Bethany projects target conservation

Natural surroundings and camouflage go hand in hand, but a small stretch of Route 26 in Bethany Beach may hide the purpose of the property from the unobservant, out of sheer inconspicuousness.

What might normally appear to be a simple home in the traditional beach cottage style is, in fact, the town’s new nature and conservation center.

There are a few telltale signs that what’s going on at the property is something bigger than just another older-style house on a previously empty lot. There is a bit of playground equipment in the back, a few yellow-painted parking stops at the edge of the unobtrusive clam-shell-covered parking areas, a handicapped-parking sign here and there.

But the property most likely doesn’t draw the eye of those driving past the location. And that’s appropriate. It is, after all, a nature center, and one in a town known for its ongoing efforts to preserve green space and its architectural heritage as a seaside resort.

Even the name of the place might escape the unaware: the Bethany Beach Nature and Conservation Center. That’s a new thing, in a town where the generations-old names for places have a tendency to stick around long past a property’s change of hands.

In this case, the property in question is better known as “the Natter property,” located right next to Grotto Pizza.

And the house that sits on the lot isn’t original to the location — though it is original to Bethany Beach. The structure is more commonly known as “the old Addy house,” one of Bethany’s oldest remaining structures, if now located a bit west of the original location and refurbished to look and function nearly like new.

The two local landmarks have been brought together to create an education and conservation center, focused on the natural amenities of the land and taking advantage of the tradition behind the home.

According to Town Manager Cliff Graviet, the plans for the structure in the coming months are to turn it into an educational center, complete with displays, docents and guides for those who want to learn more.

If Graviet’s wish is fulfilled, it could be a state-of-the-art interactive production, with sliding informational panels that could react to the visitors’ movement and provide information in a high-tech audio-video format.

The information will serve to support the larger purpose of the conservation center: to educate the public and to preserve the sprawling wetlands and natural environment that occupies the rear of the property.

That’s yet another bit of camouflage involved with the former Natter property: it appears from the road to be just a slightly deeper-than-normal home lot for Bethany Beach, with some damp areas and a small natural pond. Its road frontage isn’t particularly wide. There aren’t wide-open areas beyond what might be the normal span of a large back-yard lot.

But the property is, in fact, some 26 acres in size, tapering in an ever-wider trapezoid from the narrow front span to a truly massive piece of land. Compared to nearby neighborhoods, the property is enough to make a residential developer salivate, especially in its current, undeveloped state.

That state will, however, remain just as it is, or nearly so. The whole point of the town’s ownership of the property is to preserve it as it is, wooded, wet and natural.

That mission is so important that Graviet even emphasizes that it will not be a “park,” a recreational area where one might expect open areas, ball fields, extensive playground equipment and amenities. It is, he repeats, a conservation area.

That distinction means, Graviet said, the town may eventually fence the property and use a gate for access, to better control activity at the location. It will, he said, be a place to go with a specific reason — to learn or to appreciate the natural environment of the tidal ecosystem.

The public will be able to visit during the center’s established hours (which are not yet actually established), to get information from the center, talk with guides and docents, or walk the path and see the natural environment that is being preserved. (And, yes, a morning jog will be a possibility, so long as joggers can visit during the center’s official hours.)

Graviet said the displays inside the center are to be tied in with segments of the path, providing information on certain birds, animals or features that can be seen when walking the path, and referring specifically to those locations.

The path is the current focus of construction plans for the property. Graviet said an application for the construction of a boardwalk is currently being made to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC) by the town. The funding for the walk’s construction will come from funds remaining from a grant for the project, and a cost estimate has already been given to the town.

It’s just a matter of processing the application and building the walk. That, Graviet said, could be completed as soon as the summer, allowing for the public to begin using the paths in a few months.

The old Addy house, after sitting on a temporary foundation on the property for some months, has been permanently set in place and is nearly completely refurbished, with a new exterior, heating and plumbing already in place. The construction work is about 80 percent done overall, Graviet said.

What remains to be done inside are largely the educational elements, but he said the expectation is the center could be completely open to the public — with displays and docents — by the fall of 2005.

The town purchased the property and has worked to create the nature and conservation center with funding from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as funds from state agencies and the town itself. Graviet credited former Planning Commission Chairman Cal Baldwin with the effort it took to get the project to where it is today.

Those efforts, as well as those of town officials and builder Mark Dieste, have begun the transformation of a lot and an old house into an educational and conservation center that will likely be around to serve the public for decades to come.

Other recent efforts by the town to preserve undeveloped space have come in the form of “the Neff property.” In fact, after years of efforts by town officials to obtain the property as one of the few large parcels of undeveloped land left in the town, the property was finally settled on last week, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed on the legal documents that transfer it into Bethany Beach’s hands.

Graviet noted that the parcel was one of two the town had been eyeing for quite some time — the other being the former Christian Church property that lies adjacent to the Neff property across an unbuilt segment of Maryland Avenue.

The town manager said there had been considerable talk since the town purchased the former church property about what to do with that parcel. But he, personally, had favored waiting on any decision or even concrete discussion until efforts to obtain the Neff property had reached fruition.

Now that both parcels officially belong to the town, Graviet said moves to open a public dialogue on their use could begin in the coming months. While nothing has really been decided, he emphasized that most of the discussion about their eventual use has been related to open space and recreational use. (Commercial use is forbidden for a period of decades, per the terms of the sale.)

That would make the nature of the property or properties different from that of the conservation activity at the former Natter property, but Graviet said the expectation is currently that even recreational use of the former Neff and church properties would not include something as involved as ball fields. It would more likely be a park-like environment focusing on open space in the purest sense, with some minor amenities.

The final decision on that use, however, will be determined after extensive public input and official decision-making procedures by the town. Regardless of what is decided, the town will soon have two new options for residents and visitors to take in some open air and at least a little sunshine.