South Bethany considers stricter property maintenance code

A broken staircase was the final straw.

In South Bethany, Joe Hinks is responsible for building inspections, permits and penalties. Then he discovered that a faulty outdoor staircase in an oceanfront home had been repaired with no more than a spliced piece of deck board. It was cracked, unsafe and not suitable for renters, he said.

“Right now, there’s a set of stairs on a rental home that does not have any support. It’s very shaky,” Hinks had told the South Bethany Town Council in June.

But when the property owner applied for permission to make the renovation, Sussex County only issued a permit, with no real inspection.

To better ensure safety in local buildings, Hinks proposed that the Town adopt the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), as has been done, in whole or in part, in other local towns, including Bethany Beach, Millville, Rehoboth Beach, Milford and Harrington.

“As a Town, it would give me the codes that I needed to say, ‘Here’s what we need for safety … for the smoke detectors, for the infestations, for the mold and mildew, the over-occupancy of the structure.”

Hinks said he doesn’t see the IPMC directly conflicting with existing town code, but rather providing extra leverage to address existing problems, such as grading. Where they differ, the stricter rule would prevail.

“I’m not advocating doing away with our town code. This is an approach to … bolster it,” Hinks said, adding that it would help with problems such as commercial trash container complaints (South Bethany doesn’t have a commercial property maintenance code, but the IPMC does) and the grading of property to avoid accumulation of water (which is a “hot issue” in the town but only vaguely addressed by town code).

“Joe’s doing the best he can. I know he’s out there writing letters to people, but part of it is, ‘How do we enforce the letter?’” Mayor Tim Saxton said.

The $100 fine for code violations doesn’t always incentivize property owners to fix the problem, Hinks noted, and such violations are generally not considered worth the Town pursuing in court.


The power to permit


The County doesn’t look closely at renovations as they do new construction, Hinks said.

Not all repairs or renovations will trigger an inspection, explained Andy Wright, Sussex County’s chief of building code. The County inspects major renovations and additions primarily to reassess whether property value has changed, for taxation purposes. (Besides their own inspections, the County also performs some building inspections for certain municipalities with small code departments, including South Bethany.)

The Town, County, Office of the State Fire Marshal and state health department all have their own rules, and sometimes there are gaps where their mandates don’t cover every nuance of building safety.

Hinks said another homeowner had “fixed” holes in an exterior wall by stapling placemats to the area and painting it blue.

“Going in, we found out there was a termite infection. There was no clear path to egress, there were not working smoke detectors. … We have no mechanism to control that,” Hinks said.

“Someone is eventually going to be hurt by these failing structures,” Hinks said. “We’re looking for the basic functionality for health and safety.”

The IPMC wouldn’t allow for dilapidated homes. But Hinks emphasized that South Bethany is fortunate not to have the “epidemic of dilapidated homes” that he saw as a building official in Salisbury, Md.

Council Member Sue Callaway also recommended the Town consider a mechanism for revoking rental permits for houses in disrepair. But Saxton warned against the Town entering the rental inspection business.

Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment prevents Hinks trespassing on private property just to look around. But he is obligated to respond if someone submits a complaint about a household. So if he sees a porch that is breaking, he can call and request to inspect the property. If his offered inspection is rejected by the property owner, he could take it to court.

Discussion on the issue will likely continue at the next town council workshop, on July 26 at 3 p.m. If the council decides to pursue the matter, they would likely have it vetted by the Charter & Code Committee.


No votes on personnel


The council also went into closed executive session on June 28 to discuss personnel but took no votes afterward. After predicting 15 minutes of discussion, the council talked privately for just over an hour. Afterward, Callaway said that they just wanted to discuss how things run. She did not indicate that the topic needs to continue at a future meeting.

Also, Public Works Supervisor Don Chrobot will retire on Aug. 1. Although the Town will advertise to hire a new supervisor, Town Manager Maureen Hartman said she is assessing the Public Works Department to determine the needs of the department moving forward.

Saxton and Callaway, meanwhile, recently held a town-hall meeting with South Bethany Police Department employees. The goal, they said, was to introduce themselves as the new mayor and mayor pro-tem, meet the staff and gain feedback.


Bigger, better beaches


Beach replenishment in South Bethany continues at a steady clip southward. As of July 18, dune crossing closures were in place at some of the town’s southernmost streets. Daily notices about beach closures are posted at town hall; on the Town website under the tab “Beach Replenishment Daily Closures”; and on the Town’s Facebook page.

The large-scale engineering project will rebuild the dune and widen the beach back to its original specifications from the 2007 “50-year” reconstruction, which is intended to reduce the impact of future storms.

South Bethany now has a new ad hoc committee for Beach Access Improvement, chaired by Jimmy Oliver.

“It’s basically trying to develop a plan and some costs around it,” said Saxton. “We’ll be looking at ways to improve access to our beach. … The plan, as I understand it — they’ll look at each beach access and then make proposals. … It’s probably the best time to do our evaluation, since the dunes are being done.”

In general, Saxton said, he doesn’t want ad hoc committees to work for more than four months, but he acknowledged it may result in a few years’ worth of projects, depending on the results.

The topic of beach access (such as handicapped accessibility) often ranks high on town surveys.

The Town has also begun receiving public complaints about canopies on the beach — especially when grouped together. Similar complaints led to a total ban on canopies, tents and other shading devices on the beach in Bethany Beach, which now permits only standard beach umbrellas and “baby tents.”

“I hope it never gets so bad we have to do something about it,” Saxton said.

In other South Bethany news from July:

• Wayne Schrader has not officially taken his oath of service at town hall. Since winning the 2018 election in June, he had excused absences for two meetings and participated via remote access (telephone) for two meetings.

Schrader said illness accounted for some of his time away. Also, after selling their South Bethany house, his family is currently building a new home on another property in town.

Town council policy allows remote access for no more than 20 percent of meetings (typically four). After three absences, the fourth will be considered unexcused, and council will meet with that member to consider what action is appropriate to pursue.

In 2017, Schrader chose not to run for a second term, citing a busy work schedule in Virginia. Now retired, he ran for office again in 2018.

• In just a few months, South Bethany has collected 46 percent of its budgeted realty transfer taxes for the fiscal year, originally budgeted at about $380,000. Treasurer Don Boteler suggested a building boom may have resulted now that people have more freedom to build with recent code changes regarding bathrooms, building height and ground-floor enclosures.

• With all the new housing construction, resident Ed Nazarian complained of road conditions, especially when utility trucks tear up the pavement and building contractors park incorrectly. Planning Commission Chairman Dick Oliver said that courts had overturned an attempt to limit summertime construction, since such a ban would infringe on people’s right to work.

• In a year with high vehicular fatalities, Delaware Office of Highway Safety officials have said they are impressed with South Bethany’s pedestrian safety projects. They invited the national OHS to visit the town in mid-July to witness the pedestrian safety campaigns in action.

• The South Bethany Police Department is also in full construction mode for its building “repurposing” project. After some growing pains during floor installation, they will begin re-connecting major electronics and systems.

• Officials noted that Black Gum Drive re-opens daily at 1 p.m., even if the physical barricade is not promptly removed promptly. So, after 1 p.m., vehicles may drive around the barricade if it is still in place.

• The council unanimously agreed to contribute $3,500 to the Association of Coast Towns (ACT) for the hiring of consultant Tony Pratt, a recently retired administrator from Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC). He would discuss and help solve problems for seven beach towns from Lewes to Fenwick Island.

• The Town recognized Pat Voveris and Tim Shaw for their hard work and years on the town council.

• Once again, the South Bethany float won gold in the Bethany Beach Fourth of July Parade.

• Callaway complimented the Town’s Junior Lifeguard program as “absolutely amazing. They’re doing a terrific job. I am so impressed with what they’re teaching the kids. … They’re out there in the deep water with the kids.”

A South Bethany Town Council workshop was set for Thursday, July 26, at 3 p.m.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter