operating budget for the fiscal year is balanced, at $1.7 million, though that was accomplished using $14,000 in 2014-fiscal-year surplus funds from an uptick in building permits for new homes and renovations. There is no planned tax increase, but an increase in property tax revenue is expected from new homes.

Burke reported that the local construction economy “seems to be robust, especially with renovations,” and said the Town had received numerous phone calls about projects planned for the fall and was already $81,000 over the budgeted amount of anticipated related revenue in the current fiscal year.

Burke said the Town will allocate 10 percent of its transfer tax revenue to a dedicated street fund and will maintain 24/7 public safety coverage. The move to in-house yard-waste collection will save the Town at least $10,000, he noted. The solid waste fee, however, will still increase from $269 to $299.

The rising costs of workers’ compensation insurance has significantly impacted the Town, he explained, with costs up 15 percent for that “major cost-driver” for the Town, as is the case with local retailers, construction companies and other businesses, he added.

Some revenue decreases were also anticipated, with the reduction of participation in the “Fenwick Island Sponsorship Program,” which offers use of Town lifeguard stands for advertising. Burke said the program had brought in $13,000 the prior year and was budgeted at $10,000 this summer, though only $7,000 or so had been lined up to this point.

“It’s still a good program for local businesses to advertise,” he emphasized.

The Town has also lost some revenue from its beach rental concession, which had been bid at $13,000 in its first year but only got a single $3,000 bid this year, after initially not getting any bids.

A 4 percent increase in expenses has been budgeted, between the workers’ compensation costs, a small increase in health insurance costs, the costs of the Town’s new second municipal building, personnel costs and general inflation, which Burke said averaged 2.5 percent over the last 10 years.

The 2015 capital improvement budget has been set at $227,000, including replacement of a 1997 truck and plow, drainage projects and road-protection projects involving laying down some stone — now about a third done on the bay side, Burke said, and about 20 percent done on the ocean side.

The police department will also get a replacement vehicle this year, as well as ammunition, and will see costs from repayment of a bank loan. Administrative expenses include $5,000 for IT projects, including efforts to possibly accept credit cards at town hall, as well as another $5,000 for emergency services.

Burke said he had been working with state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) to secure funding for the Bay Street drainage project and had gotten the project fully funded. The Town has $30,000 in Municipal Street Aid funds, but Burke emphasized that the Town doesn’t budget MSA funding or transfer tax revenue, both of which can vary widely. Its reserve accounts, as of May, had $2.119 million in funds, which have been used for capital projects in the past.

Council members voted unanimously, 7-0, on June 27 to adopt the financial plan and fee schedule for the 2015 fiscal year.

Burke also told the council on June 27 that plans called for work on that Bay Street drainage project in mid-July, while state transportation officials and Hocker were also looking obtain funding for a sidewalk project from Cannon Street and Route 1 to the second/west entrance to the community park as part of the state budget bills to be adopted on June 30.

All of the drainage and stormwater projects from the 2014 plan had been completed, he reported, with plans to finish work on Borabora and a small project on Farmington where there had been flooding.

Parking information, coastal construction recommendations distributed

The Town has also recently put out a new double-sided rack card regarding parking in Fenwick Island, which is planned to also go to Realtors and retailers this summer, as well as being available on the Town website and to be mailed out next year.

A second rack card, containing general information about the town, is in progress, to replace the tri-fold information pamphlet the Town has offered. It will condense the existing information into a format that Burke said would be “handy to put up on the refrigerator.”

He also reported this week the approval of two grants to the Town — one for a sea-level rise vulnerability assessment, with an October 2014 delivery date, and the other for surface water planning, which could involve recommendations for lifting up properties on Dagsboro Street, as well as a water-quality component.

Weistling joined Burke in discussion of a coastal construction workshop both had attended in Lewes recently. Focusing on flood hazard mitigation, the workshop has a large booklet available for those interested in learning more. Weistling said presentations at the workshop encouraged municipalities, communities and home owners to “go beyond the existing code,” noting $71 billion in damages from Hurricane Sandy — mostly from flooding.

“Go high,” Weistling said they had been advised, with the cost of adding 2 feet in height to a new home adding just 2 percent to its cost. But he acknowledged that building height restrictions can cause problems with those aiming to build higher. Some people are trying to build now to beat the implementation of new flood maps that could reduce the effective height to which they can build, he noted.

Weistling said it was predicted that flooding problems will increase and that it might be less expensive to raise an older house rather than paying additional costs for insurance that will compensate for the increased flood risks. He said they’d also be advised not to build homes with wide-open areas and large windows and to use open foundations and pilings, rather than cinderblock foundations, to allow floodwaters to flow through/under a home rather than tearing it apart.

Finally, Weistling said they’d been advised to encourage home owners of existing properties to have old roofing and siding removed, rather than covered, when installing new surfaces on a home, reducing the risk of major damage from wind.

“You can have the best design and contractor,” Weistling added, “but the guys in field — if they don’t install the proper anchors, that design is worthless.”

Town honored for healthy initiatives, looks at events

With the summer season fully under way, Fenwick is celebrating the healthy recreation options it offers to residents and visitors alike, all of which recently netted the town an honorable mention — a special recognition for a small municipality — in the State’s Healthy Communities initiative.

Highlighted were its smoking ban for parks and beaches, its Environmental Committee, the two town parks, beach accessibility improvements, walkability through sidewalk improvements along Route 1, its fishing club, junior lifeguard program, bike safety day, annual Turkey Trot event and farmers’ market.

Mayor Audrey Serio noted the approaching holiday, along with heavier holiday traffic. “But that’s kind of why we all live here,” she said of the things that draw people to the area for a weekend or a week or longer. She particularly thanked the town’s public safety workers, from the beach patrol to the fire company, ambulance service and police.

“We’re lucky to have … those folks to help us out,” she said, also noting the upcoming town bonfire on July 5 (rain date of July 6), which will benefit the beach patrol.

Some of the town’s businesses are increasingly looking to hold special events, and that has raised the issue of how the Town should regulate such events. Weistling noted that the Town currently only requires a permit for a special event on public property, such as the beach, while most other local towns have a detailed ordinance regulating events — even those on private property — including requiring liability insurance and having a “hold harmless” clause to protect the municipality.

In Bethany Beach, he said, the Town requires that event sponsors pay for police coverage at the going wage rate when events are held on public property, while the town manager can deny a permit if deemed appropriate, owing to concerns such as heavy traffic or multiple events planned at the same time.

Weistling said he felt they should try to make Fenwick’s ordinance more detailed and that he, personally, felt the issue of the Town’s liability needed to be addressed.

Serio said she wondered who would be required to fulfill that requirement when some of the events are organized cooperatively by multiple merchants, as well as others organized by non-profits.

Tingle wondered what liability issues might be involved in events such as the Fenwick Flicks, and Serio said she felt a “hold harmless” clause might make more sense for the Town’s requirements. Burke suggested officials consult the town solicitor and find an approach that doesn’t go as far as some of the larger towns, such as some sort of waiver.

“We don’t want to draft a five-page ordinance,” Weistling added, “but we don’t address this [now].”

Weistling also discussed on June 27 a proposed change to the zoning code that would update regulations for the town’s commercial zone, in work more than a year in the making that would follow guidelines established in the Town’s comprehensive plan.

He said the changes were focused on encouraging owners to develop commercial buildings located closer to Route 1 on their properties, by reducing front setbacks from 25 feet to 15 feet, requiring a vegetated buffer zone in the rear of properties west of Route 1 (helping to filter water runoff heading into the canals) and increasing the rear setback form 10 feet to 20 feet.

The resulting buildable lot size would remain the same, with the increased rear setback being offset by the reduced front setback.

Also part of the proposed changes are efforts to encourage developments of sidewalks, which would be required for new construction, along with a requirement to provide lighting for pedestrian and cyclist safety at businesses within 10 feet of Route 1.

Beach access and safety get attention

Reed reported that 30 of the Town’s 37 accessibility-enhancing Mobi Mats were already in use on the beach. He said some people had expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of the W. Atlantic Street dune crossing, and it had been rearranged, with one more mat added.

“They’re extremely happy with it now,” he added, noting that he still plans to add mats to the areas near handicapped-accessible parking.

Burke acknowledged that the slopes of the dune crossings are steep and said the Town was working to mitigate the risk and provide universal access.

“If there’s a problem on part of a street, we will go down that day and evaluate it and implement their suggestion if it merits it,” he said.

Tingle said she’d nearly been forced to call a lifeguard to help her back off the beach during her first summer outing, due to the slope of the crossing.

“We’ve had quite a few of those incidents this summer,” Beach Patrol Capt. Tim Ferry acknowledged.

“If there’s an area we can improve access, we will,” Burke added, saying the Town had contacted DNREC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the situation and had been told they were not coming back to grade or improve the dunes. “And we’re not allowed to.”

The Fenwick Island Beach Patrol was recently recertified by the U.S. Life Saving Association, Ferry reported on June 27, making it one of less than 100 beach patrols in the U.S. with that certification.

He said crowds were already picking up and that, as testified to by recent drownings in Ocean City, Md., the guards had been “extremely diligent” in their work, and they were “making sure our guards are prepared every day for anything they could face.”

Ferry said the guards are also preparing for the regional lifeguard competition in Rehoboth Beach on July 9, as well as running the junior lifeguard program, and had also hosted special guests from a life-skills program for adults. “They had a lot of fun out there,” he said.

Returning to one of the biggest areas of concern for the region’s lifeguards this year so far, Ferry said a rip current workshop being hosted by Sea Grant and NOAA was set for July 10 at the DNREC marina, with an expert from Sydney, Australia, also planning to come to Fenwick “to see what we’re dealing with on a daily basis.”

Ferry said he’d also recently been contacted by a 14-year-old musician with “an impressive résumé” who was hoping to expand her existing charity fundraising work with an August concert on the beach that would benefit the beach patrol.

He said there were concerns over issues of parking, crowds and emergency services, and that it had been suggested that the best site for the “family-fun event” might be Fenwick Island State Park, owing to its parking facilities and bathhouse. Or, if the crowd might be smaller, he said, perhaps the town park could accommodate it.

The police department is also preparing for its July 15 bicycle safety event, organized with the Office of Highway Safety and Delaware Bicycle Safety Coalition, at which helmets and lights will be distributed. The replacement police vehicle purchased to replace one that was totaled was also expected to be in service within the next week or two.