Waiting-area bars get go-ahead from Bethany

Bethany Beach Town Council members in a close vote Sept. 16 elected to strike the so-called “sunsetting” provision of the town’s recent waiting-area bar allowance.

The council had made the temporary or “sunsetting” allowance — due to expire Sept. 30, after several extensions — to put Bethany Blues restaurant back in compliance with town code regarding the serving of alcohol. With the exception of restaurants grandfathered as existing prior to the restriction, serving of alcohol at bars in the town has been prohibited.

Under the allowance, the restaurant — and now others — has been allowed to use a small bar area (originally labeled as a dessert or service bar) to serve alcohol to patrons who are waiting for a table for meal service in other areas of the restaurant. Patrons can also order a meal to be eaten at the bar but are prohibited from simply ordering an alcoholic beverage (or many) and then leaving.

The extensive comments of previous considerations of the allowance were absent last week, with council members Jerry Dorfman, Harold Steele and Lew Killmer, and Vice Mayor Carol Olmstead voting in favor of continuing the allowance with no expiration date. Mayor Jack Walsh, Council Member Wayne Fuller and Secretary-Treasurer McClenny opposed it.

The mayor was the only council member to comment this go-round, noting that his vote reflected concerns expressed by townsfolk in the past as to preserving the existing character of the town — without a shift toward bars and additional alcohol service.

Despite the requirements for meal service, Walsh said, “A waiting-area bar is a bar waiting to happen.”

With the vote recorded, Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork noted that votes on the issue had been very close and that the Sept. 16 vote had made the allowance permanent — unless that stance was changed by the council in the future.

He encouraged the management of Bethany Blues (or any other restaurant taking advantage of the allowance) to make sure to police their own establishment to ensure compliance with the rules involved, lest they find the issue had come back to the council’s attention, with possibly different results.

Also at the Sept. 16 meeting, council members were similarly divided on the issue of a town donation toward relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The issue was broached as a result of the recent meeting of the Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT), at which Bridgeville and Seaford had pledged $5,000 donations from each of those towns.

SCAT, as a body, agreed to donate $5,000 — a third of its treasury, according to Walsh. And similar donations were encouraged from other member towns, including Bethany Beach.

In considering the idea, council members were divided as to the wisdom of donating a large sum of taxpayers’ money without their direct agreement. As when the council members previously discussed the town’s donation policy, Steele said he was not comfortable with the idea, though he had made an individual donation to this cause, he said.

Steele also expressed concern about the uncertainty as to who exactly would benefit from the donation, since the SCAT subcommittee that would make that decision had yet to meet. Killmer had raised that issue and also voted against the donation, joined by Olmstead.

Walsh noted their concerns but emphasized that while the move to make the donation — and make it as quickly as was being done — was unusual, so was the disaster itself. He, Fuller, McClenny and Dorman voted in favor of the donation, making it official.

Council members were, in contrast, of one mind regarding changes to how permit fees are refunded in the rare case a project is halted before construction. Council members have needed to approve all such refunds on an individual basis, but there was no provision for retaining any portion of the fees to cover costs sustained by the town.

That changed with the unanimous vote of the council, which will now allow Building Inspector John Eckrich to determine when (and how much) fees should be kept by the town when the rare refunds are considered.

Council members also voted unanimously to accept a $105,000 contract with Paul’s Paving to perform work on swales at Candelight Acres. Graviet noted that time was of the essence on the project, due to an Oct. 15 deadline for the project to be complete.

That is the date upon which the owner of the property in question has targeted the beginning of construction on the lot. Complicating his construction plans was the discovery of town drainage pipes running through the lot. The town is to remove them.

The time restraint prevented extensive bidding, but Town Manager Cliff Graviet noted that the one bid submitted had been $20,000 less than the original $125,000 estimate for the project. With no state funding involved, a more extensive bidding process was not required.

The contract will allow for the removal of the pipes and reworking of related swales. Additionally, it will be coordinated with drainage work in Bethany West to benefit both projects.

Council members also officially welcomed two new police officers with a vote affirming their appointments. Robert Tolbert and Rhys Bradshaw were the only two of 20 candidates who successfully completed the department’s screening process, Graviet noted.

The town will also be acquiring a new police car in the near future, thanks to a $25,000 stipend from Sussex County. The purchase will allow the Bethany Beach Police Department to retire a Ford Expedition from police use to general town use, with an additional grant providing funding to equip the new police car.

Graviet issued a reminder for property owners to return requested easement documents to the town as soon as possible. The easements will clear the way for the legal aspect of the town’s planned beach reconstruction project, which is still awaiting final word on possible federal funding.

The town has set a meeting with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) regarding the easements for Friday, Sept. 23, at 3:30 p.m. at the town hall, with plans to have notaries available to make official any easement documents presented by property owners at that time.

Graviet also noted that a preconstruction meeting had been set for the town’s bandstand renovation project. The existing bandstand is due to be razed during the first two weeks of October, with the neighboring trees removed before the end of this month.

The town manager also reported that, despite some poor weather, the summer’s parking revenues were $28,000 above the previous year’s. He said the BBPD had issued 1,100 fewer parking tickets but had marked higher revenue due to a higher collection rate on the citations.

Ridership on the town trolley was similarly on the rise in 2005, with 30,000 rides recorded this year, compared to 26,000 in 2004. An increase in ridership in 2004 had led to the purchase of a second, larger trolley by the town.

Graviet also had positive news to report on the issue of funding for the town’s planned Streetscape project.

Though Delaware Department of Transportation funding shortfalls had put on hold the funding for that project and a number of others, Graviet said the Bethany Beach project was to be among 15 to be presented to DelDOT on Sept. 27 for possible restoration of funding.

McClenny reported that some 56 percent of anticipated revenue for the town’s fiscal year had been collected as of Aug. 31, compared to 62 percent at the same point in 2004. Despite the smaller percentage, that revenue is $115,000 above the amount from the previous year.

Spending for the town has reached 40.5 percent of anticipated expenditures, compared to 42.8 percent in 2004. McClenny noted that the town’s expenses were less than its revenue thus far in the fiscal year, which began April 1, and proclaimed the town to be doing “very well” financially.

While council members have not yet directly taken up the planned development of use guidelines for the former Neff and Christian Church properties acquired by the town, Bethany Beach Landowners Association President Paul Denault questioned them Sept. 16 as to the amount of public input to be allowed in that decision.

Denault asked council members, “Why does this council get to make that decision?” He noted that the decision would be more difficult for future councils to change, thanks to a planned requirement for a “super-majority” of council members to make such future changes.

In response, Walsh emphasized the council’s efforts to restrict the use per public input and to strengthen the protections upon it toward “open space” and recreational use. Jaywork noted that a public hearing would be held on the issue before the planned change to the town charter was made, with the possibility of a non-binding referendum also being held.

Notably closing the public input section of the meeting, local artist Jennifer Carter provided a bit of entertainment for those in attendance, singing “Happy Birthday” to the mayor, a la Marilyn Monroe.

Jaywork commented, “The last time I heard that song sung like that, it was to another Jack,” referring to Monroe’s famous performance for President John F. Kennedy.