Keeping the 'Quiet Resort' quiet: Bethany must balance popularity with Mother Nature

Here at the edge of the Atlantic and the 21st century, Bethany Beachers like their town today. On the streets, they praise its beauty and safety.

“I love the beach, I love it here. My family is here,” said Roger Knox, a sentiment that brings many vacationers to retire in Bethany. “I love all the resources we have around here.”

Meanwhile, solid leadership could move it gently into the future.

“I feel that the town is extremely well-run, and the people that run it are very responsible,” said Marie Cahill, broker/owner of Connor Jacobsen Realty.

Bethany Beach is a dream vacation town with little room to grow, but the secret is out. Today’s new neighbors are yesterday’s vacationers. Meanwhile, Mother Nature is ever hinting at a new hurricane or nor’easter along the ever-changing coast.

While many Sussex County towns are preparing to expand, Bethany is returning to a comfortable pace.

“The number one commitment should always be what the founding fathers wanted this place to be: a very family oriented, low-key community,” said vice-mayor Lew Killmer, “a place for people to enjoy a nice summer break or holiday.”

“I hope to see just more of the same. Just wonderful days of beach time,” said resident Carol Psaros. “I just came off the beach. The ocean today is just glorious.”

“We know we want to remain a quiet resort,” said Mayor Jack Gordon. “There is not a big desire to grow because we do not have anywhere to grow.”

In fact, maintaining the existing “character of the town will probably be as challenging …as would be any major overhaul of municipal land use or community design,” states the 2010 Town of Bethany Beach Comprehensive Plan.

Low tax rates and easy living make Bethany a place where people want to vacation permanently, in retirement. That’s why 46.5 percent of the population is 65 or older. That’s double Sussex County’s rate and triple Delaware’s rate.

But that means Bethany needs all the services “required by many of our seniors as they get older and require more assistance,” said Killmer, although pricy land values mean those employees can’t always afford to live in Bethany Beach. The challenge is “offering these services and make it financially viable for the people who can provide those services to live in or near our community.”

Doctors, emergency responders and retail clerks are all needed to keep Bethany flowing.

“If they have to live too far away, they’ll go back,” Killmer said.

So is there room left to build in Bethany?

“No,” Michael Wilgus said simply. “There are a couple parcels that are left, but you can count them on one hand … You can only build on what you have.”

As president and broker for Wilgus Associates, he has watched Bethany housing his entire life.

“There are six or seven unimproved lots in town. The town is pretty well built out,” said Killmer.

So that means people are making space on their own lots, even if that means demolishing the original structure for (typically) a much larger house or mansion.

East of Route 1, some cottages are 70 years old, but the interiors were renovated with modern conveniences.

“The days of roughing it in the beach cottage are ending,” Wilgus said.

Beach houses are no longer open-air cottages for people roughing it in the summer. People seek the modern basics, like air conditioning. They also want dream home basics, like marble countertops and hardwood flooring.

“People have some very, very nice homes. Beach cottages were nice in their day and still are, but people are looking to have modern conveniences now,” Wilgus said.

Despite a 17.3 percent population increase in Bethany Beach from 903 to 1,060 between 2000 and 2010 (U.S. Census data), the growth is calming down.

“Right now it’s at its peak,” Cahill said of the real estate market. “It will go up in inches rather than in yards, like it did before.

“I think you’re going to all of the sudden see the prices go up, but I don’t think you’re going to see them go up as high or as quickly,” as the early 2000s, Cahill said, when the prices leapt and later crashed down just as fast.

“It seems as though, when our national economy has had it ups and down, Bethany Beach has remained pretty steady,” Wilgus said. “From an evaluation standpoint, [there was some drop] in value from a less-than-stellar economic climate. It bounces back very quickly. … I see no reason why that would not continue.

“The downs last briefly, and the ups continue quickly, and people continue to enjoy time here,” Wilgus said of the popular resort. “I think that draw will continue, and I think development will continue to accommodate them,” although, “You can only pack so many people into a town on Fourth of July.”

The influx

“The Delaware Office of State Planning is projecting a 57-percent population increase in Sussex County by the year 2040,” but this doesn’t reflect the part-time visitors, weekly visitors or daytrippers, said the Comprehensive Plan.

Meanwhile, Bethany measures one square mile with no plans to annex surrounding land.

The county handles beach communities to the north and south, and Ocean View is immediately west.

If the National Guard ever shut down or decided it did not need the north Bethany facility, Bethany “would be interested in seeing if there’s an interest in annexing,” Killmer said. Otherwise, the seaside town is “about one square mile, and that’s what Bethany Beach is gonna be for a long time.”

According to the Comprehensive Plan, Delaware Population consortium suggested that Bethany’s population could jump to 1763 in 2040. (Other models had the population mutating to 3572 by 2040, based on a more exceptional growth rate.)

The Realtors noted that people are more frequently moving into their new homes than renting them out for extra income. If that trend continued, eventually most of the houses would be settled.

But with relatively little space to build more housing units, even if people aren’t flooding Bethany town limits, they’re still coming to unincorporated lands. Massive communities, like Millville by the Sea, are slowly filling in after their economic downturn of a hiatus.

And on a nice day, those people still find their way to the beach.

During the summer months, the roads are highly stressed, due to the bonus seasonal traffic. Part of Sussex County is operating on a two-lane road system that meets local needs nine months of the year, but could stand to be a freeway system for three months.

State Route 26 is moving things along. Although the Bethany Beach branch was completed around 2001, this east-west artery is being expanded to include a new turn lane, bicycle lanes and sidewalks for about four miles inland. Traffic should flow more easily to the beach, despite being funneled so narrowly between inland bays and old homes.

Meanwhile, the town isn’t creating anymore parking.

“We use every resource that we can think of,” Killmer said. “We have agreements with the fire company, the Blue Crab restaurant, PNC Bank during off-hours, Disciples of Christ Church … all property sharing. They own it, but we share the revenue. Other than those kinds of things, we don’t have much parking.”

The town trolley alleviates residents’ traffic woes, charging a quarter to ride around town limits.

“The purpose is not to generate an income, but to alleviate the parking pressure on Route 1. That’s a very unique service … owned by the town,” Killmer said.

“It’s going to reach a point, if it hasn’t already, that it is what it is,” Wilgus mused. “I’ve never heard people say, ‘I don’t like Bethany Beach because I can’t get there anymore, or it’s too crowded … but people manage to get here,” whether by walking, cycling or trolley.

Protecting the town and beyond

But more citizens need more protection. For Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company, the challenge of the future is membership.

“Just keeping members is a challenge, keeping people who can do all the things in the fire service,” said BBVFC’s Joe Hopple. Most people are juggling jobs, family and volunteer service.

“Getting people’s time is a big deal,” especially in a resort town largely made of retirees (who can certainly volunteer, but only so many people can grab an oxygen tank and run into a burning building.)

The majority of members live outside of town, like in Ocean View. Like many of Bethany’s retail employees, many cannot afford to live in the same town they serve.

Volunteers are called upon “to do more things than ever,” like technical rescues, medical service and “things that don’t involve actual fire.”

“When I first started, you never had calls [like] an elderly member fell out of bed and just needed help getting back up,” Hopple said.

Remember the special events people enjoy in the Quiet Resort? For every Independence Day parade or 5K run, BBVFC is on patrol, with fire police directing traffic or an ambulance parking nearby. Somebody must be ready to run.

BBVFC also spends more time on erroneous calls, like automated fire or carbon monoxide drills (“Without that fire alarm you could see where tragedy could occur, but it increases our calls,” Hopple said).

Plus, a “great group” of lifeguards protect swimmers, but what happens when they’re off-duty? Beachgoers still dive in after the 5 p.m. whistle, and accidents still occur after-hours. That’s when BBVFC comes in.

BBVFC aims to keep itself financially straight, plus maintain a solid membership “to keep us responding at the level the public expects us to respond,” Hopple said

“We continue to need the public’s support. We have three major missions [train, respond and fundraise]. The more help we have fundraising, the more time we have training and responding to calls.”

The best way to help BBVFC is through donations.

Getting to the emergency

While traffic congestion is a nuisance for most drivers, it can be lethal for emergency service.

BBVFC can house five volunteers at a time in 36-hour shifts to keep up with demand and avoid summertime beach traffic. Otherwise, volunteers must drive to the fire hall before suiting up.

“At least we can get one truck on the road fairly quickly,” Hopple said. “In wintertime, it’s no problem getting to the fire” because traffic is sparse.

“My perception is they don’t battle their way up, they battle their way back,” said Alex Sydnor of Beebe Healthcare. “It’s the ride back that’s a problem. On the way to the hospital, they can have their lights on.”

On the way, home, they’re probably picking up another call.

Bethany ambulances often shuttle their patients north to Beebe Healthcare in Lewes. This is likely to continue for a while. Beebe had purchased 20 acres on Route 17 near Millville to build a health campus similar to Lewes. A new hospital would be a major capital project shelved around 2009 after the real estate market collapsed.

Beebe compensated by expanding its other local services. So people can get imaging, lab work, rehab, primary physicians and more near Bethany.

“We expanded services to nearly equal what we would have in a destination campus, without having to build a full campus,” said Sydnor, vice president of External Affairs for Beebe. “There are no immediate plans to develop that property. But we haven’t decided not to.”

Although Lewes admissions have spiked this summer beyond typical seasonal rates, Beebe is assessing its five-year plans to determine what to do with that land now, like leasing it out. But a hospital may eventually come to the Quiet Resort’s rescue.

“Millville and Bethany Beach is sort of far away from the hospital. Is a small 30-bed hospital necessary today? No, but it might be 30 years from now,” Sydnor said. “We’re continually monitoring how the community continues to grow and what the needs are there.”

A new entity

Bethany is trying to make room for one hundred new rooms in the new oceanfront hotel, painstakingly eased through Town Council by developer Jack Burbage of Burbage Properties.

Under construction in summer of 2014, it’s replacing Wilbur Powell’s Bethany Arms motel complex on both sides of Hollywood Street, one a block south of Garfield Parkway.

Likely to open as a Marriott hotel in spring of 2015, the proposed name is still Bethany Beach Ocean Suites. Burbage said a “centerpiece hotel” could bring visitors, extend the tourist season and attract more business.

“I think it’s going to be the centerpiece to the town and a tremendous asset to help the town during the summer months,” Burbage said. “I think Bethany is a beautiful summer town, a quiet resort, but the merchants are struggling to stay open because the season is so short. They only have six good weeks” between mid-July and the start of school (after Labor Day locally, but in late August for many surrounding states).

Still meeting Bethany’s low building height, the two-building hotel would include conference or wedding space, spa, restaurant and rooftop pool.

That can bring off-season visitors to a traditional summer resort.

“I think the hotel will really fill the shoulder months – the May and June, September, even October – that they haven’t had in the past. I think if the people are there, the merchants will [stay open],” Burbage said.

He also said the higher dollar hotel will attract more boutique shops in town.

“It’s not going to be cheap to stay in that hotel,” he said. “I think it’s going to step everything up a grade. I think it’s going to bring quality people … who have money to spend. I think we can get shops. The shops we have will be able to carry better merchandise and sell it.

“Right now, it’s not profitable for a lot of quality stores to be open in Bethany and make a profit, unless it was operator-owned,” Burbage said.

“It’s a ‘Catch-22,’” Killmer said. “If you don’t have anything open downstairs, they don’t come. You have to convince the businesses to stay open” so curious visitors will come.

Yet Burbage believes a longer selling season could entice boutiques, such a South Moon Under clothing, also found in Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach.

“We need [more] quality shops in town,” and a longer selling season for retail and restaurants, Burbage said. “When a downtown dies, the town dies. Not that the town is dying, but it will help make it stronger, make it better.”

“We’re not getting a Kmart on the boardwalk,” Gordon noted. “It’s still gonna be boutique-type establishments … like a higher-end dress shop instead of a T-shirt shop.”

Like many business owners, Burbage saw a quaint and family-friendly town, not a bar town, when he first bought property in 1982.

“Parents can come and turn their kids loose and ride around town and they don’t have to worry,” he said.

“I love Bethany. I think it will continue to improve and become more valuable,” Burbage said.

“Right now, they’re coming, but there isn’t a hotel for them to stay in right on the beach. This is the premiere spot.”

With many visitors vacationing on a local family member’s sofa, Burbage believes many travelers would prefer a hotel, and locals wouldn’t mind having their homes back for four to seven days.

Burbage knows the plans were unpopular with some folks, but he felt the town’s 71-percent public approval in non-binding referendum showed general acceptance of the project.

“I think it’s a little out of character for the town,” said former councilmember Margaret Young. “If that came to pass, I would like a hotel more in the character of Bethany. … I hope the town doesn’t get more commercial.”

Physically, the hotel is cottage-like, with architecture reminiscent of the neighboring beach houses.

“I was concerned about it changing the town, but I think it’s an important part of the town now,” which Betsy Clark of Japanesque believes will attract a “variety of people.”

“I think it’s like in a mall, where you have an anchor store,” Killmer said. “I think the hotel will be the equivalent of an anchor for the downtown business community because there will be people coming in for weddings and conferences – and hopefully attract different kinds of business, not just typical summertime business, like ice cream shops,” but year-round shops that will serve the surrounding community.”

Facing the sea

Bethany’s biggest challenge is its greatest asset: water.

“People have been living in Bethany Beach for thousands of years,” said resident and author Carol Psaros.

But Mother Nature has been sculpting the East Coast for longer. Between 15,000 and 18,000 years ago, the East Coast met the continental shelf, about 50 miles out to sea, said Tony Pratt of Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Before that, the Delmarva Peninsula was covered with water, as evidenced by shark and whale fossils found north of Smyrna.

He called water a “chronic problem” for Delmarva.

“That was okay for 15,985 years. But particularly in the last 100 years, we have seen a lot of occupation of the coastline, and towns don’t move,” said Pratt, manager of the Shoreline & Waterway Management Section.

“There becomes less and less distance between infrastructure and the water. The way we have chosen to utilize it is to put sand back in front of land that has been lost.”

Governments pay to dredge sand about two miles offshore, which “gives us some time to be resistant.”

Just six beach replenishment projects between 1989 and 2011 cost about $25 million to replace 4.5 million cubic yards of sand, states the comprehensive plan.

The federal and state governments subsidize these projects, rebuilding beaches after major storms (or for routine maintenance) for several reasons. The sand is a buffer, beaten away by harsh waves so the roads and buildings remain. Plus, beaches are the highlight of Delaware’s tourism industry, bringing endless jobs and tax dollars to the state.

“The coastal communities are a business driver,” Killmer said. “When people come here, not just from Delaware, but surrounding states, it’s a good source of revenue.”

“It’s the economics of it,” Pratt said. “The towns provide a tremendous number of jobs in the state and recreational opportunities.”

Thousands of homes rest behind those sand dunes, and most employees in a beach town have a job because of the beach.

“All the stores that are on the beach are there because of one thing: the sand amenity. The stores on Route [26], plumbers, roofers, waitresses, chefs … all that’s dependent on people coming from somewhere else to visit our beach,” Pratt said. “They’ll go someplace where that beach exists.

“Keeping the beach in place, even though it’s expensive – the economic well-being in Delaware … is much greater and expensive than maintaining the beach in front.”

Bethany can expect its beloved sands to be replenished every three years in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 50-year plan – if funding is available.

“Every three years, the dredge is supposed to return to the coast,” Pratt said. However, “The money isn’t put aside for 50 years to do this.”

The Army Corps must return to Congress each year to request available dollars to keep its 50-year promise to many towns. If there’s no money, there’s no work.

But Bethany Beach has been lucky so far. Since the initial construction of the modern dune around 2007 (notoriously blocking the ocean view from the boardwalk), Bethany has gotten regular maintenance and was included in a massive $65-mllion emergency rebuilding fund after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the brunt of which hit New Jersey and New York.

Bethany returns to the same standard each time: a 16-foot-tall dune stretching 100 feet wide, overlooking 150 feet of dry beach.

Pratt hopes the feds realize that the investment made at the Delaware beaches is a very good thing.

“If the federal government or state government is unable to come up with funding, it could be a conversation in the future as how we continue to maintain these projects,” Pratt warned.

Killmer suggested that coastal towns may someday partner together to fund their own dredging projects, in times of desperation, just like when several Route 1 areas partnered to pay for BBVFC ambulance service.

“We hear rumblings that possibly we would not get the government support in replenishing the beaches in the future, but we have not heard anything official on that, and there is nothing to indicate that things would be any different,” said Gordon.

There are also environmental grumblings about dredging, from displaced sea life to the “drop-off,” which often leaves swimmers stepping straight down by several feet at the shore break.

“Sandy taught us a big lesson to how extremely vulnerable we are to coastal storms. Fortunately, it did take a little jog to the north,” Pratt said. “That landing could have taken place in Ocean City … that’s not to say that won’t happen next month or 25 years from now.”

“We can’t let down our country’s defenses,” Pratt said. “We think of threats from outside sources. We also have to think in terms of the natural disasters that make tremendous impacts.”

Killmer compared it to California earthquakes or Midwest tornados, calling it natural phenomena. And afterward, people help each other rebuild, rather than pointing fingers at someone for building on the fault line.

“I was on the Sea Level Rise Committee,” Killmer said. “There’s only three things you can do. You can protect it, you can raise it, or you can move it.

“With the new FEMA flood plain map for Bethany Beach coming up, the town will be 80 percent in the flood plain, versus 50 percent in the flood plain. So the mortgage company might require you to get flood insurance,” Killmer said.

The National Flood Insurance Program has provided subsidized insurance to coastal areas, but as it attempts to make up for money lost in protecting those vulnerable areas, homeowners will face much higher premiums in the coming years.

“It will get to a point where people will not build or rebuild because it’s too costly to, or there might not be homeowners insurance available, meaning they can’t get a mortgage [unless they’re wealthy enough to pay in cash].

I think it’s a self-correcting mechanism over time,” Killmer said.

Meanwhile, Bethany is treading its own personal flooding problem. A good rainstorm will overwhelm the Loop Canal in northeast Bethany, where roads are routinely blocked off for flooding. It’s just another challenge of having streets, like Pennsylvania Avenue, which are barely above mean high tide on a good day.

“I’m hoping we can deal with global warming and anything the weather would bring us. I think that’s the biggest challenge,” said Psaros.

“The reason we have a town of Bethany is because of the ocean and the beach,” said Clark. “If we lose that beach…”

Morphing in place

“I think you’ll see Bethany will continue to grow and change within itself, morph within itself,” said Burbage. “It will never be an Ocean City or a Rehoboth, and we do not want it to be that. It will always be a quiet resort that will be a classier resort in time.”

Ultimately the decisions are made by whomever shows up, and Bethany hopes to continue utilizing its best resource: the people, from those with a vision to the retirees who volunteer time and knowledge.

“I see nothing but positive things for Bethany in the future,” Killmer said. “We have really a fantastic collection of retired people who’ve had outstanding positions in many industries, from banking to CPAs to company presidents – you name it. We have this unbelievable resource of talent … individuals are gracious to offer their intellect and expertise in service in committees in town.”

Young encouraged residents to keep their beloved Bethany on track.

“Take notice of, and pay attention to, proposed changes in the town, and if you don’t like it, make your voice heard,” Young said. “Go tell the rest of the town. Go tell the newspaper. Go tell the town manager. You have to tell somebody in the position … what your problem is.”

At Delaware Seashore State Park, Doug Long thinks people do care.

“I think the secret is out what we know as the Quiet Resorts. I’m sure it’s not so quiet anymore,” said the park superintendent. “The good news is I think all the users today, they’re very protective of their parks and town.”

When the park hosted a wintertime public meeting about park amenities, 80 people attended to make sure DSSP would “not screw it up,” Long joked.

“As far as any grandiose plan into the future,” Gordon said, “we have nothing in mind apart from remaining the Quiet Resort and a nice beach.”

“The way things are taken care of in this town by the town is amazing,” said Cahill. “The beautification that they’ve done … They’re constantly upgrading. They are not letting this town suffer in any way shape or form.”

“I do think Bethany has a future,” Clark said. “It already is growing and changing, but it’s just with the times. Make the main street a little more interesting, so I still see that there’s going to be growth, but only in a good way. It has to [in order to survive].” v

— Story by Laura Walter