South Bethany wants eastside parking ‘restricted to people who pay taxes’

The South Bethany Town Council is considering a residents-only parking zone on the entire east side of Route 1. As they prepare for town-wide parking permit requirements next summer, the proposed restriction was an idea to keep beachfront parking manageable for actual property owners in the town.

If the measure passes this spring, the general public would have to park on the west side of Route 1 and cross the highway to access the beach (unless they could borrow a resident’s vehicle hangtag). Parking permits are required from May 15 to Sept. 15.

“It seems like the beach is the most valuable, most important asset to a beach town. So it follows that parking near the beach is probably the most valuable parking in the town,” said Councilman Don Boteler. “It can be something that can be restricted to people who pay taxes in the town. … There’s precedent, and it seems like a good thing to do for people who are taxpayers in town.”

South Bethany’s easternmost road is Ocean Drive: about two-thirds of a mile of promenade, running parallel to the coastline. Between that and the highway are 20 perpendicular streets, much shorter in length, only about five houses long. There is also a small loop of Sea Side Drive. Under the proposal, those roads would still be open for public driving, but not public parking.

“Is that legal?” asked Councilwoman Carol Stevenson.

“They do it in Fenwick,” said Mayor Tim Saxton.

Indeed, Fenwick Island reserves its eastern-most spaces for property owners, too. But that restriction only applies to the beachfront street ends. Visitors can still park on the east side of Route 1. Visitor parking begins roughly 200 feet away from the dunes, and people need only cross a two-lane road to get to the beach.

South Bethany’s proposal would have visitor parking begin roughly 500 feet away, and people would have to cross a four-lane highway to access the public beach.

For pedestrian safety, Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) is currently planning to install better-lit and marked crosswalks on Route 1. The move is intended to help pedestrians cross the Coastal Highway more safely — whether they park cars on the road or bicycles in the incoming westside bike racks.

Meanwhile, Bethany Beach does not restrict the general public from parking in proximity to the oceanfront, although the town has some permit-only zones and meter-only zones.

Asked whether it’s fair to demand that visitors cross the highway to access the beach, Boteler said, “We find that there’s very few visitors, if you read the statistics. So, it’s not something we’re taking away from people, since so few park there.”

Hartman estimated that fewer than 200 daily parking permits were sold in summer of 2019, and a number of those were later converted into seasonal passes (when property owners couldn’t initially access the Town Hall during business hours). The Coastal Point has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding the 2019 parking permit sales data.

Previously, there was an inherent element of control on east-side parking, because parking permits were only required on the east side, not the west. However, when the Town implements town-wide parking permit requirements in 2020, there will be less impetus for people to choose the west side, so eastside parking is expected to become more desirable than ever.

“It’s kind of like a benefit to buying a home here,” Stevenson said of the new proposal.

“I say we stay ahead of the curve,” said Councilman Frank Weisgerber, as he and other council members said they fear that South Bethany’s beach and roads will become more congested as more newcomers fill the houses that are being built just west of town.

Homeowners could also lend their residents-only hangtags to visitors, whether it’s a family houseguest or just a summertime renter. (However, under the new system, the town council may reconsider whether to allow fewer than the current maximum of four permits per household.)

South Bethany only offers seasonal or daily parking passes. This summer, they introduced an electronic kiosk for daily parking permit sales, hoping to reduce weekend staff hours and also to prepare for the future town-wide permit requirement. Seasonal permits are still processed by office staff, although there is a goal of someday automating that task, too.

Town council members on Nov. 19 indicated (by straw poll) that they generally favored the eastside homeowner-parking-only proposal and turned the matter over to the Charter & Code Committee to determine its legality and any necessary changes to the town code. Ordinance changes could be presented for a first reading at the Feb. 14 town council meeting.

“We’re still working a lot of things out,” said Town Manager Maureen Hartman. “We’ll definitely notify people that there will be changes.”

There will be some exceptions. The Town will likely keep some eastside parking available for lifeguards and for handicapped accessibility.

Next, town staff will continue identifying which roads can safely accommodate street parking. Signage will also need to installed.

“We’re going to move forward with it unless the council says [they don’t want to],” Saxton said.

Although the town council has only committed to this idea by straw poll, the Public Works Department has begun ordering “residents-only” parking signs.

“Mock signage was ordered so that we had a budget number to make the suggested change,” Saxton said afterward.

Since South Bethany’s beach replenishment projects are paid with public dollars, the Town must maintain public access to the beach.

“Federal Coastal Storm Risk Management projects are required by law to have public use,” announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District. They would frown upon access points, such as dune crossovers, being spaced more than a half-mile apart or “a lack of sufficient parking facilities or public transportation for the general public (non-resident-users) located within a reasonable walking distance of the beach access points. The Non-Federal Sponsor (in this case, DNREC) is responsible to ensure that the public access requirements in both areas are met.”

The Army Corps does not offer a specific distance for parking requirements in the “Federal Participation in Shore Protection” regulation.

“Generally, parking on free or reasonable terms should be available within a reasonable walking distance of the beach. … Parking should be sufficient to accommodate the lesser of the peak hour demand or the beach capacity.” There are also some rules for encouraging public transportation in lieu of, or in addition to, parking.

Towns could be excluded from the federal program if they have a “lack of sufficient parking facilities for the general public (including non-resident users) located reasonably nearby, and with reasonable public access to the project” because that would be considered a “de facto restriction on public use.”

Meanwhile, the Delaware Beach Preservation Act places no specific requirements in the definition of public beaches. “Thus ‘public access’ is not within the Department’s purview,” responded officials with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC).

Conversely, the South Bethany Town Council has always defended another local traffic law because of its stance on equal access: the Cat Hill barricade. Every summer morning, the Town closes the Kent Avenue entrance to the Cat Hill neighborhood. Although the goal is to reduce cut-through beach traffic, all South Bethay residents are also denied entry.

A residents-only road would be considered privatization of the street, and South Bethany would risk losing their grant funding for public roads and potentially their designation as a municipality altogether. After all, a homeowner association can have private-use roads, but a public town cannot.

 

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter