South Bethany barricade challenged, Town focuses on safety

South Bethany’s traffic barricade may carry the weight of law, but that doesn’t mean everyone likes it. Every summer morning, to control traffic on the narrow residential streets of the Cat Hill neighborhood, cars are forbidden from entering Black Gum Drive from Kent Avenue. For some people, it thwarts their shortcut to the beach. For residents, it means taking the long way home.

Several times a year, the South Bethany Town Council fields complaints about the barricade — specifically why residents can’t have a private pass to go through it.

On Nov. 19, resident Natalie Petti questioned “the number taxpayers that are not in the Cat Hill community that are paying for the maintenance of the roads [but] not allowed to use roads that we are paying for. There’s a lot more people outside Cat Hill than there are inside Cat Hill.”

Since barricade hours were extended in 2016, she and others have asked for “residents-only” traffic passes to bypass the barricade.

But there are “no special shakes” if South Bethany wants to retain its integrity as a municipality.

“You’re privatizing. You can’t do that,” said Council Member Carol Stevenson. “It’s a public road [so] public people can drive on it. … If we went private, we wouldn’t have a police department. They’re municipal.”

“We’re not a municipality if we’re private,” Town Manager Maureen Hartman chimed in.

“We’re under certain restrictions because we receive funding from the state for our roads, so they mandate some of the things we can and cannot do,” elaborated Mayor Tim Saxton. “A gated community would not work. … We don’t want to lose the $50,000 or $60,000 a year toward maintaining our roads,” he said, although he said he, personally, would appreciate resident-only stickers.

There is also concern of fender-benders along Kent Avenue if drivers tried to enter the neighborhood, but then had to back out again after realizing they weren’t eligible to go through the barricade while others were.

As a more drastic measure, South Bethany residents could demand a referendum to repeal the barricade law. Or Cat Hill could de-annex from the town, become a private community and gate their own streets altogether.

“I don’t mind driving around. I feel it’s a shared responsibility,” said Judy Stack of Cat Hill, who supports the barricade. “We’ll take anything. And it’s compromise.”

The barricade offers a few hours of summertime traffic protection from the motorists coming from the thousands of housing units approved west of town.

“I hate the barricade,” said Geoffrey Scully, who lives near Cat Hill. “But if that’s the biggest problem I got in life, … it is what it is.”

“We’re trying to listen to all individuals involved in this,” said Saxton.

“We’re trying to protect those people,” added Council Member Sue Callaway.

 

The legal challenge

 

This week, the barricade itself was subject to a minor legal challenge at Justice of the Peace Court 2 in Rehoboth Beach.

“A citation was issued this summer to a gentleman for driving around the barricade, and he’s opted to take that to trial,” Police Chief Jason Lovins told the town council. “I’m not sure what repercussions that will have on us if the judge says we’re not allowed to do this barricade.”

Visiting a South Bethany friend during Labor Day weekend, the driver bypassed the signs and the physical barricade, immediately resulting in a traffic ticket from Lovins himself. The driver challenged the barricade in court on Nov. 26.

“We’re under orders from the Town to more strictly enforce it,” Lovins said.

Neither Lovins nor the town council seemed to recall any legal challenge to the barricade before now.

“I’ve only been chief here since June. The barricade is very controversial. … I’m interested to see what the court will say. There’s a lot of questions I have. This was written as a state ticket: failure to obey a traffic-control device. However, this is a town code ordinance.”

So, he wondered if the judge would uphold the state traffic charge, or reduce it to a civil judgement for town violation.

Ultimately, the Hon. Sheila Blakely (deputy chief magistrate for the county) simply upheld the traffic violation. Both parties asked a lot of questions, but neither provided specific case law to argue that she should make any changes. Therefore, she ruled according to the law on the books.

The trial was done in less than 30 minutes.

“Is it lawful? … This is a town road, but don’t taxpayers pay for this?” the defendant asked.

The driver’s South Bethany friend had allegedly told the driver that bypassing the barricade should be fine, without realizing someone else in the household had recently been ticketed for the same violation.

“It has been enforced against all residents,” said Lovins, who added that he had hoped the judge would offer a direct opinion on the Town’s authority or enforceability. “It’s a unique case in my opinion, and … it’s been a hot button with the town there,” but as a sworn officer, he said, he upholds the town code as written.

But in rendering her verdict, Blakely showed no discomfort with the South Bethany barricade, “As long as the people that live there are being fined” for violations, along with the non-residents.

 

Protecting the people

 

In the very early 2000s, Cat Hill residents complained to the town council that drivers were using those neighborhood roads as a cut-through to Coastal Highway. They were seeing high speeds and excessive traffic for a narrow, curving residential road. There were complaints of near-misses, although Lovins has not found actual collision data in Delaware’s system.

That prompted the Town to create the barricade. It does not close the road. It only prohibits eastbound entry from Kent Avenue.

Around 2016, the town council changed the earlier morning hours to a more effective 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“This was a tough one,” said Council Member Don Boteler. “We hashed it out, a long time. … We came to a compromise which made everyone a little unhappy, which is how I measure success in politics.”

They were addressing the beach-bound motorists who were familiar with the shortcut or who navigated by GPS and followed directions to dodge heavier traffic on the main roads (especially for Saturday-afternoon’s heavy rental check-in period).

“I didn’t believe it myself until I saw them doing that,” Council Member Frank Weisgerber said. “It was bumper to bumper all the way through Cat Hill, all the way down Kent Avenue, all the way to the funeral home. … ‘We gotta slow this traffic down. We gotta discourage them from coming through this town.’”

This month, the town council considered a request to lower the speed limit on its side streets, but there ultimately seemed little interest in changing it from 20 mph to 15 mph.

The police chief raised the idea this autumn after hearing safety concerns from Cat Hill residents. Lowering the speed limit from 20 mph to 15 mph can reduce the likelihood of major physical injury to a pedestrian struck by a vehicle.

There are already speed bumps and stop signs, so it’s tough to exceed 25 mph, but others would argue even that’s unsafe in some places.

“The highest speed that I’ve ever gotten anybody is at 26 mph,” Lovins said. “I don’t have a recommendation [either way]. I was trying to bring the concerns of the citizens. It’s up to council.”

“There was a reasonable amount of pushback on doing that,” Saxton said, although he recognized that that neighborhood differs from other parts of town. “Cat Hill is the only area in town that has curved roads.”

The roads in the neighborhood have a similar width to other town roads, but it can be hard to see pedestrians around the corners. There are no sidewalks or shoulders. Driveways, mailboxes and trash bins are close to the road, effectively pushing pedestrians, bicycles and strollers into the roadway.

“You’re in the road, so I don’t want to interact with anyone going 30 mph,” said Steve Hart of Black Gum Drive, who supported a 15-mph speed limit, he said, because he wants his young children to “make it to college alive.”

The town council also considered shortening the summer season for both the parking permits and the barricade.

Both of those South Bethany traffic restrictions are in place from May 15 to Sept. 15 each year (the same time as Bethany Beach’s parking meters). Although council members generally supported the idea, they couldn’t decide on a specific date or weekend for the change.

 

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter