Bethany council endorses Assawoman Canal pathway concept
Bethany Beach Town Council members this week unanimously approved a resolution supporting concept of the proposed recreational path along the Assawoman Canal, but they did so through a modified resolution that limits the town’s commitment to the project – at least for now.
Noting strong positive response to the concept of the trail from a citizen survey the Town conducted in recent months, Councilwoman Carol Olmstead had proposed at the council’s Jan. 20 meeting that it adopt the same resolution already adopted by Ocean View and South Bethany, which was developed by the multi-party Trail Team representing the three municipalities and four private communities that border the state-controlled canal and its environs, as well as state officials.
The survey showed that, of 585 responses from Bethany citizens, 459 held the trail would be a positive addition to the town, while 88 were opposed and 43 offered a mix of support and reservations, counted as neutral on the issue. Olmstead noted that the concerns had focused on security issues, including potential costs, but, she said, “The vast majority would like to see the project at least proceed to the next phase.”
Should it do so, Olmstead said, the Trail Team – upon which both she and Mayor Tony McClenny serve – would continue to meet with representatives of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), with ensuing efforts to design the pathway making it possible to conceive of the eventual costs and what potential there is for funding.
“It is a State project on State property,” she emphasized. “There are funding possibilities available.” And, to those who still possess strong reservations about the project moving forward, she assured, “DNREC said their concerns will be addressed during the design phase.”
While Olmstead said she proposed passing the resolution “in favor of developing a specific design for the trail,” language in the Trail Team’s resolution met with concern from other council members – particularly in respect to how it might obligate the Town to participate in a project that does not yet even have a design.
Along with providing reasons why the Town supports the project, the resolution stated that the Town “requests that the State include the project in any future funding for bicycle and pedestrian pathway projects.” While no council members objected to that aspect of the resolution, two of three elements that the resolution stated the Town was agreeing to raised concerns for enough council members to threaten passage of the resolution.
The draft resolution stated that the Town agreed to:
• Collaborate with the Trail Team partners in designing and developing the Trail;
• Participate in the regular upkeep/maintenance of the trail and trail corridor adjacent to Town; and
• Encourage voluntary citizen engagement in trail activities and programs.
The latter two points led to an immediate dissent from Councilman Lew Killmer.
“While, in principal, at some time in future, I may support this, today I have to vote no,” he said. Referencing the review process of the town’s planning commission, which he heads, Killmer said he believed this concept stage of the pathway project was equivalent to the “sketch plan” stage of planning review, at which commissioners review a proposed project and note both any aspects they support and any they feel are negatives but do not vote on approval.
“Until those concerns … are addressed in the form of an actual preliminary plan for the council and town to review, this shouldn’t even be on the agenda for the council to review,” Killmer asserted.
He said he believed aspects of the project – such as an actual location for the path, complete trail designs and elements, seasonal occupancy issues, security, details of the potential long-term and short-term costs, the project’s impact on wildlife, and accessibility for those with mobility limitations and for any large equipment that might need to access the area, as well as the types of activities and programs to be offered – would need to be detailed before the council could agree to participate in maintenance or encourage citizen participation.
Councilman Jerry Dorfman agreed, saying that he was concerned by statements from DNREC officials that they believed neighbors of the trail would welcome it, in a year or two, just as New Castle County residents do trails in that county.
“But we’re not in New Castle County,” he said. “These homes are vacant nine months a year. You’re asking us to vote for a concept, but we need more facts, and I want some of these things answered prior to a vote.”
Councilwoman Margaret Young said she, too, could not support the resolution at this time. “The rear of homes are readily visible,” she said. “And it’s not difficult to ascertain which homes are unoccupied during the off-season.”
Saying that the trail area was “totally isolated, especially during the off-season,” she questioned how the trail would be secured – with a “high, impassible fence along the entire length of the trail?” Young also noted existing problems with personal watercraft traversing the canal at high speeds, amplifying the risk of downed trees, and said she was concerned about the impact on wildlife, which she said was already decreased in its presence since the canal was dredged in recent years.
However, Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon said he felt the project was at too early a stage for there to be so much concern about the details and that the resolution was needed to move the project forward to a point where the details could be ascertained.
“We don’t even know whether the money is going to be there,” he said. “This would just allow the people involved in this to say, ‘Hey, do you have any funding for this?’ I believe they have to look at the project, see if have the money to do it and then we can see if it’s going to all be on the Ocean View side of the canal, or the Bethany side, or both. We don’t even know that yet,” he emphasized. “Until then, we can’t know what the concerns are going to be.”
Olmstead agreed. “I will reiterate that a lot of these questions have to be addressed at the design phase of this. The funding can’t even be applied for until there is some sort of a design,” she said. “We’re not voting: ‘Yes, go ahead and do it.’ We’re saying, ‘Yes, this is a concept we support you continuing to investigate. … We’re saying it’s something worth exploring further and exploring the design phase.
“Tony and I will be at all the meetings and giving input,” she added. “And all the representatives from the different towns and communities were listened to,” she said of the process thus far.
Councilman Joseph Healy pointed out that the resolution, as drafted, really extended beyond the core intention behind its passage.
“What you’re really asking us to do is to collaborate with the design partners in developing the trail,” he told Olmstead. “Is there need for other two bullets?” he asked.
Olmstead said she was open to adjusting the resolution.
“If you remove the second and the third bullets, I can sign this,” Killmer said.
McClenny said he had no objection to removing the second bullet from the resolution the council would vote on.
“That’s going to be something that’s discussed in the future, once the design has been developed,” he said of the maintenance aspect of the pathway. And while the agreement to encourage voluntary citizen participation in any eventual trail activities and programs might be up for debate at this stage, he said he would like to encourage citizen engagement in the discussion of such programs – something the council could endorse with a slight change of language.
With those suggested revisions made, the council voted 7-0 to approve the resolution in support of the project, making it the last of the three municipalities involved – and the final of the seven local participants – to endorse the project at the concept stage.
The Assawoman Canal pathway project has received support from DNREC officials and is expected to be at or near the top of a list of projects that could be funded under Gov. Jack Markell’s pathways and trails initiative, owing to its ability to connect several local towns and communities without major land acquisition or infrastructure investment, as well as to offer opportunities for active recreation.