Proposed fitness park in Bethany sees strong opposition
The weather has been warming up, but Bethany Beach residents gave a cold shoulder this week to a proposal that would offer another active recreation option to the town’s residents and visitors. The proposed exercise park and trail, which would be installed in the undeveloped roadway known as Maryland Avenue Extended, was conceptualized with a group of adult-use exercise stations – similar to those in Ocean View’s John West Park – along with a pedestrian path and landscaping.
However, with the proposal’s first public airing at a workshop on Tuesday, March 13, a dozen residents made it clear to council members that they strongly oppose the notion and would prefer the area to remain a grassy, open space.
“It’s one of the things I’ve come to love,” neighboring full-time resident Claudia Dieste said about the Maryland Avenue Extended property that the Town owns and maintains in its undeveloped state. “We love our land, that little green space. It’s so rare today. Our community is getting larger and we all enjoy this, certainly in the summer months. The family gathers, children play, traditions are set, with summer get-togethers, people playing with their animals. It is a pleasure.”
Town officials came into Tuesday’s workshop understanding that opposition existed and that opponents had been getting organized. Already, Town Manager Cliff Graviet, who had conceived of the idea of the exercise park and brought the concept to the council and public this week, had talked to many of the opponents as word about the proposal spread.
“It’s my fault,” Graviet admitted with an ironic chuckle as he began his presentation this week. “You’ve done a great job in mobilizing your neighborhood. You asked who thought of this ridiculous idea, and it was me.”
Graviet noted that the idea had been brought forward more than a year prior, during the town’s budget process, leading $50,000 to be allocated in the 2012-fiscal-year budget for potentially doing the Maryland Avenue Extended park. That money hadn’t been spent yet, but it had been carried into the 2013 budget with the same idea that the project might potentially move forward and that it would be vetted thoroughly before that happened, according to Graviet.
“This is simply a concept,” Graviet continued. “It’s no more than a thought or an idea that I have had that’s being presented to the town council. There’s been no other action taken. The council is seeing this for the first time today,” he emphasized, noting that he would normally have presented such proposals at a council workshop, to see how council members felt about it. But, he said, past experience had led him to go with a more public venue in the form of a public workshop.
“At one time I had thought we might make a pathway down Maryland Avenue and let our horticulturalist, Melinda Lindy, take her tremendous talent and make something that would really accent the community. I presented that idea at a workshop,” he recalled. “And many people responded and said they didn’t know anything about this, ‘where had this come from?’ This time, we notified the affected property owners at the same time the council is seeing this for the first time.”
The proposal came along with two proposed designs. Graviet said both had hinged on the notion of providing fitness equipment close to the sidewalk on Route 26 near Maryland Avenue, “with the idea that that’s our heaviest pedestrian and bicycle traffic going east and west, west of Route 1. It has a higher proportion of joggers and walkers than any other place in town that we could think of,” he said.
The designer Graviet consulted provided two concepts to meet the request for a facility that would provide the equipment and a path down to Hollywood Street, with the idea that people who were on a fitness or training walk or routine would use the equipment and then continue down the path to Hollywood Street, avoiding congestion on Route 1 and allowing them to access Route 1 southbound.
The first concept features stationary equipment similar to that in John West Park, designed to offer five major motions for a basic fitness routine. The Ocean View park offers equipment such as a balance beam, step-up device, low parallel bars and inclined bench for doing crunches. Additionally, that concept features a path leading around the exercise equipment and through the rest of the park, along with new landscaping. It has an estimated cost of $29,000.
The second concept features newer-style moving equipment that uses pistons to allow users to perform a bench push, lat pull, step-ups and more. Graviet said that kind of equipment had been in use for years in saltwater environments and had been proven reliable. The second concept also featured an oval path around the exercise equipment, as well as the path leading to and away from the area and additional landscaping. The cost of installation would be about $30,000.
Both concepts feature additional landscaping, as well as some picnic tables, and would not require any trees to be removed.
“We already maintain this piece of property,” Graviet noted, adding that he hoped that the residents were happy with how they were maintaining it. “We already spend time and energy maintaining that piece of property. I thought this might be something that might be even more attractive,” he added, noting that the equipment could even be colored to blend in with the surroundings.
However, with clear opposition to the idea, Graviet said he had gone back to the designer and asked for a design with less impact on the property and adjacent property owners. That third concept, and another variant of it, places the equipment right off the sidewalk on Route 26, with no more than 40 or 50 feet of the length of the undeveloped roadway being used for the exercise facility, which would cost around $15,000 total.
“We could make it clear that thoroughfare isn’t encouraged,” he added.
“This is nothing more than concepts or ideas,” he emphasized.
Dieste led those expressing their opposition on Tuesday to the concept of the exercise park on Maryland Avenue Extended.
“It may seem that I am the most directly affected, and in many ways I am,” she explained to the council, noting that she had begun visit the town when she was 8 and that her immediate family now lives there. “It has reaffirmed my strong sense of community as the response against the fitness park grew. … It always seems to be under some kind of attack,” she said of the green area. “That’s kind of a harsh word, but I don’t mean it like that. Simply: why?”
Dieste said that, beyond the threat to the green space, she had very real concerns about the park itself, including the cost of maintenance, and trash, noise and congestion resulting from its use.
“As lovely as the plantings and picnic tables would be, nobody is going to eat where they exercise and nobody is going to exercise and then eat,” she said. “And, as unlikely as it sounds, I’m concerned about the guy who’s going to going to come to my door and say, ‘Lady, can I use your shower?’ ‘Can I get a drink from your hose?’ ‘Can I use the bathroom?’ That picnic table, I could literally hand them a sandwich. You can imagine why I would love this not to be in this area.”
Dieste asked why the Town couldn’t look instead into adding adult-use exercise equipment to the existing playground on Christian Church grounds off Garfield Parkway, with permission of the church, which currently leases the grounds to the Town.
Dieste’s neighbor on Hollywood Street, Baker Richards, said he was particularly concerned about the safety risk posed by the exercise equipment. The equipment at John West Park, he said, is stationary and offers a fall height of no more than 3 feet, and, he said, it’s not used by many people except children playing in the park. With falls the second most common injury on playgrounds, he said, 8-foot-tall chin-up bars would prove too attractive to children, while the moving equipment proposed in the second design would pose even greater risks and not be used as intended.
“Kids will use it for bicycling, skateboarding and possibly other things,” Richards said. “Nobody will use it for the intended purpose. … Pedestrians will not interrupt their walk to exercise on the equipment, and serious fitness adults use equipment elsewhere. The picnic area is intrusive to residents. It will encourage trespassing. It will be noisy. No one will bring a picnic lunch there. They will not stop four blocks from the boardwalk and beach. It’s a waste of money. I love your town, but this is a bad, bad idea.”
Jane Richards said she, too, was opposed, and she offered a sheaf of research to the Town to show why.
“I came to the conclusion that, though well-intentioned, this is now a hazardous, high-risk playground for young children. … This is not equipment for children. It doesn’t conform to playground safety standards. Fingers can be amputated if they touch moving parts,” she said, adding that she thought the costs had been underestimated, as had the likely increase to the town’s liability.
Tony Namrow, whose home is adjacent to the fitness equipment and who has two young children, said he agreed with the other opponents in their concerns about safety, noise, trash and more.
“This appears to be a distraction from the town’s primary focus: commerce,” he said, noting the short window of the summer season for business owners to make money. “Ask Dale from D.B. Fries about the one person who doesn’t stop at his shop because he’s having a homemade sandwich at that park,” he suggested to the council.
“My wife works at home and her window overlooks the park,” Namro added, pointing out the potential distractions of noise coming from park users.
He also said he felt the maintenance costs to the town were dramatically underestimated, with the potential for lawsuits from injured children, the cost of police monitoring and regular maintenance of the park for litter. He estimated the potential costs at as much as $50,000 per year.
“You’re putting us in harm’s way and costing us money,” he concluded.
Hollywood Street resident John Himmelberg said he had conducted an informal survey of some property owners, half of them full-time residents not living near the park, and not one had supported the project.
“Not one of them said they would visit it. Not one said that, if they did visit it, they would use the equipment,” he continued, suggesting a more formal survey of the year-round population of the town might be a good idea if the project were to move ahead. “It would be nice to have some flowers and plantings there, but I think the equipment is a bad idea,” he concluded.
Tina Edgar – who had previously unsuccessfully asked the Town to open Maryland Avenue Extended as an actual roadway, so that she could access an otherwise inaccessible piece of property – said she’d been concerned at the time when she’d seen a concept for the area to be developed as a park but was now grateful that they hadn’t opened the roadway. She also offered praise for Graviet.
“We’re lucky to have a town manager who dreams and thinks of ways to make our town look better,” she said, while noting that the new park next to town hall does not seem to be heavily used.
However, Edgar pointed out the 3 percent proposed property tax increase in the coming year’s budget, set for potential adoption on Friday.
“If we’re going to raise taxes, why do we have an extra $50,000 for another park? We have one that’s not used and one across street that’s used a great deal. And we’ve got one being cleared across the street that doesn’t have any path,” she added, referencing the former Christian Church/Neff property, which the Town has slowly been transforming into a naturalized park facility.
Other neighbors also questioned how the town could allocate $50,000 for the project when it was planning to raise property taxes this coming year. Among them was Phillip Feliciano – a former attorney and personal trainer who trained under the trainer for the Washington Nationals and the U.S. Olympic bobsled team. He asserted, “This is not a product that will be used.” Instead, he encouraged the Town to look into enhancing broadband Internet access.
Feliciano startled some at the workshop when he closed his statement by notifying council members that he had registered a driveway on Maryland Avenue with Sussex County officials and was asking the Town to provide 30 days’ notice should it decide to move forward with plans to develop a park there, so that he could retain legal counsel.
The only council member to comment on the proposed park on Tuesday was longtime resident Margaret Young, who recalled how neighbors had shared back yards and recreation facilities in them – such as badminton courts and baseball diamonds – from the 1940s to the 1980s. (Dieste later noted that the neighboring property owners had thought in the past about asking the town for permission to install a badminton net or other features on the property and would support such an idea.)
“Everybody had a great time,” Young said. “We had a lot of renters who came at the same time each summer. I looked at this area the other day,” she said of Maryland Avenue Extended, “and this is the back yard. Let it stay that way.”
No one present at Tuesday’s workshop offered support for the proposed park.