Beach towns short on sand but ready for summer

It’s here! The unofficial start of the summer season at the Delaware shore has arrived with Memorial Day weekend, and it’s a time of transition for the area, as the relatively quiet second season of spring sprouts into the hustle and bustle that is the resort area’s high season.

But beyond the shifting of gears and the revving of beaches and businesses into full swing, what’s changed over the winter? What will returning visitors and summer residents find when they swing back into their favorite beach town?

One thing they’ll find is that the sands have shifted — literally. Nor’easters that hit the Delaware shore over the fall and winter took with them some of the sand from area beaches, pounding the reconstructed dunes in local resort towns and causing some access problems for those trying to get from the landward side of the dune to the shoreline, or back again.

In Bethany Beach, the work of restoring access has included building new steps from the boardwalk to replace those stolen by the storms. The Town has completed constructing steps at: Second Street, First Street, Central Boulevard, Campbell Place (north and south sides), Garfield Parkway (north and south sides), Hollywood Street and Parkwood Street.

According to Town Manager Cliff Graviet, handicapped access to the beach will be available at Oceanview Parkway and Parkwood Streets this summer, though the Parkwood Street access is only temporary, until the ramp at Wellington Parkway is reconstructed in the Town’s next replenishment project.

Graviet noted that DNREC has worked to push sand to non-boardwalk streets this spring, with mixed results.

“Wind and wave, while widening our beach, have not deposited enough sand to make major restoration of our dunes possible,” he noted. That has left several of the town’s beach access ramps very steep. “Nature has not deposited enough sand back on the beach to restore the dunes, although the beach is widening at this time,” he said.

Replenishment of the beach and dunes in Bethany Beach (along with South Bethany and Fenwick Island) this year through the usual federal/state-funded projects is not planned at this time, though U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said during a pre-summer-season visit to Bethany Beach on May 20 that he and other legislators are working to bring in some supplemental funding for U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects that are not otherwise funded in this year’s federal budget.

Karen McGrath, Carper’s Sussex County regional director and former executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, explained that, while this isn’t the year in which Bethany, South Bethany and Fenwick Island were due to have a major replenishment to bring the reconstructed beaches back up to their engineered design, legislators are working to provide the Corps with some funding that could go to do necessary repairs after storm damage in areas where regular replenishment has not been funded in the current budget year.

Of work to renourish the beaches in Rehoboth and Dewey, she said, “That project is actually out to bid right now. It’s not enough to bring it back to what the Corps calls the design template, but they will be getting some sand.”

She said Carper’s amendment to the Water Resources Development Fund authorization that recently passed the Senate creates new line item for the Corps “that was written with our beaches in mind. It enables the Corps to draw on that money for projects for which the regular money is not enough, because of a storm or a project that was sort of skipped over and should have had its regular renourishment, like Bethany Beach.”

McGrath said that during a recent visit by Corps officials to see damage from winter storm Jonas, she had told them that she hoped “that when this piece of legislation passes the House, that they’ll keep this project in mind with that pot of money.”

Speaking to State efforts to address damage from the storms, she said, “DNREC has been doing a super job of pushing the sand that’s available. By the Fourth of July we’re really up to where the beach is the fullest, so we’ll get some more sand here. DNREC will be able to then build up the dune a little bit more and add more protection for properties like this.

“But Sen. Carper has been doing everything he can to get more sand money for Bethany and South Bethany, and we’re well aware of the problem.”

Carper acknowledged the money crunch such projects face: “We ask the Corps … to do way more than they have the money to do, so we have an obligation to try to do these projects in a cost-effective kind of way, and to identify other sources of revenue.

“The dunes work,” he emphasized. “It helps save our towns, but the dunes now need some work, and we might not be able to get all that we want, but we’ll get as much as we can.”

“Those of us who see it realize that, despite the price tag, that the price of redoing all of our beaches from one end to another would probably cost less than rebuilding this hotel or rebuilding sewer infrastructure,” McGrath added. “So sand really is cheap compared to some other things.

When and if that legislation passes, that would mean some funding could become available for work that might be piggybacked on the Rehoboth Beach-area replenishment, though neither the funding nor a specific plan to do such work have yet to be adopted.

Town working with existing resources to maximize beach access

In the meantime, Town staff are working to make the beaches as accessible as possible as summer visitors arrive, but the steepness of the storm-damaged dune crossings hasn’t made that easy, nor even possible at some locations.

“The use of Mobi-Mats is not a viable option due to steepness at these streets,” Graviet said of the impacted crossings. “The mats that have made our beach so accessible over the years do not perform well at extreme angles and are very slippery when covered in sand or wet,” he explained.

Graviet said the mats will be used wherever possible, and the Town will monitor beach conditions daily.

“If there are not mats on a ramp,” he said, “it is because we have judged the ramp too steep or too narrow to safely accommodate the use of mats.”

At the beach ends of Bethany Beach streets, a mix of conditions currently exists. On Wellington Parkway, Fifth Street, Fourth Street and Third Street, Mobi Mats are installed. On Ocean View Parkway and Parkwood Street, handicapped access is available. On Oakwood Street, Maplewood Street and Ashwood Street, there is a mat on the west side of the dune. On Cedarwood Street, vehicular and pedestrian access is currently available, with the slope having been deemed “fine” by Town staff.

Once beachgoers cross the dunes, they’ll find things a little changed from last Labor Day weekend. But while the beach is narrower in some spots, measurements up and down the beach last week showed 300 or more feet of width at most locations, Graviet noted.

“Our beach is widening, as it does every spring, and though we don’t have the depth of sand on the beach that beach replenishment has made us accustomed to, we anticipate Bethany’s beach will be as wide and accommodating as it has been in past years,” he said.

That width can affect the Fourth of July fireworks show the Town puts on each summer, but Graviet said he expects the beach to be sufficiently wide to keep up the recent habit of shooting off the fireworks from the beach, as opposed to the off-shore barge that had been used in years when the beach was particularly narrow.

“We anticipate shooting fireworks from Wellington Parkway, as we have done in years past, at this time,” he said.

With the beach wide enough to accommodate fireworks and visitors, Graviet confirmed that the Town’s beaches will again be guarded beginning with the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, running through Labor Day weekend. Lifeguard hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as on weekends through the end of September.

Parking now paid, while park is pending

Paid parking season has already resumed in the town, in effect every day for all public parking from May 15 through Sept. 15, with specific hours posted in each zone. The current parking rate is $2 per hour. The Town accepts payment for parking via quarters only at its central paystations, which will print a ticket to be placed on the vehicle’s dashboard, or payment can be made via the Parkmobile app.

In addition to the seasonal resident permits, one-day ($27), three-day ($79) and weekly permits ($183) are sold at the police station (214 Garfield Parkway) 24 hours per day during the parking enforcement season. They are valid in any pay-to-park space, except on Garfield Parkway. They are valid the days purchased for, until 10 a.m. of the next day.

The biggest changes coming soon in Bethany Beach are still on the horizon, with the planned move of the historic Dinker Cottage to Town-owned land on Maryland Avenue Extended for use as a museum, and plans in the works to develop “Central Park” on the northwest corner of the intersection of Routes 1 and 26.

The Dinker Cottage move, having been the subject of litigation over the winter that was recently resolved in the Town’s favor, could take its next steps in the coming months, with a contract to relocate the structure on the near horizon, while the long-running park project could get some concrete plans this summer.

“In the next few weeks, we will be sending a survey to residents, asking their opinion on the final elements of the park, and we hope to have a phased, complete and final plan done by the end the summer,” Graviet told the Coastal Point. Preliminary design suggestions for the park are available on the Town website for the public to peruse.

Fenwick ‘open for business’

In Fenwick Island, Town Manager Merritt Burke said that after the winter storms, the Town will be rolling out beach mats where they can, but that DNREC is attempting to have all ADA access points open ahead of the start to the summer season.

Burke assured visitors that “Fenwick experienced minimal damage, so there is a wide beach for sun bathing and recreation.” All dune crossings are open, he said, and DNREC would be installing dune fencing throughout the week.

As Memorial Day weekend loomed, Burke said that Fenwick Island is “open for business” and that visitors should be aware that parking permits, which can be purchased at the public safety building from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., will be required from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily.

For those seeking additional information, Burke said the Town has made available to the public four educational handouts discussing topics important to the town’s visitors and residents.

South Bethany hoping for more sand

In South Bethany, Mayor Pat Voveris expressed concern that the town’s beaches haven’t seen “the correction that we were hoping for” in the wake of this winter’s storms.

Voveris said that, while there will be some handicapped access, it will be very limited. She added that, unfortunately, at this point, “Our hands are tied,” as the Town continues to wait for DNREC, who she said has been delayed in their response, due to simply not having enough manpower.

Speaking on behalf of the Council, Voveris said she is “disappointed and concerned” but that they are still thankful for what beach they do have.

“We still have beach and will get more beach,” Voveris said. “But until we have the replenishment and are able to generate new sand, we will just have a smaller beach than we’re used to.”

Local businesses revving up for season

As the summer season shifts into gear, Carper took time on May 20 to visit a number of local businesses, taking a look at the completed Bethany Beach Ocean Suites and its restaurant, 99 Sea Level, with representatives of the Small Business Administration and Chamber, as well as hotel owner Jack Burbage.

“We wanted to highlight for our small businesses some of the things they could be taking advantage of,” Carper said.

John Fleming of the SBA explained that business has been booming for the SBA in Delaware.

“We’ve been breaking records every year. It was a good thing to go back to Congress and ask for more money, because we needed it,” he said, noting that the SBA generally is involved in about $70 million in loans in the state each year, but that last year that figure was around $120 million.

“The nice part about this program is it costs taxpayers no dollars. It’s funded by the people who use it,” he said, noting that some of the SBA’s work involves training banks in the loan process to make it easier for them to lend to small businesses. “We get a lot of resort businesses because of the seasonality of it,” he added, saying that sometimes banks are reluctant to make loans to such businesses. “But we don’t want them to go outside, to high-interest loans. And we can do this because it’s government-guaranteed,” similar to student loans.

Just north of the hotel on the boardwalk, at Tidepool Toys & Games, owners Sandy and Lori Smyth chatted with Carper about operating their business year-round (as well as a second location now open in Fenwick Island) and showed off some of their classic and cutting-edge toys to the legislator and SBA representatives.

“We’re open year-round, in part, because of the Chamber and all the events they have,” Lori Smyth told Carper, with a nod to Chamber Executive Director Kristie Maravalli.

On Garfield Parkway, Bethany Beach Books owner Jacklyn Inman Burns gave Carper a brief tour of her shop, including a stop in the children’s and young-adult sections, and spoke about building their customer base through customer service and an ever-growing list of author signings that will offer book lovers the chance to meet some of their favorite authors this summer.

“We have about 70 to 100 author signings this summer, and we used to have about 20,” Burns explained, telling Carper that the secret to booking so many authors has been “a lot of schmoozing. And then you prove that you can sell their books. … We do children’s storytimes,” she noted as Carper perused the top selections in young-adult fiction.

Burns also pointed out that her family has two other local business that opened in the last year: The Jetty Deli, a few doors down, just off the boardwalk, and Burnzy’s Bar & Grill in the Marketplace at Sea Colony. That’s on top of a new baby she and her husband, Matt Burns, had over the winter.

“We have two other businesses in town, too, so we’re just happy that we keep expanding and keep creating more jobs in the area,” she said.

Burns emphasized that local businesses have been trying to find ways “to create more year-round business and not be just a seasonal beach town, and how to create more year-round jobs for people.”

Carper asked about the needs of local businesses, and one thing was fresh on her mind.

“Transportation is key this year. The Route 26 project — it’s exciting to see it coming to fruition,” she said, further noting a number of people who switched their vacations to the Delaware beaches after Hurricane Sandy and the positive impact it has had on business.

“But now they’re coming down here and retiring, so our infrastructure is going to be booming,” she warned.

Just down the street, Katie McLeod, owner of The Penguin, stepped out of the diner’s kitchen to greet Carper before ushering him back into the kitchen for a view of breakfast and lunch dishes being cooked for a light crowd of mid-morning early-summer visitors.

Having once again expanded its hours for summer, The Penguin has also added dinner to its menu, and a sidewalk sign touted the return of the establishment’s renowned fish tacos, which span the lunch menu into that dinner service.

Point Intern Kelsey Magill contributed to this story.