South Bethany mulls speed limit reduction, wireless antennas, town hall renovation

Over the course of two days, Oct. 10 and 11, the South Bethany Town Council met for a total of 5.5 hours, and they covered major ground.

To enhance road safety, Police Chief Jason Lovins has suggested lowering the speed limit on all town-controlled roads from 20 mph to 15 mph. (That would exclude Coastal Highway, which DelDOT controls.)

There are two main reasons for the change.

“That 5 mph increases reaction time and can significantly reduce the injury. There’s not a lot of difference on that graph from 15 to 20, but there is a difference,” Lovins said.

Council Member Dick Oliver wasn’t initially supportive, but he now champions the idea.

When a car hits a person at 15 mph, “You’re going to knock them down … but you’re probably not going to kill them or injure them seriously,” Oliver said. “It’s different at 20 mph. Trust me — I know. I got hit by a vehicle going 20 mph, and I was seriously injured.”

It would also help with enforcement. In some places, even 25 mph feels much too fast, although people often drive a little over that speed limit. If South Bethany police keep writing tickets for driving 25 mph in a 20-mph zone, it feels like overkill, and Justice of the Peace Court judges start to notice.

But with a lower speed limit, “I believe the judge will see that and see it’s 15 for a reason, and [the driver is] doing 10 over. I think it would help the enforcement of it.”

“It sounds like if we want people to go 20, we ought to change it to 15,” said Don Boteler. “It gives us a buffer, right?”

DelDOT requires towns to provide a traffic survey or study if they request such a change. But that could be as simple as Lovins writing a detailed report about the state of South Bethany traffic, including the high level of bicycle traffic, lack of lighting, age of pedestrians, and presence of blind driveways and narrow roads.

DelDOT has been amenable to other towns wanted to change speed limits.

Lovins previously worked in Dewey Beach, where all side roads had speed limits of 15 mph.

Several residents said they disliked the proposal, suggesting that pedestrians need better road-safety education, and also citing the town’s high density of stop signs and speed humps.


Preparing for antennas


In order to improve cell phone coverage, police communications and prepare the future 5G network, major wireless companies want to add new, tiny antennas to Coastal Delaware. The federal government isn’t letting towns throw up major roadblocks, since mobile coverage has become so necessary to public health and safety.

“Once we get formal requests, the clock starts — 30 days, whether you have an ordinance or not,” said Town Solicitor Stephani Ballard. “The sooner you have something in place, the sooner you have a framework and can start collecting fees.”

So the town council on Oct. 11 approved the first reading of Ordinance 196-19, which would establish uniform policies and procedures for the deployment and installation of small wireless facilities in or on rights-of-way within the Town’s jurisdiction.

A similar ordinance was introduced last winter, but the Town replaced it with this new version and held another first reading.

South Bethany had started with an ordinance from a neighboring town but opted to pay their town solicitor to start over with a new draft altogether.

The federal government dictates many of the requirements, such as fees. Residents offered several suggestions, including density, enforcement and penalties.

Companies are being encouraged to use existing poles, rather than install new ones. Various cell phone companies (such as Verizon or Sprint) could all request to install antennas, based on their individual network needs.

Each individual antenna can be more than 3 cubic feet in volume. All of the equipment associated with the facility is cumulatively no more than 28 cubic feet in volume (which is roughly 3 feet cubed).

The town manager (or her designee) would review all applications, which can be denied over concerns about safety and sightlines. There would be rules for abandonment, safety and more.

The Charter & Code Committee will review an updated draft and then forward their proposal to the town council.


Proposing a new direction for town hall


This summer, the town council began its first discussion of town hall renovations, for safety and storage purposes. But Council Member Sue Callaway said she was not thrilled with the initial concept drawings.

“I felt we need to sit back and look at what we were really trying to accomplish,” she said.

With help from the town staff, Callaway proposed a new concept that she said would be more welcoming to the public; improve security for town staff; and connect the town offices and police department by turning the “dead space” (an outdoor handicapped-accessible ramp that physically divides the two offices) into a foyer or lobby.

Her main priority, she said, is “offering our community an enhanced user-friendly area” since she only envisions more public use of the town hall meeting chambers.

Connecting the departments would also foster more community between the staff, she said.

“I would just ask you to think about the future for the town. I’m not excited about spending a little bit more money,” Callaway said, “but I am excited about creating a community space that feels like a community space.”

Storage space is at a premium, but Callaway said she envisioned that the South Bethany Women’s Club and South Bethany Historical Society could move their tote boxes into another area.

“All their stuff is in there. That’s what makes that room so crowded,” Callaway said of a nearby closet, which is too packed to comfortably unload chairs for town functions.

But Mayor Tim Saxton objected to community groups storing their items in the town building, since they are not sponsored by the Town.

If the town manager or police chief needs some storage space, he said, “they should have first option at it — not the Women’s Club.”

For instance, the South Bethany Property Owners Association meets at town hall, but stores its materials elsewhere.

“It’s a community space,” Callaway responded. “When you have a community space, you are welcoming the community.”

The original concept was to build a hallway near the entrance, to better enclose staff offices. Renovations would trigger the need for more bathrooms, which would be installed in the current kitchenette. The kitchen/breakroom would be moved to the existing (overstuffed) closet, and all storage items would be moved to a small addition — a small storage space behind the town council dais.

“I actually like the addition of the space, because we need it,” Hartman said.

“If you think we’re suffering some growing pains,” then consider this plan, Callaway concluded.


Take-home police cars


The police chief has proposed loosening up the town’s current vehicle take-home policy. Most of the South Bethany Police Department’s officers may not drive their patrol cars home (although one officer was grandfathered in, having been hired under the former policy that did allow for officers to take their patrol cars home).

Under the new proposal, officers would be allowed to drive home their patrol cars only during their rotation of back-to-back 12-hour shifts.

“For the most part, they’re going home, getting something to eat, going to sleep, getting a shower, and coming back in,” Lovins said.

“It’s a cop thing,” and one of the first questions that job applicants ask, he said. “It’s more than just a car to those guys” because all of their individual equipment is stored there, Lovins said. It helps with callback if they’re needed in a hurry, and it’s a morale boost. It has also been championed as providing additional security in the communities where the officers live, just by virtue of having police vehicles present.

Although gas usage increases, maintenance costs sometimes decrease because the policy gives drivers “a sense of ownership.”

Officers could only drive to and from work. That means no bonus errands, and no guests.

“This is not considered a benefit. It’s considered a privilege. It can be revoked at any time,” and officers can opt out, Lovins said.

“We revoked it before because it was being abused,” said Frank Weisgerber.

“All of our Town vehicles are GPSed, so the chief can see if they’re going to Wal-mart every night,” Hartman said.

There would likely be a probation period, so new hires would be eligible after perhaps six months.

Most police departments are all-or-nothing when it comes to allowing officers to drive their patrol cars home. South Bethany doesn’t have enough cars to allow that even if they wanted to. Two officers are assigned a vehicle on opposite shifts. They’re both responsible for upkeep and maintenance.

“The bottom line is the taxpayers are paying for every mile on that vehicle, and that has to be respected,” Lovins said.

Discussion will continue in the future, they said.


Flooding a growing concern


Although there was no rainfall, Delaware saw widespread coastal flooding due to a storm offshore on Oct. 11. That resulted in “nuisance flooding” through the low-lying roads of all the local coastal towns.

“In my opinion, the street needs to be raised. I realize that causes all kinds of problems … [but] every square inch of Bristol Road is underwater,” said resident Gerry Injain. “It’s a pretty serious issue for us. I’m talking about real quality-of-life stuff for us.”

The Town may be hiring an engineer soon to examine the flooding, and officials have reminded federal agencies of the town’s flooding challenges.


By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter