How to measure the houses in South Bethany?

South Bethany house height limits could soon be based on their likelihood of flooding.

While considering that change for oceanfront homes, the South Bethany Town Council has created a committee to consider using base flood elevation (BFE) as a measurement for all South Bethany houses, besides the oceanfront VE zone.

That stemmed from the council’s April 28 discussion of Ordinance 180-16, which amends Chapter 145 of the Zoning Code to change the height limit on houses in the VE zone only to 33 feet above BFE (or 35 feet above BFE when 2 feet of freeboard are included), but no higher than 48 feet as measured by North American Vertical Datum (NAVD), due to variations in the elevation of Ocean Drive.

It’s “not complicated, but some sections of it are difficult to visualize,” said John Fields of the Charter & Code Committee

Miken Builders had originally suggested the change because they thought houses need about 33 feet for a good design. That would ensure some equality, so everyone can get 8-foot ceilings, which is considered a comfortable standard.

Currently, houses may be 32 feet tall maximum when measured from the centerline of the street (or 34 feet, when 2 feet of freeboard are included), or 38 feet based on NAVD 88. The house’s height doesn’t necessarily reflect the housing envelope, or its amount of living space. Based on the elevation of any road versus the flood plain, a house could have more or less living space, depending on how high the bottom floor must begin to avoid flooding.

For instance, Councilman George Junkin said, Councilwoman Sue Callaway’s house only has 30 vertical feet of living space, and the lower level doesn’t have 8-foot ceilings because of BFE.

There was some disagreement on the Charter & Code Committee, as Bob Cestone said he felt that 35 feet (with freeboard) is too high.

“This is a problem for the rest of town,” said resident Jim Gross. “I don’t think it’s fair for the oceanfront people to have heights above what is needed and the rest of the town has much less.”

Moreover, he said, he felt that building height across the town should be consistently based on BFE, which is more stringent than measuring from the road height.

But, in all honesty, Fields said, the oceanfront area is an expensive part of town that produces a bulk of South Bethany’s tax money. The houses are more marketable if they can fit in 8-foot ceilings.

Fields said it’s easier just to round up, if 8-foot ceilings sometimes fit in a 31.5-foot-tall house. “Why don’t we just say 33 feet and be done with it?”

People couldn’t build an additional floor of living space under the new ordinance, but they could have more storage under the house.

Resident Jack Whitney said he supported the ordinance because it would add variety to building design.

“I’d like to see some variances in roofs,” Whitney said. “If you don’t get the height, you’re not gonna get the variances in this.”

Councilman Tim Saxton said he wasn’t comfortable with voting on the change before hearing recommendations from the new housing committee.

“It’s not that I oppose giving extra space, necessarily. The whole town went up a foot” in BFE during recent floodplain changes. “We’re looking at one street,” Saxton said. “I would take this section out for now. You let the committee study the whole town,” then make a decision that affects everyone, rather than “piecemeal” ordinances, he suggested.

But Fields said he saw no harm in giving some immediate “relief” to oceanfront property owners who want to tear down their homes and rebuild.

“I think rest of town should get benefit of this thing, but I do not want to delay,” said Junkin. “This gives precedent for tying it to BFE, which I’ve been for forever. … It gives precedent for what you do for the rest of town, and the committee can make those decisions.”

Committee members will include Dave Wilson (chair), Callaway, Frank Weisgerber, Junkin and Cestone, plus nonvoting members Joe Hinks and Frank Brady (of Miken Builders).

The town council voted on April 28 only to approve (unanimously, with Wayne Schrader and Frank Weisgerber absent) some minor word changes to the ordinance, as suggested by the town solicitor.

Ordinance 180-16 would make changes to Article III “Definitions,” Article X “Dimensional Requirements,” Article XI “Setback Requirements” and Article XV “Board of Adjustment.” That includes authorizing the code enforcement constable to grant up to a foot of encroachment into the setback for minor surveying and/or construction errors; and allowing steps and ramps to encroach into the setback for existing structures being raised to meet BFE and/or to provide for freeboard.

Residents can continue lobbying for their preferred house height until the final vote on May 13.

Paid fire service in the works

The Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company wants to hire part-time firefighters for the summer season. They’re requesting one paid employee be present 24 hours a day, using part-time staff.

“They indicated that fire department was in trouble,” said Mayor Pat Voveris. “They have dwindling volunteer numbers. It’s not just our town; it’s across the country.

The local firefighters are all volunteers, although some EMTs are paid staffers. The BBVFC gets ambulance funding from its four major beach communities (the Towns of South Bethany, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, and the Sea Colony development), which, in turn, collectively oversee their portion of the budget.

They fund the ambulance service, so now they’ll fund the new, paid firefighters. The BBVFC had proposed a year-round program, but the four communities had requested just a summertime effort for now.

The $42,824 price tag includes training, regular wages and uniforms for 25 employees.

The South Bethany Town Council unanimously agreed to a $8,265 share of the costs. (Based on data from 2008, South Bethany’s 1,390 properties make up 19.3 percent of the properties in the four communities.)

“It’s gonna take a while to get it resolved, if it’s resolved. This is just a stopgap,” said Town Manager Melvin Cusick.

All of Delaware may need to re-address funding for fire companies, as there is only one fire department in the entire state that has full-time paid firefighters.

Also at the April council workshop:

• The Town’s Fee Schedule was amended. Several changes made include a new $25 returned-check fee; new building constructions permits increased to the ICC Index times 3.15 percent per square foot; building permits for indoor and outdoor renovations were changed to whichever is higher, $50 or 1 percent of the contract fee; and variance requests have new $250 town council committee review fee, typically covering Town legal fees.

• The town council unanimously approved purchase of a new all-terrain vehicle. South Bethany had one bidder for the purchase, which came in at less than $17,000. (South Bethany had budgeted nearly $18,000.)

The council’s next regular meeting is Friday, May 13, at 7 p.m.