Fenwick passes hotels ordinance, denies petition

Property owners may be interested in a moratorium on hotels, even if they were dissatisfied by Fenwick Island Town Council rejecting a homeowner petition and increasing hotel/motel room density.

In a 5-2 vote on Dec. 11, the council approved a zoning code amendment to allow existing hotel/motel uses to operate at a density of no more than one sleeping room per 600 square feet of overall property. (Council Members Julie Lee and Roy Williams were opposed.)

The second reading of the ordinance included a minor wording change to include existing hotel “uses,” so an existing hotel could be completely torn down and rebuilt but still qualify for the density increase. The change was made at the town solicitor’s recommendation, said Councilman Bill Weistling Jr.

Future hotels and hotel uses must continue on the previous maximum of one room per 1,000 square feet. All hotels must include between 16 and 65 rooms.

However, there was no discussion on the question of uniformity.

A resident-hired attorney had previously told the council that, because the amendment treats the same type of building (hotels/motels) in two different ways in a single zoning district, the amendment violates the state’s uniformity rules.

“This could definitely be challenged,” Williams said. “If we lost the case, this would open up every commercial property in town.”

Absent from the meeting was Town Solicitor Mary Schreider-Fox and her opinion on the matter.

Lee had requested a legal opinion on the uniformity issue but had received none. No other council members indicated that they received an official opinion either.

Lee said she was told by council members that the Dec. 11 meeting had been postponed, in part, specifically so Schreider-Fox could attend the meeting. There was no response to that statement.

After the meeting, Mayor Gene Langan told Coastal Point that Schreider-Fox does not regularly attend all council meetings. Although he said he was “very comfortable” voting for the amendment, he said the town council could not further comment on the uniformity issue because of the likelihood of legal challenge.

Petition fails

Some residents opposing the amendment placed their hopes in a petition submitted at the Dec. 4 hearing. Delaware Code states that town zoning amendments must pass with a three-fourths majority of the town council when at least 20 percent of property owners (of lots immediately within 100 feet of the impacted area) sign a petition to oppose the amendment.

The petition was not reviewed by the town solicitor but by Building Official Pat Schuchman and Town Manager Merritt Burke.

“Results show that the petition failed to meet the statute of 20 percent,” Schuchman said.

She said they had used Sussex County tax maps, Artesian water maps and their own physical field measurements, to measure 100 feet from the hotel properties.

The petition included about 19 unique names representing 17 Fenwick properties (there were also four repeat names, plus two apparently unintended duplicates).

“The petitions submitted represent approximately 50 percent of the 104,000 square feet of ‘adjacent property’ surrounding the three existing hotels,” the petition stated.

Moratorium on the horizon

The town council did have consensus on a two-year moratorium on new hotel/motel uses.

They unanimously approved the first reading of a moratorium that would halt permits, licenses or other approvals involving new motel/hotel uses in the Town of Fenwick Island.

Because renovations of the Sands Motel would fall under existing uses, the business that began the entire amendment process would still have room to renovate.

Lee called the moratorium an “excellent idea.”

“I think this gives us the opportunity for Planning Commission to work with the Comprehensive Plan … to come up with consensus on where the Town wants to go with the … commercial district,” said Lee.

Like any legal measure, the moratorium could be halted by a majority vote of council or by the courts determining it is unconstitutional.

The moratorium will be the subject of a public hearing to be held before the Jan. 22 council meeting.

Public unrest still lingers

Some residents weren’t completely happy with the vote, including the lack of discussion of uniformity.

“There’s gonna be a lot of repercussions. I think it’s going to be a problem,” resident Jacque Napolitano said afterward.

Although she said she thinks the moratorium may be good, she questioned whether the town council had the true guidelines for evaluating the petition.

“The town solicitor was not here, so how do you do that?” Napolitano said. “So I think, based on the true Delaware state law, that we have the correct definition, and we got the 20 percent.”

“Now I can move forward,” Sands Motel owner Spiro Buas said after the meeting. It’s been a long wait since the topic was first broached this spring. Although he can legally renovate, his next step is engineering, zoning approvals and structural permits.

“I’m looking forward to bringing a nice new hotel to Fenwick,” Buas concluded.