Steve Bennett Loses Showdown Over Parking

Cape Charles Wave

February 23, 2015

With sidewalks frozen and iced over, temperatures dipping into the teens, and winds gusting to 30 knots, the Cape Charles Town Council put on their parkas and braved the elements to conduct the February 18 Regular Meeting at the Civic Center. With normal walkway entrances flooded and crusted over with a thin layer of ice, Chief Pruitt and Jeb Brady had to be on hand to help attendees traverse a makeshift path through the snowbank up to the sidewalk.

Mayor Proto called the meeting to order, and as first order of business, requested a motion to amend the agenda, tabling discussion and vote on the Manhole Rehabilitation Project, and substituting the purchase of property on Mason Avenue. The motion was approved by unanimous vote.

Several items were set to be addressed as new business, but because bids for the manhole project only came in that afternoon, the Town did not have adequate time to review them, and thus produce an accurate number of just how much the work was going to cost. Given this uncertainty, items such as Harbor for the Arts Festival Marketing, Tourism Map, Pine Street Lot Trash Management area, and Beach Swimming Area Safety Measures (Buoys, markers, signage) were put on hold. Council did approve $11,000 for Compensation Study Implementation (due March 1), $10,000 for Leased Parking Area improvements, and then began the discussion of using $70,000 to purchase a lot that currently is part of Patrick Hand’s Strawberry Street Plaza.

When Mr. Hand purchased the old Be-Lo market, he acquired both sets of parking lots that for so many years accommodated overflow for Palace Theatre and Stage Door Gallery events as well as providing convenient access to Mason Avenue restaurants and shops such as Breezes Day Spa, Sea Glass and Stories, Drizzles, and the Cape Charles Coffee House. Purchasing the lot from Mr. Hand, which could be converted into parking, seemed like a definitive win for the Town, destined for a quick, unanimous vote. Instead, Councilman Steve Bennett attacked the logic and timing of the motion. “Strawberry Street is just not important. I don’t think it is a wise investment of taxpayer dollars,” he said. Councilwoman Joan Natali countered, “But we need this to secure parking.”

Councilman Frank Wendell then addressed the Council. “How can visitors access the town without parking? Here, Council seems happy to pay hundreds of thousands to run a pipe (PSA) out to the highway to promote investment there, yet turns a blind eye to the consumers and shops on Mason Avenue.”


Bennett, addressing Mayor Proto, said, “This should be talked about. The public should have a chance to weigh in on this.”

Wendell countered, “The public didn’t get the chance to weigh in when the Town purchased the seven lots from Dickie Foster for $100,000.”

It should also be noted that the public did not get a chance to weigh in over the purchase of the new library, as well as the selling of the old school.

“This is ridiculous,” exclaimed Bennett.

Joan Natali, in an effort bring forth some calm, said, “We did discuss this in executive session.”

“The executive session was only to benefit Patrick Hand,” retorted Bennett — “not the taxpayer. It’s ridiculous.”

Wendell noted, “I believe the executive session was so we could discuss this privately, and protect our bargaining position. So the executive session was actually to benefit the Town, not Mr. Hand, was it not?”

“This will only benefit Hand, who needs the startup money,” Bennett maintained. “What’s he going to do? What do we need it for? $70,000 for a view shed to the harbor. I bet you anything his plans already include a view shed. How many plazas do we need? How many events are we really going to have? This is a waste of money.”

Wendell countered, “This is a one-time chance.”

“70 feet?” said Bennett. “Why the rush? Find time for the public to comment on it.”

“I don’t have an issue deferring so the public can comment on it,” offered Natali.

“Fair point,” inserted Mayor Proto.

Then Councilman Sambo Brown weighed in: “Even if we defer, I’m still all for purchasing the property. I’m voting for it.”

Finally, Councilman Godwin addressed the group. “I really think we should move on this. The people elected us to make these kinds of decisions; I don’t see why we have to wait for them to make a decision on this important matter.”

“Fair point,” offered Mayor Proto.

Then, a scenario as rare and unexpected as a Sasquatch siting occurred: Councilmen Wendell and Chris Bannon actually agreed, concurred on a motion, and voted together. Council passed the motion to purchase the Mason Ave property 5 to 1, with Bennett opposed.

During Mayor and Council comments, Bennett once again took up the cause. “Terrible way to run business . . . handed to me right before the meeting . . . the way this was conducted, it’s ridiculous.” Slamming his fist on the table and turning to Proto, he said, “I never want this to happen again. Ridiculous. How can you vote like this?”

Mayor Proto, obviously shaken, tried to close the comments, but then Wendell spoke up. “Hey, what about me? Don’t I get to comment?” Proto apologized for skipping over him, and gave Wendell the floor.

“I’ll tell you what’s ridiculous,” Wendell said. “The way Hand got his variance in the first place. It was streamlined (by former Mayor Sullivan and Bob Panek) instead of forcing the developer to offer a proffer. If we had negotiated, the parking could have been a condition of his receiving the variance. We could have gotten it for nothing instead of now having to spend $70,000. The ridiculousness started well before this.” [Read “EXTRA: Mayor Denies Council Knowledge of ‘Hand-Gate’]

In other business, Town Council voted 5 to 1 (Wendell against) to approve new pay scale position classifications. Wendell questioned why there was now a classification for a full time Assistant Town Manager, with a pay scale up to $79,000. Mayor Proto attempted to clarify that the classifications were only a template to use in the future, in case they did decide to create that position. Refusing to let it go, Wendell said, “I don’t see why we need to have it in the first place. It seems a town this size could function with just our one full-time Town Manager (at $90,000).”

Councilman Bannon fired back, “I am just so sick of hearing about this, how we’re only a town of 900. Well, there’s a lot more going on here than in Onancock. There’s no comparison. There’s more going on in Cape Charles than in any small city. We need a full time manager to run this place. We need two people to run it.”

Code Enforcement Officer Jeb Brady reported that 70 permits were issued last month, bringing the yearly total to 229, an indicator of just how much work and new construction is percolating in Cape Charles. Brady also noted that construction of the multi-family units at the former old school are moving ahead, getting framing, insulation, and rough-in inspections completed in anticipation of dry wall construction. He also reported that site plans for Patrick Hand’s Strawberry Street Plaza have been submitted to VDOT, and conceptual drawings should be available in the near future. The Be-Lo has been fully razed, with demolition clean-up in progress.

Council voted 6-0 to accept Harbor Master Smitty Dize’s recommendation for new harbor rates. There will be a 3% surcharge for credit card purchases at the harbor. This is meant to help offset the fees associated with accepting credit cards, which cost the town $30,000 annually. The base rates would be increased by $0.25 per/foot if the customer chooses semiannual billing, and by $0.50 per foot for quarterly billing.

From the result of seizures during a drug raid, Cape Charles Police Department has accumulated $1,230.89, which is held in a separate account at Shore Bank. The U. S. Department of Treasury considers these assets forfeited; however, it must be spent this year if it is to be used by the Police Department. Chief Pruitt has requested to use the funds for equipment to outfit the newest police vehicle. Council approved the request 6-0.

Some budgeted items were found to have cost less than anticipated, leaving a budget surplus. Council approved a contingency fund for other projects in the current fiscal year. The total  reappropriation is $22,500.

Council also voted 6-0 to reinstate Joseph Fehrer, whose term expired on January 8, as the Chairperson for the Historic District Review Board. His new term will last four years.



One Response to “TOWN COUNCIL
Steve Bennett Loses Showdown Over Parking”

  1. Pete Baumann on February 23rd, 2015 8:21 am

    We need the public parking. It’s a good deal. The townspeople don’t need to weigh in on every decision the Council makes. That’s why we elect a Council.