Bethany to gather opinions on proposed tent, canopy bans

Date Published: 
Oct. 6, 2017

Having spent the summer observing beachgoers on the town’s shoreline, Bethany Beach officials are now ready to further consider the notion of restricting the types of shade devices beachgoers can use there.

This spring, following on the heels of neighboring Rehoboth Beach banning canopies and all but “baby” tents, as well as limiting umbrella size, the Town’s Charter & Ordinance Review Committee was asked to look into doing the same thing, and ideas ranging from using the same degree of ban to perhaps not doing anything at all.

CORC developed an ordinance to make the step to band some types of shade devices, but according to Councilwoman and CORC Chairwoman Rosemary Hardiman, they didn’t put that draft ordinance forward to the council because they “felt at that time … it was late in the season and it might be better to look at what Rehoboth’s experience was with that ordinance and also to monitor the beach, take photos and look at issues that were particular to Bethany Beach.”

Over the summer, CORC members took hundreds of photos, some of which were displayed at the Sept. 18 town council workshop/special meeting, and they also received numerous photos from others, Hardiman said.

During that time, neighboring Fenwick Island passed its own ban, at the end of July, approving the use of umbrellas up to 8 feet in diameter but limiting the size of other devices to a 10-by-10-foot square or 8 feet in diameter for a round device, with at least three sides required to be open.

At their meeting on Sept. 8, CORC members had considered the issues once again, favoring unanimously a series of restrictions, though they were split over an outright ban on canopies.

Hardiman said she had asked both Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Stan Mills and Fenwick Island Town Manager Terry Tieman about their experiences with the new policies and whether they’d had to resort to measuring things with a tape measure. She said they had not, that the photos they had taken showed that they could “eyeball” things and use a rule of common sense: If things looked significantly larger than they were supposed to be, they would take action; if it was a few inches off, they would do nothing.

As far as CORC’s recommendations to the Bethany council, Hardiman said CORC members had agreed on:

• A maximum diameter of 8 feet for umbrellas. (That seems to be the standard, she said.)

• Allowing “baby tents,” with a maximum dimension of 36 inches in any direction.

• A ban on all other tents, as well as any kind of tarp (guide wires posing a safety hazard, though Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer noted that the Town already prohibits guide wires in its current code); sports umbrellas or “sport-brellas” (which Hardiman said are still permitted in Rehoboth Beach, if their sides are kept up, but which she said CORC members felt blocked the view); any kind of pavilion or cabana, which they said block the view of people sitting around their users, with sides that can’t be seen through or having three covered sides.

Hardiman said the group felt those rules would be easy for an enforcement officer to enforce and also noted an apparent increase in the use of pop-up tents, “where people go right up to the ocean and block the view of everyone behind them.”

She said the group had split on a recommendation on the more open canopy-type devices. In a 5-3 vote, the committee recommended to the council that canopies also be banned, with the three dissenting votes favoring a size limit, rather than an outright ban.

Hardiman said she had seen people in wheelchairs, in particular, using canopies, and she said Bethany Beach Patrol Capt. Joe Donnelly had said he noticed people with special needs were often using them.

“There are people who use them in the right way, who are mindful of other people and have them up against the dune line,” she said, pointing out instances when they’re used by large families who fit as many as eight people under a single canopy.

“Then there are others who make others so angry with them that they really spoil it,” she said, noting a photo that depicted two large canopies with 20 chairs lined up around them and a cornhole game set up in the middle, the entire encampment at the crest of the beach near the ocean.

Hardiman said many of the complaints they received were about people coming in early in the morning, setting up large “settlements” and then not coming down to use the chairs, canopies and umbrellas until perhaps 2 p.m., all the while taking up “the prime area” at the front of the beach.

Once such encampment that Hardiman said she’d pulled out a measuring tape to document had measured close to 1,000 square feet, she said. Gordon later called the image of that setup “obnoxious.”

In contrast, Hardiman said she’d spoken to the Ruest family, which has been holding a family reunion in the town every August for 35 years, including the now-adult six siblings and their families — about 57 people last year, according to Ron Ruest, one of those siblings, who spoke against a canopy ban at the Sept. 18 special meeting.

Hardiman said the family previously had placed their canopies up against the boardwalk but now placed them at the toe of the dune, and while they often set up at 8 a.m., she said that, by 8:30 a.m., there were 20 people there, using the canopies for shade and for playing card games.

“They’re an example of people trying to be thoughtful of others,” she said.

The visual impact of canopies was also at issue during those CORC discussions, Hardiman said, noting photos depicting clusters of canopies, large groups of chairs and many umbrellas, where she said the canopies were the thing that struck the viewer.

“Chairs and umbrellas — you don’t really see them as much.”

Hardiman said CORC members had acknowledged that some groups fit more people under a canopy than they could under an umbrella, taking up about as much spaces a group of chairs, with some of the conscientious beachgoers fitting perhaps eight people under a canopy and making sure it was weighted down to prevent it blowing away and posing a danger to others.

“When people really notice is when they’re up there at the front of the beach,” she said, as well as those who set up large canopies and then don’t use them, using the canopy instead to hold space or using chairs and blankets around them to stake claim to more beach real estate.

Hardiman said the group also wrestled with the idea of requiring canopies to be placed at the dune line, questioning the impact of that on people playing ball on the beach, for whom the Town’s preferred location has been close to the dune.

CORC suggests ban on tents, cabanas, tarps

In the end, Hardiman said, the committee had felt “it would be worthwhile — because it is an issue so many people care about — it would be good to go to people who live here … and do an online survey of five questions, to get feedback before we go to final decision on this.”

While that idea got support from the committee and the council, CORC did make its formal recommendations to the council, which included:

• Umbrellas limited to 8 feet in diameter and 7.6 feet in height;

• Baby tents up to 36 inches in any dimension permitted;

• All tents larger than 36 inches prohibited.

• No cabanas, tarps and other similar devices permitted;

• All canopies prohibited — a change changed from the April proposal and divided on that 5-3 vote; and

• To solicit feedback regarding shading devices from residents and property owners via an online survey.

While Mayor Jack Gordon said he agreed with all those recommendations, Killmer said he felt the proposed policy was perhaps too stringent.

“I think, personally, that you need to have shading devices on the beach, especially for young children and older people. I also believe we should be careful about not being too overregulated. There is a place for canopies,” he added, noting those with open sides and of a “proper size.”

“There are families who need those. I don’t think we should start making a lot of these rules to take the family fun out of it.”

Killmer said the Town would also need to be careful about advertising such restrictions, so that visitors aren’t bringing their gear with them for a vacation and then finding out they have to buy a non-prohibited substitute from a local store.

“Beaches are supposed to be a fun area,” he said. “I think by putting canopies closer to the dunes and keeping the front of beach open… The only important thing about having a view is for safety issues,” he emphasized, noting that there is no guarantee of a view of the ocean on a crowded day at the beach.

The safety aspect of a view, he said, was important for lifeguards, as well as families with young kids who might be playing in the water and who would want to be able to keep a close eye on them from the beach. “Viewing is for safety.”

Killmer said he was “totally against tents of any kind,” while open-sided canopies should be permitted, and the Town should have a location for them. “I hope by spring we will have plenty of area for them and to play ball. … I think people would recognize the right to play ball, and people playing ball would recognize the safety issue and move down. Yes, we should have some regulations, but I don’t think it should be overbearing.”

Councilman Jerry Morris began his comments on the issue by noting that he had once been “an umbrella boy,” and that they had commonly laid umbrellas on their side when it was windy, “and that does block the view.”

He said playing ball on beach is a safety issue in itself, especially on a crowded beach, with balls bouncing into people “and they don’t care. … We have to do something about that also.” He added that the Town would also have to address placing multiple canopies together, such as how close they could be or how many could be placed together or in a certain amount of space.

Councilman Joseph Healy Jr. said prior discussions of moving canopies back toward the dune had made sense to him. “Putting tents on the beach is probably a little over the top,” he added. “It’s a safety issue. We don’t want to hinder people from coming to the beach, but we need to be practical,” he said, talking of moving canopies to the back of the beach.

He also inquired as to Donnelly’s take on the related safety issues.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet said the lifeguard captain’s opinion was that tents and canopies are not a problem for the beach patrol. Hardiman said Donnelly had told her that some people have a reason to use canopies and also said that sometimes the beach patrol has more problems with umbrellas, such as on windy days.

“It does seem when people are setting up at 8 o’clock in the morning and not using them — that’s an affront,” Healy said.

“It’s all about me,” Killmer said of the attitude that action shows.

Hardiman said that early staking of a claim to space on the beach is a separate issue — one the committee had wrestled with. “I don’t know if there’s an answer.”

Gordon said Rehoboth had looked at putting canopies at the back of its beach, but the feeling had been that it would cause problems for ball-playing, as well as collection of trash, which was one reason Rehoboth had banned canopies entirely. (Graviet said there would be no issue with town staff moving its trash or smoking receptacles, and that they would work with whatever the council gave them for rules.)

“They were trying to make sure everybody knew the rules, and they did, and they haven’t had any big problems,” he said of Rehoboth. “They have had complaints,” he added, but they reached the conclusion that having canopies in the back isn’t necessarily a solution to the problem.

One of the threads of the discussion in both the committee and amongst the council on Sept. 18 was the notion of who uses canopies and why that might be part of the problem.

“I don’t think the idea of banning canopies is a [major] thing,” Gordon said. “I see a lot of umbrellas at the end of the season, but I don’t see a lot of canopies now that the tourists are gone. Canopies are primarily visitor-type implements,” he said.

“That’s because it’s families coming together,” Killmer explained, also noting that Rehoboth perhaps has a need for a more strict policy because it is using its lifeguards to enforce the rules.

“We wouldn’t,” Gordon said to that, noting that when Bethany first imposed its ban on smoking on the beach, they had someone “going up and down the beach” enforcing it for a year and part of another. “People were educated, and now they’re educated and the smoking thing is not an issue.”

He recommended that for the first year of a tent/canopy ban the Town do the same thing. “They could say, ‘Hey, did you know that…?’ even though the signs would be on the beach.”

“The people I talked to are full-time residents, and they wanted to ban everything,” said Councilman Bruce Frye.

“Tourism is important to us, along with the people who come here,” Morris said. “We have to be careful. We can’t be too overregulated.”

Newly installed Councilman Patrick Sheplee noted that he had been one of the three CORC members to dissent on the outright ban on canopies.

“That seems to be the big controversy. We all agreed on umbrellas and baby tents, that tents should not be allowed, that there should not be any type of wires extending beyond the perimeter of the device.”

He said he agreed with Killmer on the issue, favoring allowing canopies with some restrictions on size and/or location.

“It’s important to encourage shade for health reasons,” Sheplee said. “It’s important, whether or not canopies are used primarily by residents or primarily by tourists — the tourists are important, and their thoughts and wishes are important.”

Sheplee looked to the example of the Ruest family, who Ron Ruest said usually puts four canopies together in a square these days. “If we banned those, they would take up even more room with umbrellas. I think canopies are a square umbrella, if you will. They don’t block any more than an umbrella.”

Sheplee said he was concerned that limits on putting them side-by-side would result in a group taking up even more room on the beach. He said he was “very interested in input” from the townsfolk on the issue.

Public comment on both sides

Ron Ruest told the council that he is the youngest of his family of six siblings, who have now come down to Bethany for 35 years in a row, gathering 57 family members for their group photo taken last year, with two more expected to be added by next summer.

“We’re very passionate about this. This is our beach,” he said, noting that his wife is an active-duty military service member, and while they live in Alexandria, Va., they have a part-time residence in the Selbyville area. “So perhaps I’m a tourist and a resident,” he told the council.

Ruest said his family has always set their canopies back from the water, and always “far away from the ramp, to allow people to go around us.”

He said Killmer’s points on common sense were the key, that overregulation was a risk when things were being measured with a tape measure.

“We get frustrated from people who set up early — we set up at 8, and we’re there from 8 to 6 pretty much every day. Others set up and won’t arrive until noon. … We haven’t ever had a complaint, because we use common sense. You don’t need a law if you use common sense.

“We have seen the same families grow up for 35 years,” he said of their fellow beachgoers. “My children have never vacationed anywhere else,” he added, noting that his daughter now sports a Chief Little Owl tattoo, in recognition of the Town’s iconic totem-pole-style sculpture.

Ruest said his family really needs the canopies they use.

“We’re a tall family,” he said, noting his brothers reach 6.5 feet and 6.75 feet in height and don’t easily fit under an umbrella. “We haven’t used umbrellas since maybe 34 years ago. … Canopies are higher. Umbrellas, you can’t see through” as well, he said, due to their often lower height. Some of the family members have artificial knees and find getting under the umbrella is difficult, he said, while their mother had multiple sclerosis and couldn’t get under an umbrella with her beach wheelchair.

“We range in age from 64 to 6 months, with two more babies next year — a canopy for us is the only option,” he emphasized, later saying the family would have to find a new location to go to the beach if a ban was implemented on canopies. “We won’t go to Rehoboth.”

“But it’s common sense, respecting others. The same with playing ball — if the beach is crowded, we don’t.”

Sheplee said the Ruest family “could be the poster-family for how to handle this situation,” noting that they use coolers and sandbags to weigh down their canopies for safety.

“We have never used a wire,” Ron Ruest said.

Asked about possible size restrictions on canopies, he said they’d have to spend more money if their 12-by-12-foot canopies were prohibited but would buy smaller, complying canopies, though they’d likely use more of them, “So the space would be the same.”

He explained that with family members flying in from California and Texas to gather in Bethany Beach, they’d find the money to buy smaller canopies, “But if canopies are banned, we don’t have an option — we will have to go somewhere else.”

“I wish people were as considerate as your family,” Gordon told Ruest.

Resident Toni Miller said she felt canopies pose a greater risk than umbrellas if they go aloft in the wind. “I think moving them back is an option. … We’re trying to be hospitable to the tourists. I don’t think this will make them stop coming, but I agree with working through the options, rather than just saying everything is banned.”

She encouraged the council to make sure the information on any restrictions gets out to visitors.

“There’s got to be an education process,” Killmer agreed.

Resident Joan Gordon lamented that Ruest’s family seemed to her to be unusual.

“You use common sense. Most people on the beach do not,” she said. “I believe that Jack and I spend more time on the beach than all the rest of the people on the council put together. We are beach bums, so I speak from a lot of experience, and most beachgoers, especially tourists, do not use common sense, do not use beach etiquette — they come right on top of you.”

Joan Gordon said canopies, tents and such “have proliferated at an exponential rate in recent years — not only in number but in type. … And that’s going to continue. They’re going to continue to proliferate in number, and they’re going to continue to proliferate in type.”

She said she wanted to have heard more from the five of eight CORC members who had favored the canopy ban.

Hardiman said she had tried to reflect the different points of view and present both sides.

“What was sent to the council was longer,” she said of the information from those who opposed canopies on the beach, including noting that anything less than an outright ban would be difficult to enforce, they had felt, as well as the perception that the majority of those using canopies are visitors.

“If you say you can’t have anything,” Joan Gordon argued, “that’s relatively easy to enforce, compared to saying you can have a 10-foot canopy and it has to be weighted down on the sides. Most do not use common sense,” she reiterated. “It would be a monumental task to get enough enforcement. … If you allow nothing but baby tents, it’s easy to do.

“But there is an aesthetic issue. There were times we walked along and it looked like a tent city of displaced persons. There’s something very attractive and beachy about beach umbrellas. I think there are all kinds of issues you have to consider here.”

Resident Jeanne Laird said that, as a daily beachgoer, “I have threatened every winter to hand out a beach-etiquette pamphlet to people as they come onto the beach.” She said she opposes all tents and canopies, limiting beachgoers to beach umbrellas for shade. “They create the shade that you need, and they’re just a better type of resource.”

Resident Denise Folliard said she goes to the beach at Central Avenue, “which in the best of times is a very narrow beach, with the public parking there, as well as the Christian Church” and, being on the boardwalk near the town’s center, is often very crowded.

She said she’s not necessarily opposed to canopies, and while the Ruest family is great, she said, “Many folks have no beach etiquette. I don’t mind the canopies if people would stay under them, but what happens is people set them up, and then chairs, blankets, a stroller…” she described, noting that one canopy she saw was placed over “a little plastic swimming pool right at the high tide line. … It’s common sense: Don’t set up your canopy at the steps or next to the recycle bin.”

Greg Reef, a visitor to Bethany since 1949 who also lifeguarded on the town’s beaches for seven years during his youth, said “I’ve seen it all, myself.” He emphasized the need for lifeguards not to be enforcing beach rules. “When I was lifeguard, we banned all ball-playing. You don’t need to go to the beach to play football. I’ve seen people hit by footballs,” he said, as well as by people running to catch a football. “There’s your safety issue.”

“As far as tents, I think umbrellas are for the beach. Tents and all these other things are for the woods. If you’re going to put some kind of size limits, fine,” he said, suggesting the Town hire someone “to walk up and down the beach to enforce this stuff.” Reef said he also didn’t believe umbrellas weren’t a workable solution for those who are especially tall, who have knee replacements or who sit on the beach in a wheelchair.

“It works fine for many people that we see coming in wheelchairs,” he said.

Resident Connie Webber offered the council a reason why most of the canopies disappeared from the beach after Labor Day.

“You mentioned we don’t see canopies now. That’s because our families aren’t here,” she said. “We need them when we have 10 or 16 people, not when we have two.” She said her family weighs theirs down, and she’ll sit and hold the umbrella or canopy if it’s windy. “If it flies, it’s going to hurt somebody regardless” of whether it’s an umbrella or canopy, she added.

“We do need to some restrictions to make them weight them down,” she agreed.

“I would like to see them not set up ahead of time,” Webber added. “I don’t like seeing canopies or umbrellas set up at 8 in the morning with no one there.” But she questioned how that kind of restriction could be enforced, especially when it would be difficult for one employee to take down a canopy alone.

“Canopies have become popular because you can’t use an umbrella when you go tailgating or camping,” she noted. “They’re multi-use equipment. You can’t use your umbrellas there. Beach umbrellas are only used on the beach.”

Resident Michelle Reed said she, too, is a daily beach walker, as is her husband.

“Our family comes in throughout summer,” she explained, noting that her elderly mother visits them for a month each summer. “There were times this summer when it wasn’t safe for me to bring her to the beach, and with all the canopies and tents positioned, beach chairs… I could not even get her on the beach, so we would have to return home.”

“We want people to enjoy Bethany,” she said. “I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy the tourists. We want this to be a family welcoming place, but I agree that not everybody uses common sense. … But we do have to consider doing something that is safe and is agreeable to all of us being able to use the beach in an enjoyable way.”

“There have been times in the middle of the summer when you literally cannot move through the beach because of the canopies and things being set up. We all have our favorite spots, and I’ve seen [the Ruest] family there over the years. I hate to say segregate one beach … to use canopies, but maybe it’s something to consider. I’m not averse to thinking that we could have a section of the beach for canopies only.”

Mayor Gordon questioned the council members as to whether they wanted to move forward with a survey or wait until their next regular meeting. “I would like to see what questions would be on a survey,” he said.

Hardiman suggested they proceed with developing a survey and then run questions by the council, working with Graviet on getting the survey available to voters. Graviet said he would send the survey out to all residents and property owners. The council is set to look at the issue again once the survey has been completed.