How Bethany Beach responded when teens disrupted its quiet, family-friendly reputation
On some late nights this summer, crowds of as many as 200 to 300 young people have gathered in downtown Bethany Beach – and often in a small one-block area along the boardwalk.
Visitors and business owners reported seeing an influx of underage drinking and drug use, littering, vandalism and disrespect of businesses and police officers.
This is not the norm for this small resort town.
Restaurant owner and longtime resident Alex Heidenberger said there’s a reason that families feel comfortable letting their kids venture on their own in Bethany Beach all day.
At its core, he said, the town is about, “family, safety and ‘come have a good time, enjoy your vacation and you can forget your worries.’”
But lately that hasn’t been the case, and some say the problems with disruptive teenagers have risen as the town faces an especially large number of visitors this summer.
Realizing that something needed to change to defend the town's “quiet resorts” reputation and keep everyone in the community safe, the Bethany Beach Town Council voted this month to change the town curfew for unsupervised kids under the age of 18 from 1 a.m. to 11 p.m.
And the good news, according to those in town? Bethany Beach is already seeing a difference.
What’s happening this summer?
Bethany Beach has always been a place where teenagers can get together and hang out, and often kids from schools in Maryland and other parts of the state will visit at the same time and communicate on social media to meet up, said Bethany Beach Police Capt. Darin Cathell.
The town has also always had a curfew for kids under 18. But in the past, the complaints about these teenagers’ misconduct have been “relatively few,” said Mayor Rosemary Hardiman in a recent town meeting.
This summer, however, has been different, she said.
“Unfortunately the conduct of some groups of unsupervised teens at night has become a serious problem,” Hardiman said. “We have had complaints of large groups of teens hanging out in town late at night and harassing people as they walk to their cars.”
“Groups of unsupervised teams have been congregating on the beach late at night," she said, "disregarding beach rules and leaving their trash behind on the beach and the boardwalk."
The business owner Heidenberger said young people from 14 to 19 years old were downtown spray painting walls and flipping park benches at times.
“It got to the point where it was so out of control that these kids were mocking the cops,” he said.
Others reported to the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce that kids were walking down the middle of Garfield Parkway and not getting out of the way of traffic.
While Heidenberger said he saw a lot of these issues, he ultimately decided to speak out when his female staff members told him that they couldn’t walk to their cars without teenagers harassing them. It was then that he started making sure that there was always a male bartender on staff, so the women wouldn’t have to walk to their cars alone.
He recalled one of his staff members saying, “There’s nothing you can do, Alex, this is just how it is everywhere. That's what guys do to girls.”
That's when he knew he needed to try and work with the town to change this situation.
After hearing from these businesses and residents, Hardiman and Town Manager Cliff Graviet presented the curfew change to the council.
Town Council members unanimously agreed with the change and waived the second reading so it was effective immediately.
"Action is needed now," Hardiman said. "Before this conduct escalates, with the possibility of someone getting hurt.”
Why is this a problem now?
Like many resort towns, Bethany Beach has seen record numbers of visitors that have put pressure on rental markets and restaurants this summer.
Cathell said the rising complaints about teenagers are likely another effect of this influx of visitors who may be making up for last year's postponed vacations or taking day trips after recently moving to nearby neighborhoods.
“Our population has really, really increased,” he said. “And with that it has changed the landscape slightly.”
Others like Town Manager Cliff Graviet said that the big difference this year is the defiance that some of these teenagers are showing.
“I think one of the reasons this (curfew) is moving forward is that these young people are far more confrontational than they have been in recent years,” Graviet said in the council meeting.
Heidenberger said some of these behavior problems – like substance abuse or simply acting out – may also be a result of being cooped up for a year and dealing with the mental and emotional challenges of the pandemic.
What has changed?
Police and community members say they have already noticed a positive change since the curfew changed to 11 p.m. two weeks ago.
Cathell said the number of young people gathering downtown has significantly decreased after 11 p.m., and police have issued fewer underage drinking violations.
The town is still in an education stage, he said, including informing real estate agencies and posting signs around downtown. If police officers come across young people violating the curfew, they first inform them of the curfew and ask them to return home.
There are also exceptions for teens who are accompanied by adults or in a public space because they are working late.
“We’re trying to clean up the quality of life here in town a little bit: the littering, the congregating, the language, the loudness," Cathell said. "We are a quiet community, ‘quiet resorts’ is what we’re referred to, we’re trying to keep that image.”
Heidenberger also said he's seen an improvement, as well as a greater police presence downtown. It truly feels like a community-led safety effort, he said.
“It’s a very tight-knit town," he said. "And when you see something like this come out of your little home, it’s very, very cool. And I’m proud to say that I was part of it.”
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.