RG #7230


South Bethany
RG 9015-028-000-04018: Postcard of boardwalk, South Bethany

1950 – 1999

In 1952, a tract of 130 acres of marshland located just north of the barrier land separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Little Assawoman Bay was purchased by Richard Hall and his wife for development. They formed the South Bethany Corporation which drained and raised the marshland, established roads, and canals, and then sold lots in what was to be a strictly residential community with water access for all residents. Just ten years later, the still growing community was devastated in the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. After the storm, the lack of federal assistance to communities which were not incorporated was the impetus for seeking to form a municipality despite the fact that the community had only about fifteen families which were full-time residents. In 1965, three years after the storm, the South Bethany Association, which had handled community-wide issues to that time, was successful in having a Charter established. However, in order to become effective, the Act had to receive the approval of those residents of the incorporated area at referendum; the referendum failed.1

In 1969, a second attempt was made to incorporate the unincorporated territory known as the South Bethany Association. It also required referendum approval, but this time it was successful. The corporate name of the municipality was the “Commissioners of South Bethany.” The boundaries of the Town as described in the Charter were generally Jefferson Creek and York Beach on the south, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Middlesex community on the north, and the Assawoman and Jefferson Creek Canals on the west. Contiguous territory could be annexed following a simple process outlined in the Charter; referendum approval of the annexation was required. The powers of government were vested in seven Commissioners, four of which were required to be residents of Delaware. Electors were all those residing in the Town who were 21 years or older, who had been a resident of South Bethany for at least three months, and who were not delinquent in paying their state, county or local taxes. All Commissioners were elected to serve two-year terms and were required to hold four meetings a year. At the first of these after an election, they were to choose one of their members as the presiding officer who would also act as Mayor; the Mayor retained all voting rights as a Commissioner. The other elective Town officials were the Treasurer and the Assessor. Appointed officials were the Secretary, who may or may not be a Commissioner, the Auditor of Accounts, the Tax Collector, and Constables. In addition to the general powers afforded all municipal corporations, several specific powers were enumerated in the Charter. These were: to prevent the introduction or spread of infectious or contagious diseases; to ascertain and fix boundaries of, and lay out new streets as well as to alter, extend, widen, repair, pave, and fix building lines in relation to streets; to provide policing and lighting of, and to generally regulate the use of streets; to prescribe rules and regulations for the prevention of fires and explosions; to adopt municipal zoning and traffic regulations; to regulate itinerant peddlers and canvassers; to regulate signs and billboards; to regulate public amusements; to provide for the safety of citizens by regulating party walls, prescribing building heights, thickness of walls, and materials mode of erection of buildings; to  regulate the sale of goods and fix license fees to conduct business; to fine owners of animals found at large in the Town and to require that dogs be registered annually, as well as to pass ordinances for the good government of South Bethany, its peace and order, its sanitation and beauty, for the safety, convenience, comforts and well-being of its population and for the protection and preservation of public and private property. The Town was able to acquire and maintain property, to condemn property and to raise revenue. Assessments on real property were not to be more than that of Sussex County, and discounts for early payment and penalties for delinquency in making payment were authorized. Special assessments could be levied for special benefits accrued to properties as a consequence of any municipal public work as long as such assessments were approved by referendum. The Commissioners were also authorized to borrow money for municipal purposes not to exceed 10% of the assessed value of the Town’s real estate; referendum approval was required before bonds could be issued. Borrowing in anticipation of current revenue was also authorized so long as the amount did not exceed 0.5% of the assessed value of the Town’s real estate, and at least two-thirds of the Commissioners approved the action.2   

Two years later, a law amended the 1969 Charter making a number of changes among which were revisions to the election procedures and qualifications to hold elective office; elimination of the provision for discounts and penalties related to paying taxes; and an increase in the amount of taxes on real estate if this was approved by referendum.3 In 1973, the Charter was further amended by a law which made several significant changes to the 1969 Charter including changing the name of the Town’s legislative body to a Town Council; revising their meeting schedule so that meetings would take place in every month but December; and providing the Council with authorization to approve annexation by majority vote.4 In 1981, the Charter was revised to add the positions of Alderman and Assistant Alderman as well as delete the position of Constable. In addition, the section on the Assessor was deleted along with the assessment procedures. Also added were provisions related to emergency situations.5 In 1985, the boundary of the Town was expanded to the south between Ocean Highway and the Atlantic Coast and also to the north, west of Ocean Highway. This expansion included the Town’s first commercial area and so included authorization for an up to 6% gross receipts tax.6 A year later, there was an additional minor boundary increase as well as several technical corrections to the Charter; but the most significant change was authorization to charge a real estate transfer tax once this action was approved by two-thirds of the Town Council.7 

South Bethany was re-incorporated in 1989 as the “Town of South Bethany.” The boundaries had not been expanded since the annexations made in 1985 and 1986. Annexation continued to be authorized but the process to accomplish this was significantly changed from that of 1969. As revised in 1973, the Town was now governed by a seven-member Town Council, one of whom served as Mayor. Three Councilmen were required to be residents of the State of Delaware and the Mayor was required to be a resident and property owner in South Bethany. The voting age for electors had been lowered to 18 years of age and voters were required to be either property owners or residents for at least nine-months consecutively or non-consecutively for the previous twelve months. The Council was to meet at least eleven times a year with the Mayor presiding. Various procedures for carrying out Council business were described in the Charter as was a Code of Ethics, and the rules for emergency ordinances which had been added in 1981. At the organizational meeting each year, the Mayor appointed a President Pro Tempore, a Council member who fulfilled his duties in case of absence; a Secretary and a Treasurer, neither of which were required to be members of the Council; all served a one-year term. In addition to these officials, the Town now had a Town Manager as well as a Solicitor, a Police Department and a Beach Patrol and they could appoint an Alderman. The enumerated powers of the Town were greatly expanded in this Charter to include: to acquire and hold land for all public use including utilities; to provide municipal services; regulate slum clearance and redevelopment; to acquire, repair or demolish Town property; to accept grants from other governmental entities; to carry out work on the streets, parks, wharfs, docks, sewers, drains, or gutters; construct or maintain groins, bulkheads, embankments, or riprap for the preservation of any waterway, beach, strand or high land; to control water drainage; to preserve ornamental trees; provide potable water; construct, extend or maintain a sewer system; to provide for the organization of a fire department and ambulance, rescue or paramedic services; to regulate traffic on the streets and waterways within the Town limits; to regulate the use of guns and detonating works of all kinds; to direct the excavation, draining, cleaning, or filling of privately-owned land if deemed dangerous or unhealthy; to prevent, abate and remove nuisances; to condemn buildings deemed unsafe; to regulate and control the construction, alteration and removal of dwellings; zone or district the Town; to review subdivision plans and land development; to license and collect fees from businesses; to impose impact fees in order to recover costs of providing municipal services to new construction; and to take private property by condemnation.  Revenue sources available to the Town were real estate taxes, the real estate transfer tax, municipal services such as water service and trash collection, business license fees, gross receipts taxes, and after referendum approval, special assessments for public work improvement projects. The Town Council could elect to use the real estate assessment prepared by the Sussex County Board of Assessment or they could appoint their own Board of Assessment. As previously, the Charter authorized the Town to borrow money both for short and long term needs. Short term debt was capped at $100,000 and did not require referendum approval. Long term debt was limited to funding certain specified municipal projects and was capped at 5% of the appraised value of taxable real estate in the Town; referendum approval was required.8 In 1993, the only legislation enacted before the Town was re-incorporated, revised the 1989 Charter making a few small changes to the election and competitive bidding procedures.9

In 1994, an Act of the General Assembly re-incorporated South Bethany and a new Charter was established. The Charter indicated that there had been no boundary changes since 1989. The 1994 Charter mirrors that of 1989 with only minor changes, the most significant of which were the elimination of the list of duties and functions of the Town Manager and the list of procedures from the section on Subdivision and Land Development. At the end of the Charter, a summary of what is contained in each of its major sections was added.10

Since 1994, seven laws have amended the South Bethany’s Charter. In 1998, a referendum was required in order to compel property owners to connect to the Town’s water system except in the case of emergency conditions when the Town Council must decide if a connection was required in order to protect public health.11 In 2000, the Mayor was required to designate someone to represent the Treasurer when they were unable to attend a Town meeting.12


2000 – Present Day

A 2004 law made numerous amendments to the Charter, among which were: revising the qualifications for elective office and the voting procedures; instituting a three-term limitation to serve a Mayor; precluding Town employees from holding public office; and revising the Code of Ethics.13 A year later, establishing a Planning Commission was added to the Charter and authorization was granted for a voluntary assessment in cases where an ordinance was violated.14 In 2012, the Town of South Bethany’s Charter was amended so that all elections would be carried out in accordance with state law and the Delaware Freedom of Information Act would govern all Council meetings. In addition, the Town’s short-term borrowing power was changed from a maximum of $100,000 to no more than 20% of its operating revenue for the immediately preceding fiscal year, and the procedures for how capital expenditures would be made were eliminated from the Charter.15 A 2015 law included minor technical corrections to the Charter;16 and one in 2018 clarified that all Town departments, including the Police, were administratively responsible to the Town Manager.17

For the fully amended text of the current Charter, see http://www.charters.delaware.gov/southbethany.shtml

CITATIONS in Del. Laws

1 55 Del. Laws, c. 274 (1965) [pp. 746-75]

2 57 Del. Laws, c. 143 (1969) [pp. 385-407]

3 58 Del. Laws, c. 40 (1971) [pp. 111-12]

4 59 Del. Laws, c. 69 (1972) [pp. 121-24]

5 63 Del. Laws, c. 98 (1981) [pp. 217-18]

6 65 Del. Laws, c. 100 (1985) [p. 194]

7 65 Del. Laws, c. 460 (1986) [pp. 887-88]

8 67 Del. Laws, c. 78 (1989) [pp. 225-61]

9 69 Del. Laws, c. 148 (1993) [p. 321]

10 69 Del. Laws, c. 268 (1994) [pp. 531-73]

11 71 Del. Laws, c. 338 (1998) [p. 869]

12 72 Del. Laws, c. 354 (2000) [p. 633]

13 74 Del. Laws, c. 218 (2004) [pp. 536-30]

14 75 Del. Laws, c. 173 (2005) [pp. 240-41]

15 78 Del. Laws, c. 324 (2012) [http://delcode.delaware.gov/sessionlaws/ga146/chp324.shtml]

16 80 Del. Laws, c. 100 (2015) [http://delcode.delaware.gov/sessionlaws/ga148/chp100.shtml]

17 81 Del. Laws, c. 259 (2018) [http://delcode.delaware.gov/sessionlaws/ga149/chp259.shtml]

Delaware Laws from 1935 to present can be found online at http://delcode.delaware.gov/sessionlaws/

Records at DPA

Town of South Bethany records at the Delaware Public Archives include:

  • Minutes of the Town Council (1966-1992): 7230-00-001

jnl / April 5, 2019 | April 23, 2019