Survey: Bethany citizenry largely favors Assawoman Canal Trail

Bethany Beach officials on Dec. 15 announced the results, to date, from a survey the Town sent out to its citizens on Nov. 9 regarding support and opposition to the proposed Assawoman Canal Trail project, which would run along the Assawoman Canal, partly inside town limits.

The results released on Dec. 15, from 585 respondents, indicated that 459 (78 percent) favored development of the trail, with 83 (14 percent) opposed and 43 (7 percent) undecided.

The Dec. 15 survey results also included comments on the project from both those in favor of it and those opposed to it, with some of the numbers broken down by whether the respondents in question live near the canal.

Of those favoring the trail — 459 in all — 61 came from those who live close to the canal, while 398 came from those who live farther away.

The proponents’ comments included some of their reasons for supporting the project, such as allowing older residents/visitors, as well as the young, to enjoy nature and get exercise; providing an alternative to the beach, which they said can be too crowded in the summer season; offering an alternative to biking along Route 1; and providing an alternative family activity.

One comment stated that the path would be a “venue which offers a safe opportunity for citizens and visitors to enjoy our beautiful outdoor environment.”

Other supportive comments stated that the proposed path “enhances the other amenities we enjoy,” that it is family-friendly, and that it offers a “great benefit for the community,” along with canoeing, kayaking, walking, running, cycling, “to support a healthy, active lifestyle.”

Some supporters said they planned to walk their pets on the trail instead of the streets, while others praised its enhanced safety for walkers and bikers, and still others favored it as a way to reduce the number of walkers and bikers competing with vehicles for space on the streets.

“It provides another reason to visit/stay in the Bethany area,” other supporters noted, saying it would “add one more ‘Quiet Community’ attraction, away from the rush and bustle of town activities.”

Meeting neighbors, offering more recreation of a “family nature” to draw people to Bethany, pulling in more renters and thus improving the area’s economy, improving property values and offering a wise investment for the town were other reasons for those favoring the project to offer their support.

The surveys voicing support, in many cases, also mentioned that the supporters had similar trails near their full-time residences.

Opponents continue to express concerns about safety and privacy for neighbors

Of the 83 responses opposing the canal trail, 31 came from those living close to the canal, while 52 came from those farther away.

Comments from some opponents said the project would offer no benefit to those with property east of Route 1 or would not enhance their own property. Sources of concern from the opponents included access points, bikers dominating the path over pedestrian use, disturbance of nature and the potential for the path to see drug-related problems.

About half of the opponents expressed concerns about the costs that might be borne by home owners, and the state and/or federal government, while at least one was concerned that the project was, in effect, a government mandate, since it is on State property and could be constructed without further consulting the neighboring residents.

Other concerns from opponents included fencing, the potential increase in traffic or people in the area, liability and safety, maintenance, litter and pollution, noise and parking issues. More than a quarter of the opponents said they were concerned about a potential lack of use of the trail.

Primary concerns from the opponents were similar to those stated at prior public meetings on the proposed trail, with 27 expressing concerns about privacy for the neighboring property owners and 42 concerned about the potential for vandalism and other security concerns.

Of those returning their surveys, 43 said they were still undecided about the project. Only two of them live close to the canal.

DNREC lays out path ahead

Bethany Beach officials had said at a public hearing on Oct. 17 that the vast majority of feedback received by the Town on the question of the canal trail to that point had been in opposition. Those emails, in-person comment and phone calls were offered before the Town officially solicited for wider opinions from the townsfolk as a whole but after state-sponsored meetings on the trail plan.

The Nov. 9 survey was intended to gather a wider collection of opinions before the town council would vote on whether or not to support the project.

The council reconvened for a council workshop directly after the Oct. 17 hearing and asked DNREC representative Bob Ehemann, an outdoor recreation planner with Delaware State Parks, to explain what the process would be from that point forward.

“Where we are in the process now is getting the municipalities and communities to adopt and accept the plan as is,” he said. “That’s the first step. It tells us there’s an interest, a commitment on some level … that there’s some sort of agreement that there’s going to be a partnership there.”

That agreement to some sort of partnership and expression of community support would come when and if the Bethany Beach Town Council votes on the issue, having now received the results of the survey.

“Once we get beyond the interest level, if the community comes back and residents from most of the communities support it, I think it would go ahead,” he said.

Ehemann noted that the funding for such a project is already in place, though moving forward with it had not yet been approved. He said the Assawoman Canal was also on a list of activities for which funding could be quickly approved.

“It would be connecting three municipalities,” he noted, of Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Ocean View, “and six communities in a short distance,” which he said would be viewed favorably among a handful of projects that might be seeking available funding. “We’re not going farther south than Black Gum Drive in South Bethany. It’s a 3.2-mile trail. There’s no acquisition, no easements involved. It’s all in place.”

With so few obstacles in the way of an approve project, Ehemann said much of the work ahead of them involves an engineering and design phase. Once the State funding is in place, with the Assawoman Canal Trail on the list of projects to be funded, he said it would just be a matter of making sure the State can get federal matching funds to match the seed funding that Gov. Jack Markell has put in place.

A clear path to beginning construction of the canal trail project in front of him, Ehemann pointed out that the primary concern is really making sure that the community is on board. That’s something DNREC doesn’t typically have to deal with when it constructs public recreation facilities, nor is it something the agency technically has to deal with now, though officials have opted to do so.

“When we have parks and we put trails in them, we don’t go to the neighbors and ask them if it’s OK,” he emphasized. “This is very unique in its design. We’re taking things very cautiously. We’re going to talk with the trail team about what the next phases will be, and I’m sure we will come to some compromise that everyone doesn’t feel like they’ve been run over.”

Officials aim to address concerns

Ehemann specifically spoke to the concerns expressed by canal neighbor Ann Tansey, at 25-year resident of the town who attended the Oct. 17 meeting with her seeing-eye dog and stated her concerns about the security issues and potential impact to her dog of development of the trail.

“If we can somehow get her to at least feel comfortable with the trail behind her house, we can please anybody,” he said.

Pointing out that the project offers some flexibility in the exact design, Ehemann said, “Maybe in that case it can be designed to move closer to the canal bank and give her even more distance. We have to be flexible in how we design this thing — not house to house but community to community.”

“You could have done whatever you wanted, without our involvement,” Mayor Tony McClenny pointed out on Oct. 17. As the trail is entirely on State property, officials really could have just decided to move ahead, without public input on the project or the design for it, but they have opted for a different way forward.

Ehemann said that before he had even met with representatives of the community, he’d been instructed to go into those meetings with an open mind, “no preconceived notions. We want the communities to buy in and have a common vision. They are going to be the ones who steward it, through maintaining it and using it.”

He acknowledged that there may be legitimate concerns about whether and how the project should be done, even if the only concern is the proximity of the trail to homes. If opposition were to come from the majority of property owners, he said, they would acknowledge that the communities simply don’t want the project to move forward.

But Ehemann said that opposition to such trails had, in the past, wavered once the trails were actually in place. In the case of a Newark-area trail, he said, “One couple fought it. They now embrace it. It’s a great attribute. People are outside and recreating. Their issue was people parking,” he noted of the one-time opponents. “Initially, people were parking in front of their home. We coordinated with the police and got rid of that problem. People were nice about it, because they gave them options,” he said of the parking issue.

“There are no public access points along Bethany Beach, but I’m guessing that 10 years after this thing is built, the neighbor who’s adjacent will be realizing it’s not such a big problem and will allow their neighbors to access it through their property,” Ehemann predicted.

“We don’t even want to suggest private property being taken for public use,” he emphasized. “We hope people will visit the bathroom before they leave home. We hope people walking along will help each other. We home the Good Samaritan home owner will, in an emergency, allow police officers to respond through their property.

“This was not meant to be a shortcut. It was meant to be a trail to enjoy,” he added. “The people who are going to be using this trail are the neighbors that you’re OK with walking in front of your house. You will get used to those people walking behind your house.”

“Of the many people who live along what would be the trail who object, we also had somebody who said they wished they lived on it, that they could walk out their back yard and be right on the trail,” said Councilwoman Carol Olmstead. “Some may come to appreciate that that’s a real plus, rather than detracting from their property.”

This week’s survey results would seem to indicate that, at least in Bethany Beach as a whole, the community does want the Assawoman Canal Trail project to move forward. Provided the council agrees, the town would join South Bethany and Ocean View in supporting the project. South Bethany council members approved supporting the concept of the trail project at an Oct. 14 meeting, and Ocean View council members had voted in support of the concept even before that.

“All we’re being asked to do at this point,” Olmstead said on Oct. 17, is to support the concept.