Compromise found on Bethany tent ban

Date Published: 
March 17, 2017

Bethany Beach Town Council members this week found some room for compromise on the somewhat controversial idea of prohibiting tents on the town’s beaches.

With the recommendation for that prohibition, and others, having come from the Charter & Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) last month, council members heard from a number of concerned beach users on both sides of the issue during their March 14 council workshop.

The proposal came in the wake of a pending ordinance in Rehoboth Beach that bans tents (except “baby tents”), canopies and larger-than-standard beach umbrellas on that town’s beaches. (The Rehoboth ordinance is set for a March 17 vote.) Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman, chairperson for CORC, said the committee had received requests to follow suit from a number of people after they heard of the Rehoboth ordinance proposal.

Hardiman pointed to the beach as a place where “people should respect others’ rights to enjoy the beach” and said she thought that philosophy was a “better way to go about it.”

She pointed to similar rules in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., that prohibit shade devices (umbrellas, tents and canopies) larger than 12 feet in diameter or 9 feet tall, as well as tying shade devices together or placing them within 10 feet of each other.

In the wake of public response to the March 14 agenda item, she said she wasn’t sure the Town wanted to go down the road of a flat prohibition on tents but instead suggested a compromise: to allow tents at the very back of the beach, next to the dune.

“Of the people I talked to, all of them objected to having tents on the beach — except one, who had [a tent]. And all except that one said they would be OK with tents at the back of the beach.”

Hardiman said that with the town’s beach currently being narrower than its design, she felt the issue of tents wasn’t going to go away. “It’s going to get harder and harder to address,” she said, adding that she felt the issue was “not as emotional now as it would be in years to come.”

Councilman Lew Killmer said Bethany is “known as being a family-friendly beach, and with that in mind, … my personal experience is when some of these issues are brought up there on the beach, a person can address them one-on-one.

“Hiring people to walk along the beach” for enforcement had been proposed by CORC, he noted, and they would have to be the ones to enforce any such rules. In the past, he said, “I have taken the position of not saying, ‘No,’ but instead saying, ‘Yes, but do it in this manner.’”

Killmer recommended the Town allow tents only along the dune, particularly as a way to better ensure the visibility of kids playing along the water. “It’s not a problem if they’re all in one location,” he said of tents, adding that getting into specifics was more risky. “We shouldn’t take the fun out of being on the beach.”

Mayor Jack Gordon said he felt tents were “a bigger issue as our beach gets smaller. Hopefully, we can control this in some way without being burdensome,” he added, noting that he felt guide-wires for such structures are a hazard.

Councilman Joe Healy said he favored eliminate tents on the beach but that Hardiman had proposed “a viable alternative in confining them to the back of the dune.” He added that controlling specific sizes would involve someone having to check compliance with a tape measure.

“Without another alternative,” he added, “I would be in favor of eliminating them.”

Councilman Jerry Morris declared, “Tents are a thing of the future. More and more, people are going to tents — not just for children, but for the elderly and people with mobility problems.” He said he felt moving any tents to the dune line was a good alternative to banning them.

Morris said he felt the other issue to consider was people setting up early on the beach and not showing up until later, such as 1 p.m. “That’s not a right thing to do.” He also said using a bigger tent made sense, rather than trying to accommodate individual baby tents for a group with multiple children.

“We have a fairly narrow beach,” he said. “I think the answer is to move tents back.”

Councilman Bruce Frye said he had asked for opinions on the issue on social media, with 18 respondents being against any regulation at all and some, he said, saying “we were all beach-Nazis.” He said he favored allowing tents of a reasonable size back at the dune.

Killmer suggested controlling the maximum size of tents by prohibiting any guide wires, but Town Manager Cliff Graviet said he didn’t think that was feasible and the Town would have to enforce a size regulation. Killmer replied that guide wires should be prohibited regardless and that the Town should also ban tying tents together. He said he favored specifying that tents could be placed against the dune in a single row, with no doubling them up in front of each other.

Resident Dan White, who said he’s been in the town for 20 years, noted that his family has grown to include 18 people, with grandkids and in-laws, and they all go to the beach together.

“We got a tent because you can put more people in a smaller space,” he said, agreeing that guide wires were a hazard. But he argued that tents are safer than umbrellas, which he said are more likely to go flying in the wind, and are higher and more likely to block the view up high. He also favored prohibiting tying tents together and said restricting them to the dune line would be an acceptable compromise.

Resident Wendy O’Connor noted her interest in running for mayor on a platform of prohibiting tents.

“The ones with tents are the ones that come at 5 a.m. and don’t show up [until much later], or do show up. … And there’s no one in the tent,” she added, saying tent users put chairs in front of their tent and “take up lots of space.” She also said she’d seen portable toilets used on the beach, including little kids using them in the open.

“I don’t know how you broach the subject. You cannot approach people like that. It is ‘their space.’ They are very territorial.”

O’Connor said she’d also more recently seen people take tents and spread the bottoms out at an angle, reducing the height but taking up more room on the beach.

“I think the back is perfect for tents,” she added, lamenting also the visual impact of tents across other areas.

“I picture the town as a beautiful little ‘umbrella beach.’”

Salt Pond resident Andy Simolin said he opposed the use of tents — especially when placed in prime spots early in the morning but then left unattended until much later — and didn’t feel people could self-regulate without rules posted that others could point to.

Resident Connie Webber said her large family uses a canopy, which does not have sides, and felt the Town would need to differentiate between tents and canopies, as tents obstruct the view, while a canopy, if put up correctly, do not. She said she’d need four umbrellas to accommodate her family if canopies weren’t permitted and that would take up as much or more room.

Webber also said the ability to locate her canopy closer to the front of the beach was important.

“I have six grandchildren. I need to be at the edge of the water. If I have to be up front, I’ll be taking up two spaces,” she said, with her spot near the water under an umbrella and her canopy confined to the back of the beach. “I want my eyes on my grandchildren when they’re on the beach.”

Gordon said he felt the Town needed to define canopies and tents before addressing the issue with any rules.

It’s all fun and games, until…

Hardiman said the proposed regulations regarding the throwing of objects on the beach “didn’t come out the way it was intended. Nobody is against playing paddleball or throwing a Frisbee,” she said. Instead, she clarified, CORC had intended to address the use of hard objects, such as lacrosse balls, baseballs and footballs, during times when the lifeguards are on duty.

The idea, she said, was to prohibit hard objects that would potentially injure somebody, with the notion that perhaps, because the beach is so narrow, they should eliminate all kinds of games in front of the boardwalk.

The prohibition on throwing objects and playing ball-type games is at the discretion of the lifeguards now, she noted, “But the idea is we wouldn’t have to have the lifeguards deal with it” in areas in front of the boardwalk, and the Town could just prohibit playing with hard objects elsewhere on the beach.

“We don’t want to limit fun on the beach,” Killmer stated, while agreeing that perhaps a ban on playing such games in front of the boardwalk should be considered. “I think the lifeguards do a good job now regulating that issue.”

Morris said he agreed that the beach was supposed to be a place to have fun.

“Eliminating games would be a hard rule to enforce,” he said, noting that areas where the beach is wider mean people can even play lacrosse without interfering with anyone else. “If we’re going to do something like this, it’s going to have to be very intensely applied.”

“We don’t want to get to the point where people come to the beach and all they can do is sit there and bake,” he added.

Healy said the Town could still regulate play, such as restricting it to areas beyond the boardwalk and using only soft objects, without eliminating it entirely. “Please don’t eliminate this just to eliminate it. … This is something I’ve done since I was a kid, and I don’t want that to disappear.”

Gordon said he felt the existing rules, handled by the lifeguards, were quite successful.

“I would leave sleeping dogs lie and let them handle it as they do now,” he said. “I would assume the lifeguards now don’t allow it in front of the boardwalk at the back of the beach because there is no back,” he added. “I would suggest we forget about the whole issue.”

Frye agreed.

Resident Joan Thomas said she was concerned about the impact of the proposed tent location on kids who currently play ball in that area back against the dune. Gordon said he felt the Town needed to coordinate the proposed beach regulations as a whole, to prevent problems such as that.

A new ‘beach patrol’?

Killmer also addressed at the March 14 workshop the CORC suggestion that the Town consider umbrellas and other property on the beach as abandoned after being left unattended for more than an hour.

“Isn’t one hour a little too short?” he asked.

Hardiman said she wasn’t really sure now if anything could be done to really regulate that issue.

“I’m not sure how you regulate it unless you have someone telling people to get off the beach at 6,” Gordon said, with Graviet noting that the CORC discussion had specified only that items couldn’t be left unattended at such an hour and that if the Town was to regulate the issue, they would have to figure out how to enforce the regulation.

“I don’t think you can control that,” Gordon said.

“Do you set up early?” Hardiman asked Gordon.

“Yes,” he replied, to laughter from the council and others in attendance, adding that not setting up early on the Fourth of July would leave people with no place to sit.

“You’d have to hire people to do that,” Killmer added of enforcement. “Is this what we’re going to turn into, having a ‘beach patrol’? The lifeguards should be monitoring the water, so I think the next thing is we’d have to have a ‘beach patrol.’”

“It’s difficult to tell some guy who drove in from Dagsboro that you can’t put your umbrella up before 10 a.m.,” Gordon added.

Finally, Killmer suggested that the CORC suggestion to require earphones for people using audio devices on the beach be shifted to requiring that any audio devices (except beach patrol and law-enforcement radios) not be audible from 50 feet or farther away.

“We have to be careful about taking the fun out of the beach,” he said, adding that if people play music too loud on the beach, he asks them to turn it down, and they do.

“We’re human beings. We can talk to each other, and if it becomes an issue, we can go to somebody who can say to stop.”

Hardiman said she felt the existing noise ordinance could really address such concerns, with wide agreement from those in attendance.

CORC will take another swing at the proposed regulations before they’ll come back to the council for a possible vote.

Service animals getting defined, alley could open

Hardiman explained to the council that CORC’s recommendation for changes to town code regarding the access of service animals was to move away from the current definition of “service animal” that specifies dogs in service of blind or deaf persons, as well as law-enforcement canines, as the only service animals to receive additional access to areas such as the beach and boardwalk when dogs are otherwise prohibited.

She said the committee favored adopting the definition directly from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which defines a service animal as a dog formally trained to perform a task for a person with disabilities. That does not include “comfort animals” that can provide reassurance and other help for people, but does include psychiatric aid dogs that are trained to do tasks such as turn on lights or check for danger for people with PTSD.

The council could also in the near future hold a public hearing on whether to officially open a Town-controlled alley in the 200 block of Central Boulevard.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet told the council that a property owner had asked the Town to open the unopened alley — a 10-foot strip between the property line there and the Loop Canal — to provide a pedestrian walkway for residents of four rental properties there (all owned by the same entity) to more easily make their way to Pennsylvania Avenue and the beach.

The entrance to the alley on the eastern end is between a mini-golf course and a residence, and Graviet said the Town needed to do a survey to see if there was a viable entrance already on the other end of the alley.

He noted that the Town charter specifies what the Town must do to open the alley — the same procedure as needed to close Maryland Avenue Extended for its use for the future town museum, including public notice to affected property owners at least 45 days in advance of a public hearing.

If opened, the alley would connect to Route 1. Graviet said he hadn’t inquired of DelDOT what their perspective on the issue was. He said they had in the past opposed opening any new alleys onto Route 1, but this alley already technically exists, even if it isn’t officially open. Graviet said he also wasn’t sure yet how much of that would be in the Town’s right-of-way.

Killmer noted that the request hadn’t been for the Town to provide paving for the alley or even a path, but just to open the alley officially.

Councilman Jerry Morris noted that the initial drawing of the area appeared to only show need for the removal of a few bushes. Graviet said there are also a couple of trees, but that regardless of the actual work that would need to be done to make the alley passable, the procedure for doing so was the same.

Council members found consensus that a council member could opt to bring the issue up at a future meeting, at which time the council could decide whether to proceed with potential resolution and public hearing that would pave the way for the issue to go up for a vote.

Hiatus, study coming for seasonal speed humps

Graviet proposed to the council at the March 14 workshop that the Town consider put the use of some speed-control devices, such as removable speed humps, on hiatus for the summer of 2017.

Graviet noted that the Town uses the devices, seasonally and year-round, in a number of different locations on Gibson and Central, with mixed results. He said that, many times, residents want them installed to help keep drivers from speeding above the 25 mph limit on those roads.

However, he said, the Town’s data has shown that drivers rarely drive above 25 mph in those areas.

“We don’t really have speeding problems,” he said of those locations, noting that while some might prefer the speed limit in those areas was 15 mph instead of 25 mph, the Town cannot regulate the speed down further, per state law.

To address the issue going into the future, Graviet said he wanted to try the hiatus this summer and take the time to discuss the issue with a traffic engineer. While the speed-control devices may seem harmless enough overall, Graviet said they had proven to be an annoyance to some residents living nearby, between people stopping to then drive slowly over them and the noise sometimes generated when they are driven over.

“We want to see if there is something else we can do to reduce the speed, or at least the perception of speed,” he said.

Killmer said he supported the proposed hiatus, though he said he felt the devices do help in some areas of the town.

Hardiman noted that the DelDOT traffic manual lists such devices as not recommended for use to reduce traffic volume, which may be part of the reason some have asked for them in the past.

“In this case, it did,” she added before pointing out that DelDOT’s alternative recommendation for reducing traffic volume is one-way streets. “I’d rather have someone who is an expert take a look at it.”

Graviet added of the one-way streets that a previous recommendation from a traffic engineer had been for the Town to move to one-way streets for Atlantic and Pennsylvania Avenues, forming a large loop downtown.

Councilman Joe Healy said he felt the seasonal devices on Collins were necessary and had a done a great job.

Graviet emphasized that he felt that a more ideal solution for the problem would be the creation of a pedestrian pathway in that area, to move pedestrians away from the motor-vehicle traffic. He said that idea had been discussed years ago but hadn’t found council support.

“The home owners are up to here with the noise,” he said, and were bothered by the fact that they were so close together.

Hardiman said there is “a misconception that speed humps are the solution to everything. They may not always be the way to go. We need a way to come up with criteria for where put them in.”

Graviet said he believed DelDOT was correct in that the speed humps often don’t help with traffic, and said that the kind of speed hump needed to bring traffic down to 15 mph “could be catastrophic in terms of driving your car over it.”

Addressing residents of Collins Street who said they favored having the devices year-round instead of seasonally, Graviet said the devices had been put in in lieu of a sidewalk, because some residents had opposed having a sidewalk there, but that there had been those who wanted them removed in the off-season, while others had favored year-round use.

“The majority of emails we receive are people who aren’t happy with them there,” he said of residents of Gibson and Central.

“This room was full of people who opposed putting speed bumps on Collins,” Killmer noted of the discussion prior to their installation around seven years ago.

Mayor Jack Gordon said he supported studying the issue and hoped that the Town will be able to resolve more problems than it causes with whatever decision is reached.

Also on March 14, the council held a public hearing on the draft of the Town’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Town officials said the only change from a prior version of the draft was a $32,000 increase in expenses for police salaries, to keep the Town paying a competitive rate.

The major significant change from prior years is an increase of $50 per year (to $330 total) for the Town’s trash collection — a change that officials said will sustain the service for the next five years.

The final draft budget calls for $9.4 million in revenue, with $7.3 million in operating expenses and $1.1 million in capital expenses.

There were no comments on the draft budget from members of the public. The budget is up for adoption at the March 17 meeting of the town council.