Web Extra: Bethany to purchase Walcek property for $1.4M
The Bethany Beach Town Council voted unanimously at its Oct. 18 meeting to purchase a 12.53-acre parcel of land — described as the last large parcel of open space remaining in the town — for $1.4 million, with the aim of ensuring it would not be developed, and by doing so, to help protect the town from ever-increasing problems with flooding.
The property — owned by Stanley Walcek and located on the north side of Route 26, opposite Candle Light Lane and adjacent to the Loop Canal, between Hudson Avenue and Weigand Lane — has been the subject of numerous public hearings in the past, as Walcek has requested several times over more than a decade to develop it in configurations running around a half-dozen residential parcels.
However, due to the presence of a significant amount of wetlands on the property, town officials have been reluctant to permit any development there at all, and neighbors have at every opportunity voiced their opposition to its development.
In past efforts to develop the parcel, Walcek has attempted to have some portions of the property reclassified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as not being true wetlands, and to arrange for a land swap, wherein lands farther inland in Clarksville would have been converted into wetlands in exchange for filling in 1.9 acres of forested wetland on the Bethany parcel — all in an effort to make such a project acceptable to the various agencies that must approve it, including the Town of Bethany Beach.
Those efforts have not been successful.
Most recently, noted Town Manager Cliff Graviet, Walcek had proposed developing four standard-sized residential lots along the front side of the parcel, along Route 26, and a larger lot along the back side. Some of the proposals have used a portion of the front area to provide access from Route 26 to the back of the property.
As the Town has continued to review ways to mitigate persistent tidal flooding — with the area immediately surrounding the Walcek property being one of the areas of town most subject to flooding — in June the council agreed to move forward with exploring whether Walcek would be interested in selling the property to the Town.
An attorney representing the Town proceeded to negotiate with Walcek, Graviet explained, leading to discussion by the council in a series of executive sessions. The item came front-and-center for the council in the last month, when Walcek responded to the Town’s inquiries with a contract for the Town to purchase the property for $1.4 million. The council had until Nov. 15 to approve the contract, with a subsequent 60-day period for “due diligence” before the contract would be executed.
Mayor Lew Kilmer, in introducing the proposal on Oct. 18, noted the impact of tidal flooding on the town, stating, “It’s our policy to be proactive and do whatever is feasible to mitigate tidal flooding.” He referenced the 26 acres that the Town purchased and converted into a nature center, with the bulk of the land left untouched; as well as the 5 acres of land the Town acquired and is transforming into a town park.
“Purchasing and maintaining it in its natural state is crucial to the Town’s efforts to achieve this goal,” Killmer said. “If sold and developed, it would have a very negative impact on the town overall — especially nearby neighborhoods.” That change would be negative and permanent, he said, and could make the town a less-desirable place to be, reducing property values, among other impacts.
“If you still think nobody in their right minds would build on a wetland, I would point you north to Breakwater Beach,” Killmer said, referring to Louis Capano III’s Breakwater Beach development in unincorporated North Bethany, which utilized a raised boardwalk roadway for access to multi-million-dollar homes suspended above wetlands. (That property is also home to a rare species of firefly, Photuris bethaniensis, found only from Cape Henlopen to Fenwick Island — which, according to DNREC, is Delaware’s only recognized endemic animal species.)
Killmer noted that the Town has, since the unique development adaptation was made, explored an ordinance designed to prevent similar or other types of work-arounds in town.
CIB’s Bason praises move to protect wetlands
Killmer yielded a portion of his time in introducing the purchase proposal on Oct. 18 to Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, a nonprofit organization that oversees the implementation of the Comprehensive Conservation & Management Plan (CCMP) for Delaware’s Inland Bays, and is tasked with promoting “the wise use and enhancement of the Inland Bays watershed by conducting public outreach and education, developing and implementing restoration projects, encouraging scientific inquiry, sponsoring needed research, and establishing a long-term process for the protection and preservation of the watershed.”
Bason noted that the Sussex County Association of Towns, of which Bethany Beach is a member, is a signatory to the CCMP, and he praised the Town as forward-thinking and proactive in pursuing the purchase to protect its residents and visitors, and their property, from flooding, as well as protecting local wildlife habitat.
Noting that wetland properties such as the Walcek property act as a sponge to store floodwaters — both tidal and from precipitation — he warned that the flooding situation “is only going to increase in severity for the town.
“Purchasing these lands and ensuring they are safe from development is a very forward-thinking and ambitious approach that should be a model for other coastal towns,” he said, adding that the Town cannot rely upon higher levels of government to protect them and is doing the right thing in pursuing such action on its own.
“The State does not have regulations that protect most of its freshwater wetlands. They rely on the Corps to protect some,” he noted, pointing not to a success story on that front, but rather one that many view as a failure.
“You’ve seen the situation that happened under the Corps up the road,” he told the council, referencing Breakwater Beach. “That’s a precedent-changing situation,” Bason stated.
“The regulatory landscape has changed significantly with the project up the road,” he added. “I’m sure the developer community is looking very intently at what happened there, and given the history of proposals for development for this property, I think it’s likely additional proposals for wetlands would come in.”
Bason also referenced the parcel’s connection to the area’s tidal wetlands and warned that it could be expected that the tidal wetlands will continue to move inland over time and will eventually interact with uplands on that parcel as well.
Purchasing the parcel and its wetlands for preservation, he said, “protects residents and visitors from flooding and property damage from flooding” and protects an important area for wildlife for the town. He noted that many areas that support local wildlife have been lost as the town has been developed. “Any community has the responsibility to protect its natural heritage,” Bason added, pointing out that the Town’s own comprehensive plan states that protecting wetlands is a priority.
“This very much in line with that,” he said, “It fully supports plans to protect the inlands bays, wetlands and the peoples of Bethany Beach.”
Public supportive of purchase plan
Five members of the public spoke in favor of the purchase on Oct. 18, including former major Jack Gordon and Planning Commissioner John Gaughan, though Gordon had some reservations initially.
“I’m all in favor of getting that property,” he said, “but I don’t think the idea of what’s happening up north is something that should scaring us into action.”
Gordon said he was leery of the potential price of the property, which the council hadn’t yet revealed to the public, and skeptical that someone would try to develop the property along the lines of the Capano project, due to the much lower property values there than on the beachfront.
“I don’t think the council should run scared based on something that’s happened up north,” he said. “It’s worthwhile gaining that parcel of land, but it’s good to get an in-depth valuation of that land.”
Graviet said the Town was having a couple different assessments done, with the idea of valuing the property based on what a lot would sell for if the parcel was developed. With the four smaller lots comparable in size to one nearby selling for $280,000 and the one larger lot more comparable to one selling for $300,000 to $400,000, as most recently proposed, the parcel would “probably be worth in excess of $1.4 million,” he said, with the potential value going up to $1.6 million if the six-lot front configuration was approved.
Killmer emphasized that the council’s agenda item was only whether or not to go ahead with the purchase of the property, not on the price. But resident Jim McGrath, while he said he understood that it had been kept to closed executive sessions, said he, too, wanted to know what Walcek’s asking price was.
Graviet and Killmer revealed that the contract calls for the Town to pay $1.4 million for the 12.53-acre parcel.
“That’s not a bad deal, considering,” McGrath said, though he noted that he didn’t believe the development of the parcel would impact the town’s flooding problems.
Now aware of the asking price, Gordon backtracked on his cautions.
“I agree — that’s a fine price for 12.53 acres there. I wish that had been spoken at the beginning. It would change my opinion. I thought it would be substantially more.”
Gaughan said his main concern was whether the 12.53-acre parcel was the entirety of Walcek’s holdings in that wetlands-heavy area of town.
“He has made a number of efforts to develop that. I just want to be sure that if we do this, we have addressed anything in that area,” he explained, noting that he didn’t begrudge Walcek owning other properties in the town, but wanted to ensure that the issue of Walcek trying to develop wetlands would be behind them if the Town made the purchase.
Graviet said the 12.53 acres was the entirety of the Walcek holding there, and noted that if DelDOT approved access to all areas of the property that it could possibly approve, there could potentially be even more than five or seven lots developed on it.
Resident Joan Howard said she supported the purchase, but she was leery of what the Town might do with it.
“We would maintain it in its natural state,” Killmer reiterated, saying it would be something along the lines of the nature center, “basically protecting it from future development.”
Graviet said the Town might do “something that enhances it for people in the community, that makes it some place people could watch birds,” or uses along those lines. “To say that it will never be touched again — I don’t know that I can say that,” he cautioned.
“We can say that it won’t be developed,” Killmer put in, adding that that was what he meant by “maintaining it in its natural state.”
Howard said she thought the Town had actually done too much to the nature center property.
“I wish you had left it with just grass and trees. I’m saying leave it exactly as it is.”
“That’s our current plan. I can’t speak for future councils,” Killmer clarified. “I would not be concerned. It’s much more likely to be a nature center.”
Resident Pat McGuire said he not only favored the purchase for reasons already stated but had additional reasons, having driven around the town during the prior weekend’s storm and found many streets impassible, with water in front yards and fire hydrants halfway underwater.
“And this was a tropical storm,” he said, noting that thus far in the hurricane season there had been 15 tropical depressions, 13 tropical storms and five hurricanes, with three of those being major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher.
“We were at the low end of the spectrum of the storm risk with Melissa. We didn’t get a lot of rain. I’d hate to think if we’d gotten 6 inches of rain,” McGuire said, wondering at what point the town would be evacuated, how deep available rescue equipment can go into floodwaters, whether anyone in the town has life-or-death needs for power.
He said he was concerned it wouldn’t have taken much to make this a much worse storm.
“The idea of removing 12.5 acres of sponge, of protection for the town, and letting it be developed in any manner is a bad idea,” he said. “I would urge the council to continue the conservation efforts begun a long time ago with the acquisition of the nature center. If we don’t have it there — wow.”
“I think there are things we can do other than wait for a bladder dam or a block on Hudson. … I think we need to protect ourselves, and I think we should do that and buy it.”
The council then moved to approve the purchase of the parcel for $1.4 million, doing so on a 7-0 vote.
Town gets timely reminder with ‘sunny-day’ nor’easter flooding
Town officials, residents and visitors had indeed gotten a timely reminder of the Town’s ongoing problems with tidal flooding from Tropical Storm Melissa over the prior weekend.
Graviet referenced the “unusual sunshiny four-day nor’easter we had” in introducing Assistant Town Manager John Apple’s presentation on exactly how badly the town had been impacted by the storm, which stalled off the coast and brought little rain or clouds but much tidal flooding.
“We got lots of calls from residents and visitors, with anger and ideas and concerns,” Apple said, recalling some complaints along the lines of “Why don’t you clean our ditch out, because we’re flooded?” and “Why doesn’t the Town pump out the water?” as well as suggestions for more porous pavement, and comments that “The beach is ruined. What happened? It’ll never be the same,” etc.
With strong winds and high tides driven by a full moon, the storm did some damage to the beach, but Apple said he felt the town’s protective dune had withstood the onslaught of the Atlantic Ocean pretty well, demonstrating “how well our dune system … really does work.” It had also allowed town officials to study the dynamics of a storm’s impact on the town.
While the beach fared relatively well, seeing only some loss of sand and a little damage around the beach fencing at the foot of the dune, Apple showed council members and those present at the Oct. 18 council meeting a series of telling photos and two photos-series demonstrating exactly what elements of a storm cause the most problems in the town.
“The back bays have a different dynamic, and this allowed us to monitor it to see how affected things throughout town.”
While the high tide at the Indian River hit 4 feet above sea level during the storm, he said, the tidal gauge from which data is displayed on the town website — positioned on the Route 1 bridge over the Loop Canal, which branches off from the river — hit 2.83 feet above sea level.
Apple said flooding of 1.3 feet to 2 feet above sea level caused flooding problems in the town on 35 days during 2018, which he labeled as “problematic flooding” that now impacts the town 10 percent of the days in a given year, with an estimated 425 residents affected. Apple also showed a depiction on an interactive flood map of what happens to the town with flooding 2.5 feet above sea level, which happens roughly three to five times a year and impacts more than 300 residences when it does.
The photos Apple showed depicted streets inundated with water, including the usual suspects: N. Pennsylvania Avenue, 3rd and 5th streets on the ocean side…
“We all know this usually happens,” Apple said, “but other places experience that same, if not worse — Gibson, Central, Weigand Lane, Tingle Avenue, Evans Avenue, Clubhouse Lane, the Villas of Bethany West,” he continued, showing images of each of the west-side streets made impassible due to flooding. “You’d need a boat,” he added, moving on to images of flooding on Salt Pond Circle… then in Steward’s Watch…
“It takes a lot for these ditches to fill, and they were overflowing onto the road,” he commented, displaying flooding on Heron Drive, then on Lakeview Drive into Heron.
“These are areas north of Route 26 where there’s very low-lying land. It goes to show that there’s much more than just Pennsylvania Avenue that’s impacted by flooding.”
The photos also clearly depicted “sunny-day flooding,” Apple noted, saying people often attribute the flooding to rain, but with low-lying lands, the town gets bombarded by tidal flooding.
The two photo series, depicting Pennsylvania Avenue and Evans Avenue, make that distinction clear. Each shows the same point on that street, before the storm and after, ranging from a peaking tide that floods the streets with impassable amounts of water to a tide of less than 1 foot, in which the water slowly drains from the streets.
Those scenes are followed by a dry, sunny period in which the streets become essentially dry, followed by 1.5 inches of rainfall in the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue and .5 inches of rain on Evans — which in both cases quickly drains and leaves the streets dry once more.
It’s clear visual evidence that the town’s flooding problem isn’t primarily that of rainfall, whether from passing storms or tropical systems, but from tidal flooding.
“Our main focus for stopping flooding should be on stopping Atlantic tidal waters from entering the town, which we have been working on,” Apple said. “There are some ideas for pervious pavement, rain gardens; but I think we need to put the tidal effort before that. Tidal water directly affects ground water and the water table,” he noted, and with some areas of the town at sea level or a little higher, he said, the first thing the town must do is take care of tidal inundation.
And that’s a big reason that the idea of a bladder dam has once again been getting attention from town officials.
“We continue to push on, and we have hopes it might move forward,” Graviet said. But he warned that, even if the engineers come back and say it is doable and that it won’t have a negative impact on other parts of the area outside town limits, it will be very expensive and will require a major effort to raise funding, as a project unlike anything that’s been done in the area before.
Asked whether a bladder dam would have helped with the flooding from Melissa, he noted that such a dam would have been overtopped at 2.5 feet, meaning that it might have reduced the impact of flooding, though it would not have eliminated it.
“Right now, we’re getting very close to an answer on the impact of that on the Loop Canal,” he said, adding that the next thing to be determined would be the gating’s impact on Fred Hudson Road. “It would eliminate a lot of nuisance flooding,” he said, whatever the cause, and would provide some degree of relief from “mid-level flooding.”
By M. Patricia Titus
Digital Content Editor