The 'Quiet Resort'
More than 100 years after its founding, Bethany Beach remains, as the Town itself notes in its historical information, “a haven of rest for quiet people.” While the temporary camp sites and early beachfront homes have been washed away with the tide of time, Bethany is still seen as a place of respite, whether for a weekend away, a week of vacation or decades of retirement.
If anything marks the changing face of the town in recent decades, it is likely the shift from a transient population of summer visitors and part-time home owners to a growing year-round population buoyed every summer by the arrival of thousands of visitors still eager to call the town home for a short while.
The 1990 U.S. Census recorded that 326 people lived in the town — a little more than twice as many as had lived in Bethany Beach in 1940. That number had jumped to 903 by the time the 2000 Census rolled around and has increased steadily since then, with a population of 1,060 recorded in the 2010 Census and unofficial estimates now at more than 1,100 residents.
That increase has been particularly evident in its retiree population, as the town’s largest population group, measured in five-year age brackets, is those 60 to 64, at 16.4 percent of the town’s population. In fact, more than 58 percent of the town’s residents are 55 or older, with just 6 percent being 19 or younger. The median age of Bethany Beach residents is will let many of them start collecting their Social Security benefits, at 63.8.
That has translated into the varied uses for the town’s 2,653 housing units. Of those, just 566 are occupied full-time (503 by their owners), while 1,921 are used seasonally, recreationally or occasionally.
“It used to be almost always people were looking at ‘What kind of rental income will I see?’” recalled Bethany Beach-area real estate broker Michael Wilgus, whose family has been in the insurance business in the area since 1945 and in real estate since 1964. “I’m seeing so much more than in years past where people want to concentrate on having their property available to them in summer or the off-season.”
Wilgus said he’s observed that many of those buyers are of an age to be planning their retirement, between 45 and 55.
“They want a second home in convenient driving distance, where the family can gather or have a quick getaway. A lot of them are still working, not yet retired.”
“Rentability is still high,” he said of buyers’ priorities. “There are plenty of people who want to come and rent places. But it seems the closer you get to the ocean, the more the inventory is diminishing. People want to use that property themselves,” he added, saying that if people can afford to buy for their own use, they prefer not having to worry about rental income. “They want to be able use it.”
The geographic origins of many of these part-time residents continue to be in the Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia metro areas.
“I’m seeing people coming from towns outside of the Washington Beltway and suburban areas of southeast Pennsylvania and south-central Pennsylvania,” Wilgus noted.
With the shift from rental investment properties to more second homes and retirement destinations has come a change in the architecture seen around the town.
“A lot of people are coming into town to retire here,” said Marie Cahill, broker/owner at Connor-Jacobsen Realty who has more than a quarter-century of experience in the local real estate market. “The houses — the old cottages that are being purchased — these big, big three-story houses are going up in their place. We’re seeing that this seems to be the way of the future.”
The Town has taken note of that and, as of 2014, was working to put legislation in place to better control residential building bulk.
And, as of 2014, Cahill said the area has clearly put the Great Recession behind it: “The market is coming back. It’s not like the prices are going out of sight, but we are busy. Business has picked up, inventory has gone down.”
While those big houses are the current trend, Cahill said there’s still a variety of housing available in Bethany Beach, for those who are in the market and have the money to spend to live close to the beach.
“There is such a big gap in pricing, depending on where you are in Bethany. Of course, oceanfront is most expensive, ocean block, the west side of Route 1… It really depends on their pocketbook. You go from multimillion-dollar to into the $300,000s, high $200,000s, from cottage to townhouse to mansion. Even some of the cottages go for over a million dollars, so it really depends on where it is, the closeness to the ocean and how new it is and how large the lot is. It runs the spectrum.”
“It’s still all over the board,” Wilgus said of today’s Bethany real estate market. “There are about 99 condos and houses for sale, of which 11 are under contract.” He said the lowest-priced homes run around $305,000 for a single-family home or $205,000 for a condominium unit. From there, the sky’s the limit.
Houses get up to $2.1 million, $2.5 million, with an outlier of the oceanfront, at $3.85 million, he said. The highest condo is in the Cedar Sands community off Atlantic Avenue — $1.2 million or $1.3 million. Then prices drop to about $500,000.
Wilgus said a number of factors contribute to people being willing to pay those kinds of prices for a place near the beach. “Convenience, being close to the shore, the short drive, having a very nice quality of life,” he offered, noting that homes run from “cottage to extravagant,” though he agreed that the trend over recent years has been away from the modest cottages of the town’s past.
“The days of the quaint old Bethany cottages seem to be going by the wayside,” he said, adding that people are willing to make an investment in these vacation and, in many cases, future retirement homes.
Summer fun, shoulder-season’s peaceful run
Cahill said the town’s appeal is obvious to those who’ve been there.
“It’s a beautiful town, and everybody knows it. They come here and they fall in love with it, and then it’s a matter of what they can afford to purchase. The people who want to stay forever are the people who are ready to retire and they see what it’s like here, and they like the idea of it,” she said.
“I look at Bethany Beach as a model coastal Delaware community,” said Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer. “It is beautiful throughout the year — made possible by Melinda Linde and her assistant Jessica Williamson, as well as members of the Public Works Department. The Town is unique compared to other coastal communities by the fact that is family-oriented, it has a boardwalk, a welcoming downtown commercial business district, provides top-notch Town-provided services, sponsors and holds community events throughout the year.”
“I like it. It’s busy in summertime,” said Ron Steen, whose family has been supplying rental umbrellas, chairs and more to beachgoers for more than 50 years, and who lives on Parkwood Street downtown. “The beaches are crowded, and now, right now after Labor Day, they’re not crowded. It’s calm. You maybe get a rush on the weekends.”
The area has become so popular that the growth has expanded beyond Bethany Beach town limits and into communities in North Bethany, along with the well-established Sea Colony and Middlesex Beach to the south.
“We’re in a good spot,” said North Bethany resident Carol Psaros, who has lived full-time in the area for 14 years and whose family has owned property there since the 1950s. “It still is quiet, relative to those other places,” she said of other beach towns. “I think in the ’60s they made a good choice by letting Sea Colony being built, because it brought so many people in,” but it didn’t destroy the soul of the town, she added.
“We’ve been very blessed in Delaware to have the state law and the county ordinances supportive of keeping it more natural,” Psaros said. “The ocean, the sand, the seas, the salt… The sunrises and the moonrises — I think there’s nothing more beautiful than when the moon rises over the ocean. Over the years, I’ve seen every description of sea creature,” she recalled. “Not just turtles, birds, osprey, but manatees, whales, seals, stingrays, manta rays.”
Nature has gotten a little bit of help from man in recent years, as major beach replenishment projects along the Delaware shore have expanded beachfronts and reconstructed the protective dunes that had structures built over them decades ago.
“The shells aren’t quite what they used to be, with the beach replenishment,” Psaros acknowledged. “You’ve got to learn to change with the times, and without beach replenishment,” the area would be at the mercy of the sea. … “I hope the gods are kind to us and Bethany, and we won’t suffer anything like New Jersey did,” she said of the ravages of Hurricane Sandy.
Meanwhile, the Town has also made improvements to its boardwalk, replacing worn salt-treated lumber boards with engineered-wood Kebony boards, which offer a 50-year lifespan and are less likely to crack, peel and splinter.
The Town in 2008 also instituted the state’s first ban prohibiting smoking on the beach, as well as the bandstand area, boardwalk and in town parks, except where designated. The move has earned the Town honors from the American Lung Association and led the way for other area towns, and more nationwide, to adopt similar bans. It followed up on the ban in 2014, adding the newly popular e-cigarettes and other forms of smoking to the ban.
While these changes have modified aspects of one of the town’s main features and biggest attractions, Psaros said the town has survived such changes and retained its small-town character.
“It’s still a wonderful place — not that we haven’t lost things that I like — but change is going to happen. And as times go, Bethany has survived. It has not turned into a concrete jungle like Ocean City. It’s still nice place for families to have a quiet vacations.”
All in all, she said, “I think they’ve changed for the better, and I think the town of Bethany has done a wonderful job of staying true to its original.”
Ted and Donna Ware, formerly of Wilmington, Del., and now living in Albany, N.Y., said there are a lot of things to like about Bethany Beach, including much of what hasn’t changed in the 50-some years Ted Ware has been coming to the town.
“Everything,” he said in describing what he likes about Bethany, highlighting the local golf courses, bodysurfing opportunities and the Town’s increasingly impactful floral displays. “I think it’s a great little town. … What’s not to like?”
Donna Ware said she likes that Bethany is safe. “When our kids used to sneak out, we knew where to find them,” she said, also noting the comparative lack of high-rise structures. “Our kids grew up vacationing here. Our parents were here with us.”
“It’s been a family tradition for 40-plus years,” Ted Ware noted. “This time of year’s great — so quiet,” he said of the period just after Labor Day. (Donna Ware hushed him, telling him to not let the secret out, joking that, in other places they had raved about the hotels so much that they couldn’t get in the next year because all the rooms were booked.)
In Bethany, the Wares and the Coffman and Orr families typically rent a beach house for their vacations, enjoying sitting on the deck, having cocktails, eating Fisher’s Popcorn, having a crab feast and bicycling.
It’s a story many local residents have in their past: Connie Coffman of Richmond, Va., said she heard about Bethany from some friends, and her family has now been vacationing in the area for eight years. Sandy Orr of Enfield, N.H., said his family has been coming to the area for about 15 years.
And they’ve increasingly been able to enjoy the town as the summer season winds down. Killmer said it is the property buyers nearing their retirement years who have helped shift the town to a more year-round existence.
“With their arrival, they are creating a critical mass of individuals with spendable incomes to better support a more year-round business community that focuses on their needs and not just for those who vacation in Bethany Beach during the summer months,” he said.
The quiet environment and natural features of the area have always appealed to people, but when looking for a place to retire, it’s more than the area’s oft-touted low property taxes that keeps people in Bethany Beach year-round.
“The summertime is the big focus. But, boy, 12 months out of the year — the beauty never ceases to amaze me. Just driving past Bethany in the morning… The way sunlight hits the dunes…” mused Delaware Seashore State Park Superintendent Doug Long.
And with the appreciation of that year-round appeal, the very nature of the place has changed. No longer does a busy summer season abruptly shift to a nearly vacant town after Labor Day. Instead, people have discovered the wonders of the fall and late-spring “shoulder seasons,” which in turn has created more demand for year-round events, which have in turn created even more reasons for people to stick around after summer has gone.
Ted Ware acknowledged that summertime has its down sides. “It’s busier, harder to get into restaurants,” he said.
“But the kids liked it,” said Donna Ware. “There’s more to do.”
Family-friendly, year-round respite
“I think Bethany Beach has done a good job maintaining a family-oriented atmosphere in town, where there are a lot of activities for all ages,” said Wilgus. “There’s a lot of action occurring four months of the year. The other eight months, it’s just a quiet coastal community. It has more action than it used to, certainly, but the pace, the traffic all slows down or goes away.”
Even those who appreciate its quiet nature recognize the benefits of expanded year-round options.
Asked what she does for fun, Psaros said, “Everything! I do a lot inland with my friends and my church.” Psaros is also vice-president of the Ocean View Historical Society, which has been among the groups leading a growing wave of interest in the area’s history as so many adopt it as their full-time home. “There’s more to do now than ever. Every weekend there’s a festival or a race or an event in Bethany, or in Dewey or Ocean City.
“The only quiet months here are January, February and part of March,” she noted. “All the restaurants now stay open all year. That is so not like old Bethany.”
Steen said the local culinary scene is also a highlight for him.
“The one thing I’ve seen that’s really made it sweet is a number of really good restaurants around here,” he noted. “It’s just crazy, the demand. People are just tired of the city. They just want to come out.”
“Bethany Beach today is a very dynamic growing community,” said Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company Public Information Officer Joe Hopple. “It’s obviously a resort community, but it’s expanding and continues to be busier as the summer goes — especially in the summer, but even in the shoulder seasons.
“We’re not having the off-seasons that we used to have,” Hopple noted. “I think more people are staying longer.” He said that has put increasing pressure on the fire company, which not only has to respond to fire emergencies in one of the state’s longest fire districts (stretching from the Indian River Inlet to Fenwick Island), but to medical emergencies, as well.
In 2009, the Millville Volunteer Fire Company’s EMS service, which had served the area for decades but had struggled to keep up with a growing local population, reduced its service area, eliminating service to Bethany and its coastal neighbors. The Bethany Beach company picked up the job, forming for the first time an ambulance service, with support from the towns of Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island, as well as the Sea Colony Community, each collecting an annual fee that goes directly to the EMS service.
“We talked to the towns, and we asked, ‘Do you want us to provide ambulance service?’ They said yes,” Hopple recalled, noting that the expansion was needed. “There have been several points when all three ambulances have been at Beebe the whole time, and Millville has been there. It shows you how the volume of EMS is expanding. The older community that used to have summer homes here is now retired to those summer homes.”
Hopple said the fire company is still being challenged to keep up with the increasing volume, even with a third ambulance purchased this year. That’s especially challenging in the summer, when the area’s population reaches its peak.
“The county can grow to three to four times its off-season population,” Hopple said of the summers.
Paystations and trolleys and Streetscape — Oh, my!
With so many people finding and returning to Bethany as their summertime haven, parking has been another area of change for the town, as the constant press of visitors and residents seeking to enjoy the beach and downtown businesses has seen it move from coin-operated parking meters throughout the downtown area to, in 2010, a combination of parking paystations and a few remaining meters, adding a mobile device-based parking payment option in 2014.
That’s in addition to the option of taking the town trolley between stops on both the east and west sides of town.
“I think we have like 900 year-round residents,” said Steen. “In the summer, we probably have 25,000. Parking is at a premium, and the Town has accommodated people by having these little trolleys.”
The Town also moved in 2011 to add more parking spaces, reaching agreements with a private property owner and the fire company to make public parking spaces available on the two lots. Those additions more than offset the loss of parking from the Streetscape renovation of downtown Bethany, which was approved in 2011, after a decade of discussion and revision, and got under way in late 2012. The final stage of the project is set for completion in the fall of 2014.
The project in the 100 and beach blocks of Garfield Parkway has given the downtown area a functional and aesthetic facelift, moving parallel parking from the curbside to center medians and eliminating utility poles in favor of underground utility lines — opening up the sidewalks to pedestrians, who no longer feel quite so cramped as summertime crowds make their way to and from the beach.
“I would say it’s one of the best-run, best-managed coastal communities in Delaware,” said Killmer. “We’re fiscally sound. We have little to no debt. We’ve been very blessed by having availability of both grant money for the Streetscape, as well as qualifying for low-interest loans on our water tower,” he added of the project to replace the Town’s existing water standpipe.
The new elevated water tower is akin to the one that was a landmark in the town for so many years but which made way for the new town hall, and the town museum within, in 1996.
“The beautification of the town is an ongoing project and is a model for other coastal Delaware communities,” Killmer said. “I think we have one of the nicest downtown areas, with the plantings and flowers. Streetscape will add total charm and, hopefully, encourage businesses to make their outsides nicer.”
Mayor Jack Gordon, who purchased property in the town in 1990 and retired there with his wife, Joan, in 1999, agreed that the impact of projects small and large has been very visible in recent years. “We’re beautifying the town. It gets lovelier as the horticulturalist beautifies the street.”
Gordon said cooperation between the town and its neighbors is a key reason there are so few problems on the horizon, and a little planning doesn’t hurt either.
“I think the town is definitely going in the right direction,” Gordon said. “We’ve been financially sound throughout the downturn. We make sure we operate our budget in a responsible way in that we do not use the transfer taxes in any way as an operational fund, so we’re in very good shape, and we intend to keep it that way.
“And we have improved the looks of the town and improved the infrastructure of the town over a period of time, and I think things have been in a positive trend,” he added.
Full-time or part-time, people get involved
Killmer, who bought his current house with his wife, Maureen, on the town’s west side in 1990 and retired there in 2002, said he’s a reformed Jersey shore vacationer, having lived in the Philadelphia area.
“We had dear friends who vacationed here and brought property,” he recalled of what led them to Bethany. “It was a very reasonable cost of buying a property at the time and the cost of maintaining it. We could afford to keep two houses. You couldn’t do that at the Jersey shore.”
Living on the west side of Route 1, Killmer said he’s noticed a different atmosphere there.
“It’s much bigger on the western side. It’s mostly year-round people on that side,” he said. “It’s a different kind of environment. If you walked down on the east side — say in a month or so — in the evening, you’ll see very few lights on. On the west you’ll see many lights on because … that’s where people live, where they vote, where their cars are registered.”
Killmer pointed out that Bethany property owners can all vote in town elections, regardless of whether they live in the town, and that offers a chance for non-resident property owners to get involved in the town, just as if they were residents. And get involved they do.
“We typically get 1,000 to 1,500 voters in a typical election,” he noted. That’s in addition to the many town committees that offer the chance to contribute to subjects as far ranging as the town museum, comprehensive planning, finances and Fourth of July parade, which the Town itself only took over from its longtime volunteer organizers in 2014.
Killmer said the town “has members of the community who volunteer and share their expertise, work experience and their love of Bethany Beach by serving on Town committees, and the Town is always forward-thinking, by always planning for the future, which includes planning for such things as weather-related disaster.
The Town has also made an effort in recent years to reach out to local business owners, who have increasingly sought ways to expand their seasons beyond the summer, including through new events, such as the Wags, Witches & Warlocks event that now takes place annually at Halloween.
Betsy Clark of Japanesque said it’s Bethany’s established generations-long appeal that led her to opening the eclectic boutique on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“My grandparents actually vacationed in Ocean City. That’s where they dated and had their memories. They were headed to Rehoboth” to buy a house, she said, “but stopped in Bethany. … I had vacationed and worked myself in that town. It’s amazing — you can go all over the world and find people that know Bethany Beach: ‘My grandmother has a house there!’ ‘Japanesque? I’ve shopped there!’”
Clark said Sea Colony’s condominiums brought an influx of people from Washington and Baltimore, making the area a little more cosmopolitan and international.
“It’s a little international spot,” she said. “We’ve had generations of shoppers. It’ll be like 30 years next year for us. It’s all been good. We’ve seen it go from something unusual — especially having a Japanese theme and people walking right by the store — to this is the hottest, coolest thing, like, ‘My kids are learning Japanese in school right now!’” she said she’s heard customers say. “My philosophy is to always learn something new. I hope they’re always learning something new and experiencing something new.”
While new is good, Clark said she is glad Bethany has stayed the same in at least one way.
“I think that they’ve kept it family-friendly and very safe,” she said.
Though Japanesque has been in Bethany for three decades, it’s not the town’s oldest business nor the only one focusing on family-friendliness. Rhodes 5&10 still anchors the 100 block of Garfield Parkway, after 45 years.
“We’ve kept it a family business, to coincide with the family atmosphere of Bethany Beach,” said Diane Turnahan, daughter of founder Arnold Rhodes and owner of Fish Tales just across the street, had said as the shop approached its 40th anniversary.
“We have many employees that we’ve had for many, many years. Lisa, our current manager — we’ve had her mother working here, her sisters, her son, her nieces and nephews. And my own family — my husband, Bob, and five children — all have a part in working here.”
It was a similar story down the street at the Blue Surf Motel, and for about a decade more, as the McCabe family operated the landmark boardwalk-fronting motel starting in 1959 until its demolition in 2007, when it was redeveloped as condominiums and shops — one of which is a toy store run by Lori (McCabe) Smyth, Tidepool Toys & Games.
And right next door to the Blue Surf stood the Bethany Arms Motel, operated by the Powell family since 1957. The Bethany Arms was demolished in 2014, to make way for the flagship Bethany Beach Ocean Suites hotel, slated to open in 2015 — a second big change for the boardwalk area in less than a decade, but one that guarantees that, for the foreseeable future, people can still rent a room overlooking the Bethany Beach boardwalk.
Steen noted that the summer life in the resort town is often complementary to the off-season life people have had in the area for decades, a multi-faceted work/play/work environment that keeps people busy and paychecks coming.
“Those 38 years — all my life I had two jobs: Teaching, and then I go right straight out into the beach service,” said the retired Indian River High School teacher. “There are lifeguards now that are teachers and then lifeguards. And that’s pretty good, I think.”
The mix of long-standing tradition, long-running family involvement and community spirit can often be seen in the town.
“I think Bethany’s a great town and a village,” Steen said, adding that people look out for each other.
Nowhere is that more evident than in two of the town’s many charitable outreaches: Justin’s Beach House and Operation SEAs the Day.
Justin’s Beach House is designed as a getaway where families dealing with cancer can stay at the beach. The home located on Bethany’s west side was built in 2010 on donated land, with funding raised from within the community and donated labor and materials from members of Contractors for a Cause.
The three-story, six-bedroom, 5.5-bathroom house can accommodate 12 people, and the community continues to come together to offer support for the enterprise and the families who take respite there.
The project was the vision of Craig and Mary Ellen Nantais, who in 2000 lost their son Justin Jennings, at age 19, after his battle with brain cancer. Justin’s Beach House was designed to resonate his love and passion for the beach and serve as an escape from the hardships that other cancer patients and their families experience, day in and day out.
“This year, 34 families have stayed with us, from 20 referring facilities,” the couple wrote in December 2012. “Our guests traveled from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., New York and Maryland. The ages of our guests have ranged from 2 to 87, and each and every one have left us a message of what a wonderful time they had during their stay at Justin’s Beach House.
“It gave them an opportunity to take a much-needed break from the day-to-day realities of their cancer. The stay at Justin’s also gave them the time to reconnect with their families and to renew their souls.”
Operation SEAs the Day’s mission is “to organize and facilitate a beach week event for our wounded soldiers and their families as a means of showing our appreciation for their service and sacrifice. It is our hope that such a community-based gesture of support will be comforting and help ease their transition back into civilian life,” organizers said.
The idea was created by Diane Pohanka and Becky Johns, who made their dream into a reality in 2013, when 25 families were invited to and attended Warrior Beach Week, totaling more than 100 people. For its second year, 30 families visited the Quiet Resorts from Sept. 2 to Sept. 7, 2014, and the idea has already been taken up in other communities around the nation.
In its first year, the event was embraced by the entire Bethany Beach community, according to board member Rob Arlett, who described the response as “incredible.”
“This last year, being the first for Operation SEAs the Day, could not have gone better. The community rallied in complete support of our very important families (VIFs) by giving of their time, effort, money and hearts. I totally believe that the community has ‘fallen in love’ with the mission and the families.
“People of all ages participated,” he noted. “We believe in community involvement and desire to include more of the local community with our mission, not less. Everyone from our Bethany Beach and surrounding communities should be so very proud of themselves for what they have done and will continue to do by serving these very important families.”
Town’s foundations get a new look
Along with Streetscape, renovation has also been a focus for the town’s public library, as the South Coastal Library got a major makeover in 2007, increasing the building’s size from roughly 10,000 square feet to nearly 22,000 square feet and introducing an abundance of new options for patrons.
The new building saw the addition of study and reading sections, business and meeting rooms, and a fully functioning classroom, complete with computers — more than double what was originally offered, up from 11 to 24. The project also expanded the children’s and teens’ rooms, as well as adding a reading garden.
While the town was founded as part of the summer retreats of the Disciples of Christ (Bethany Beach Christian Church), the church itself hasn’t remained stuck in the early 20th century. The original octagonal tabernacle building that was the first permanent structure in the town was rebuilt for its 100th anniversary, in 2001.
In 2012, it was time for the church’s conference center dormitory, Campbell Hall, to meet the 21st century, when the 80-year-old structure was razed and replaced with a new building better able to accommodate the ongoing summer retreats and the volunteers who need a place to stay while in the area.
The new structure is designed to avoid the flooding that plagued the old one and offers 72 beds, in both dorm-style rooms assigned to either men or women, with semi-private bathrooms, and family-style suites, some of which have private baths. Some of the bedrooms and their private baths are now handicapped-accessible, and the whole structure, for the first time, offers central heating and air conditioning.
Of course, Campbell Hall isn’t the only area of town that’s been regularly subjected to flooding over the years. As of mid-2014, the jury remained out as to whether there is an affordable solution to the town’s long-running problems with tidal flooding, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ most recent survey of the issue hadn’t yet given town officials a verdict.
But the Town has made significant strides in recent years in battling the compounding problem of rainwater-caused flooding; with a major effort to clear and re-work existing drainage systems in areas where rainwater tends to collect, including in sections of Bethany West and N. Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It’s nothing that’s going to resolve the issues with tidal flooding, but now it drains much more quickly,” Town Manager Cliff Graviet told council members in July of 2014. Even during recent “significant” rain events, Graviet noted, within 12 to 24 hours, the area was dry, except for some puddling on the shoulders.
“Flooding has always been an issue from the founding of the Town to present day and, sadly, it will probably remain as part of our future,” Killmer acknowledged, pointing particularly to his concerns about revised federal flood maps and other things impacting the cost of flood insurance for property owners.
“Many, many years ago, a former town council member, Jane Fowler, commented, regarding flooding, ‘The only thing that the Town can really do to address the issue of flooding is to provide a pair of boots to all our residents.’ Unfortunately, her insight might not be too far from the truth, keeping in mind the potential impact of both sea-level rise and global warming might have on the town.”
That’s a concern on the horizon, but Killmer said it’s through the work of Graviet and other town staff members that the Town has come so far with dealing some portion of with the flooding problem it has experienced for decades.
“The Town has been blessed by having a town manager such as Cliff Graviet, who is a forward-thinking leader with excellent organizational skills. The Town has a devoted staff that, because of our small size, requires each employee to wear multiple hats throughout the year. The fact that the Town has virtually no turnover in staff each year speaks volumes to the fact that it is a great place to work and one where they are all treated with respect, dignity and high degree of professionalism,” he said.
Back to nature and down on the farm
Flooding is also a common sight at the Bethany Beach Nature Center on the town’s west side, just off Route 26. But there, it’s something that was planned to begin with.
The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays and the Town of Bethany Beach have a partnership to provide nature experiences and watershed education at the center. The 26-acre conservation area includes forested uplands, freshwater uplands and tidal wetlands, with a trail taking visitors and exercise-minded pedestrians through the area with minimal impact to nature.
The Bethany Beach Nature Center’s indoor facility is located inside the historic Addy Cottage, which was moved to the site and restored by the Town. In addition to the trail, which is open from dawn to dusk, there is a handicapped-accessible boardwalk where educational signs abound. Inside the center, visitors can explore the watershed virtually, through the high-tech “I-wall.”
The Nature Center is open to the public, but Bethany Beach residents and visitors have even more natural wonder coming for their recreational pleasure, as the new town park is just starting to take shape, with the 2014 survey of town citizens as to what they’d like to see in a park developed on the former Christian Church and Neff properties at the northwest corner of Routes 26 and 1.
Almost since the Town purchased the property, the consensus from the town council has been to create a park there that would feature open space and minimal facilities, such as benches, landscaping, paths and perhaps some exercise stations. The survey voiced citizens’ wide support for that sort of vision, leading the council in the summer of 2014 to approve sending the project to bids for a landscape architect to design several options that would lead to a final design.
In the intervening years, the Town has used its own employees to do preliminary work on the site, leaving an open, green space with a sparse covering of healthy trees that will eventually form the base for the park, which Killmer said he thinks is going to be “a gem.”
“Not everybody who comes to the beach wants to be on the beach all the time,” he said. “It’s quiet, but in the downtown area. I, personally, think it will be well used. It’s more of a natural setting, keeping in mind that the property is totally surrounded by downtown properties. Walking trails, plantings, walkways, low-intensity lighting — these are some of the features people want. Keep it as natural as possible and also keep the cost down.”
Cost isn’t so much of an issue for the Town as concerns for the planned Assawoman Canal Trail Park, which was expected to begin construction in the fall of 2014, under the auspices of the State of Delaware.
Long said the project — being created with partners from the Towns of Ocean View, Bethany Beach and South Bethany, and the communities of Sea Colony, Salt Pond and Waterside — will run one mile from property next to Bethany Surf Shop in Ocean View to Central Avenue, along the west side of the Assawoman Canal.
At the Town Road public access point, there will be a small, 10-space parking lot, restroom, shade structure and a “spot to toss a kayak into the canal,” described Long. He said the 8-foot-wide “stone-dust” trail will be ADA-accessible and meander for a mile through the woods along the canal and end at Central Avenue in Ocean View, for now.
“That was actually quite unique from the state parks,” Long said of the project, as typically new parks are the State Parks’ idea. “In this case, the towns came to us,” he noted. “Wouldn’t it be great to get a trail to link your communities?”
Long acknowledged that there have been challenges involved, with six or seven different communities needing to “kind of agree” on the same concept. “Fortunately, we’ve had a couple public meetings to see what they want and don’t want. There’s some naturally NIMBY [not in my backyard] attitude. Some folks are kind of leery,” he said. But the State has worked to assuage many of those concerns, assuring people of plans for safety measures and privacy to be maintained for neighboring property owners.
Delaware Seashore State Park is already a major destination for locals and visitors alike, running along a narrow 6-mile strip from Dewey Beach to south of the Indian River Inlet, then skipping over private and public beaches in the communities and towns around Bethany before resuming near Fenwick Island.
Fishing, camping, surfing, swimming and more are on tap on those beaches each summer and well beyond, and recent improvements made in conjunction with the building of the new Indian River Inlet Bridge offer even more for visitors to the park, marina and campground there. The park service also manages Holt’s Landing, Thompsons Island and other remote tracts of natural land that offer a wide variety of recreation and nature-observing opportunities.
“On peak holidays, we still get complaints about crowds, on Saturday and Sunday,” Long said, “but wait two days and come on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and you still have a wide-open beach to be alone with your thoughts.”
Long attributed the value of the coastal state parks today to planning done by state officials decades ago. “A lot of these state park beaches were established in late ’60s. What foresight they had! Now all the area that’s not in the state park is developed. That’s not a bad thing,” he said of the preservation of the state park lands.
While nearby state parks offer a bevy of things to do and there are at least two park projects on Bethany’s horizon, residents and visitors already have more opportunities to get up close to the natural world each summer, as local farmers and food producers bring their wares to the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market each Sunday morning at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Garfield Parkway.
The farmers’ market is designed to serve as a timeless connection, market organizer Carrie Bennett said when the market opened for its inaugural season in 2007, to an era when local farmers carried their produce in horse-drawn wagons into Bethany Beach to sell freshly-grown crops to the townspeople.
“That’s the tradition we were trying to revive here: the relationship between the growers and the townspeople,” Bennett said. “Once you purchase locally grown food, you’re reluctant to purchase anything else.” That’s led to an expansion of farmers’ markets throughout the local towns, including one at Sea Colony.
So while farmers are no longer allowed to sell produce from trucks that travel down the streets with bells a’ringing, the ties of the local populace to the local farmer remain part of the town’s character.
Planning ahead for the beach community of tomorrow
Few Bethany Beach officials have had more involvement in using today to prepare for the future than Killmer, who has served on the town’s Planning Commission for the better part of a decade and as its president and/or council liaison for much of that time. He’s led the Town through multiple revisions of its comprehensive plan and planning and land-use codes, as well as the creation of its first commercial lodging zone.
“Growth is always a two-edged sword,” he said. “On one hand, growth fuels needed improvements and upgrades that are primarily paid for by the additional fees and taxes that are collected; but on the other hand, it causes problems that are a direct result of overcrowding (clogged roadways, crowded beaches, inadequate parking, crowded stores and restaurants, increased crime, etc.).”
Killmer said the Town has worked to deal with those issues as best it can, including the parking lot agreements and the trolley service, which transports as many as 40,000 people to the beach and downtown area from May to September, as well as the construction of the new water tower to improve reserve water capacity, along with the quality of the water provided to customers.
Looking at Bethany Beach today, the picture on the horizon seems rosy, Killmer said.
“I see nothing but positive things for Bethany in the future. I think one of the key benefits of not just Bethany, but many coastal communities: we have 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 that is … individuals who are gracious to offer their intellect and expertise in service to the town.”
Killmer said a bright future for the town may include a continuation of that expansion to a more year-round community and a more sustainable environment for its businesses.
“My hopes include the addition of new businesses that cater to the needs of our year-round residents, with the new downtown Marriott hotel being the catalyst for drawing individuals, groups, conventions, conferences, weddings, etc., to Bethany Beach — especially during the shoulder seasons,” he said of the periods from April to May and September to November, “by creating a business environment that will entice businesses to remain open after the summer season ends.”
Psaros said she’s loath to guess what changes could be coming to the area, but she thinks the town’s history has put it in a good position moving forward.
“Who can predict the future? We are in a good place. The town mothers and fathers have worked hard to make it what it is today. Really, we can thank those Victorian people who came in 1900 and laid out the town so well,” she said.
Killmer said he thinks the growing sense of community among the people of Bethany Beach will be key to its future, building upon the aspirations of its founders and perhaps even going beyond them.
“When you have a community composed of individuals and families that call Bethany Beach their home — not simply a place to visit or stay only during the summer — it changes everything!” he said.
“Caring people create a community that expresses to the members of that community that together they can create something special and enduring! Their combined efforts become synergistic in nature, resulting in creating a ‘home’ that we all call Bethany Beach, that is even better than our founders could even imagine was possible.” v
— Story by M. Patricia Titus