Open space approved as use for properties

At a special meeting Monday, July 25, the Bethany Beach Town Council voted on development recommendations for the former Christian Church and Neff properties acquired by the town in the last year.

The recommendations will provide the framework for drafting an amendment to the town charter that will restrict the use of the two properties to design concepts laid out by the current council. Once drafted, the charter amendment would need to be approved by the council and state legislature.

The charter is designed to make it more difficult for future councils to approve any development of the land other than what is explicitly written in the guidelines drafted by the current council. Such plans would require the support and vote of a “super-majority” of future council members in order to move forward.

With a variety of development plans proposed, the council voted each either acceptable or unacceptable, in order to clearly state in the charter amendment how the town desires the land to be used.

Council members unanimously decided to use the space for an open park with walking paths, a garden, fountains and/or an open pavilion. They were, however, divided over Council Member Carol Olmstead’s suggestion for the construction of an enclosed multipurpose building.

“What are the needs of the town that would also contribute to the character of Bethany Beach?” Olmstead asked. “I can see a need for a place for large groups to meet, and I think it could serve the town well,” she said.

Council Member Harold Steele, however, mentioned the potential parking complications that can come with the addition of such a building.

In the end, the council decided to give discretion for construction of such a building, as well as for a proposed water tower, to future councils, which must approve any such move with the vote of at least five council members for it to take place.

The council also voted unanimously to deem construction of basketball courts, tennis courts, soccer fields, softball fields or a skateboard park as unacceptable uses of the properties.

“It’s about the nuisance that is created by these [courts and fields] with fighting and yelling,” Steele said. “I think you open up for more activity other than a game of basketball.”

Members also voted against using the property for enclosed buildings, a parking garage or a large parking lot.

The town acquired the former Christian Church and Neff properties, both located at the corner of Route 1 and Garfield Parkway, last year. The properties comprise 6 acres of land, one third of which is federally protected wetlands.

Last winter, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) offered the town a $250,000 grant that would have required the land be used solely for open space. Council members rejected the offer because of the limitations the grant would have imposed, both on the property’s use and on its future control.

After rejecting the grant in April on a tie vote (then-Council Member Bob Degen was absent for the vote and later resigned before another vote was held), the council handed over early planning for the use of the properties to the Bethany Beach Planning Commission. But the council decided to take back planning responsibility last month, seeking to provide more guidance.

“We had moved prematurely by handing it over to the Planning Commission without providing the necessary guidance they needed from the council,” Mayor Jack Walsh said. “We had to backtrack a little today because we really should have had this meeting back in May.”

Once the charter amendment is drafted by the Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork, the council will present it to the public for further input at a regularly scheduled monthly council meeting.

If approved by the town council, the charter amendment will move to the state legislature for its approval.