Gay vacationers and residents of Rehoboth Beach were part of a coalition of property owners and renters credited with persuading the popular resort city’s Board of Commissioners to unanimously defeat a controversial proposal to ban rental homeowners from operating swimming pools.
The 7-0 vote by the commissioners on June 19 to defeat the proposal, which was introduced earlier this year by Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper, followed a heated debate and citizen comment period.
Following the defeat of the pool ban proposal the commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a pool ordinance that requires all pools to be licensed. The new ordinance gives the city authority to shut down pools in any residential property if either renters or owner occupants are found to be in violation of the city’s noise ordinance.
The commissioners moved the Friday night meeting from City Hall to the Rehoboth Convention Center to accommodate more than 100 people who attended. Many, including a number of gay residents and renters, were part of a newly formed group called Save Our Nation’s Summer Capital. The group held a rally outside the Convention Center before the commissioners meeting began, urging the commissioners to vote against the pool ban.
“What we saw was an awakening of citizens/property owners of Rehoboth Beach to critical issues that affect them and the City of Rehoboth Beach as a whole,” said gay attorney and civic activist Richard Perry, a Rehoboth resident who is running for one of two seats on the Board of Commissioners up for election on Aug. 8.
“The city has suffered in the past from inadequate or nonexistent information flow to all members of the community regarding the issues being considered by the Board of Commissioners,” Perry told the Blade in an email statement on Saturday.
“I believe last night dramatically shifted how the City will have to operate in the future,” he said. “The silent majority is no longer silent.”
Perry and others opposed to the pool ban pointed to another controversial vote by the commissioners in April to pass an amendment to the Rehoboth noise ordinance that allows police to issue citations for “plainly audible” noise coming from homes in residential neighborhoods.
Critics, including gay residents and renters, have expressed concern that the new standard for determining noise violations is too vague and opens the way for frivolous complaints. They note that the new standard replaces the past requirement that decibel measuring devices be used to determine a level of noise deemed to be a violation.
The new “plainly audible” criteria leaves it up to police officers arriving on the scene of someone’s yard after being called by a complaining neighbor to determine if a sound violates the noise ordinance.
D.C. gay Democratic activist Lane Hudson, who vacations in Rehoboth, said a number of group homes where gays were staying over the Memorial Day weekend this year were visited by police responding to complaints by nearby residents that too much noise was coming from the group houses. According to Hudson, some of the complaints came during the day when the gay guests were having outdoor barbeque gatherings.
Cooper and a number of commissioners, including gay Commissioner Patrick Gossett, argue that a growing number of exceptionally large houses in the city’s residential sections that have as many as 20 renters have been the site of loud and disturbing noise to their neighbors.
“People are running hotels in residential neighborhoods,” Gossett said at a May 29 workshop meeting called by the Board of Commissioners to discuss the proposed swimming pool ordinance but that touched on the noise issue.
Gay Democratic activist Peter Schott, who lives just outside the official Rehoboth city limits, said he opposed the amendment offered by Cooper seeking to ban rental homes from operating pools. But he called the overall pool ordinance passed by the commissioners reasonable and necessary to counter what he said was the proliferation of hotel-style “McMansions” disguised as rental homes in residential areas.
“They’re building these enormous houses and they rent out to like 20 or 30 people,” said Schott. “I think that’s the problem, and once you get that you start getting noise obviously.”
Gossett and incumbent commissioner Bill Sargent, who’s also up for election on Aug. 8, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Perry and former Rehoboth Commissioner Paul Kuhns, who also spoke out against the pool ban proposal, are the only two candidates to file petitions to run for the two Commission seats. Under the Rehoboth electoral system for the Board of Commissioners, all seats are at-large seats. The highest two vote-getters are declared the winners.
Schott said he isn’t sure whether the pool ban controversy or concerns raised over the noise ordinance have placed Gossett or Sargent in jeopardy of losing their seats to Perry and Kuhns.
He said Cooper, who has come under fire in the past over controversial actions, has rebounded and remained in office for more than 20 years.
“We go through that every three years – where everyone says the mayor is disliked and then he wins by bigger majorities every time,” Schott said.
Perry and others critical of the actions by the Board of Commissioners have said the Rehoboth election law has a number of provisions, including a six-month waiting period before a newly registered voter can vote, that effectively disenfranchises many from voting. They say they may take steps in the next few weeks to challenge the election law, which is part of the Rehoboth city charter.