Fenwick hotels hearing reflects desire for smart growth

With some legal help, Fenwick Island residents have created a petition that could crush the proposed motel zoning ordinance.

A Dec. 4 public hearing was held on a zoning amendment that could allow existing hotels/motels to increase density to one sleeping room per 600 square feet of land. (Future hotels/motels would be limited to the current 1,000-square-foot limit.)

With a full house, two police officers were present to keep order, enforce a three-minute time limit per speaker and enforce the fire marshal’s capacity limits for the council chambers.

After the chairs were filled, additional attendees were instructed to stand in the lobby and listen through open doors. They were allowed inside to take the podium, or to take a seat vacated by a previous speaker.

At least 65 people attended, about 11 speaking for and 10 speaking against the proposed amendment. Letters to the town council will also be entered into the record.

“We just want to listen today,” Mayor Gene Langan said. The town council would not answer or ask any questions during the hearing.

With a court stenographer and strictly-enforced time limit, the formal atmosphere was only shaken by a humorously mistimed plug for the local historical society.

The public petition

Primarily, opponents of the ordinance questioned whether the amendment was clearly written so as to prevent unintended growth. Resident Richard Benn hired an attorney, Max Walton of Connolly Gallagher LLP, to state the opponents’ case.

Walton spoke first and submitted a document asserting that, as written, the proposed ordinance could violate Delaware State Code by treating old and new hotels differently, although they’re located in the same district.

“The uniformity requirement is not satisfied by the proposed amendment,” Walton wrote. He suggested that the Town instead create a new hotels zoning district, as Bethany Beach did in 2013.

“While we have no doubt that the Town is acting in good faith in attempting to change the zoning requirements applicable to certain hotels, the method chosen … does not comply with Delaware law,” the document concluded.

Therefore, Walton submitted a petition on behalf of Benn and other opponents.

“The petitions submitted represent approximately 50 percent of the 104,000 square feet of ‘adjacent property’ surrounding the three existing hotels,” Walton wrote. “As I did not gather these signatures personally, I also attach the certification of Mr. Richard Benn attesting to the validity of the petitions.”

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

Delaware Code states that town zoning amendments must pass by three-fourth majority of the town council when at least 20 percent of property owners (of lots immediately adjacent or directly across the street from the impacted area) sign a petition to oppose the amendment.

That would require six Fenwick council members’ votes in favor, although two of the seven (Roy Williams and Julie Lee) had already voted against the first readings of the ordinance.

While the petition was accepted, the council still needed to verify the information.

Attorney Tim Willard (of Fuqua, Yori & Willard P.A.) requested that the public hearing remain open for another week, so he can review and respond to the documents on behalf of his client, Spiro Buas, owner of the Sands.

But Langan said that decision had to be deferred until the town council could confer with the town solicitor, who was absent from the public hearing.

Against the amendment

Opponents of the amendment were invited to speak next.

No one present at the Dec. 4 hearing spoke against the remodeling of the Sands Motel, whose owners had requested the original zoning change in order to renovate with more rooms, in a number comparable to others in town. A few people specifically rejected increased density there.

“I don’t see why it should be quite so contentious. I don’t think there’s anybody in the town of Fenwick who wants to keep the Sands Motel as it is,” said Charles Farmer, who has owned property in Fenwick for at least 40 years. But he said he couldn’t support the zoning change as written, partially because of the potential legal challenges.

“The town council should do everything they can to get the wording correct. … I don’t think the council has done enough to check that out.”

“To me, if the Sands is going to be torn down and rebuilt, that is not an existing hotel,” Benn had said.

“I am not opposed to the redevelopment,” Benn said. She said she opposed the process of changing the code for one request, when individual houses pay fees to go through Board of Adjustment.

She also questioned whether the Charter & Ordinance Committee studied how the change would impacts the remaining commercial zone, beaches, neighbors, traffic and more.

Farmer said he also wished the process had begun with a public information session, since he was surprised to read newspaper reports of the related council and committee meetings.

Murmurs from the audience showed their displeasure at seeing Farmer cut off at the 3-minute mark, despite his having “20 seconds left” of comment.

While new ownership has already improved the Sands’ reputation, the overall zoning process has been flawed, said Bill Mould, whose family has owned property adjacent to the Sands for 50 years.

“I would like to see more interaction with residents,” said Jacque Napolitano. “I think the way you have gone about this is unfair, and I don’t feel [protected] by my government.”

Some people lamented to the “rancor” that’s arisen between the council and some citizens, especially disappointing during the holiday season.

“I hope you can reach a compromise that help the majority of the residents feel comfortable with,” said Dottie Lopez.

Five others echoed those comments, also demanding traffic safety and visual privacy be assured for the Sands’ neighbors.

For the amendment

“I think it makes sense,” said Scott Mumford. “I think if somebody is willing to tear down the Sands hotel and build what looks to be quite an upgrade, he or she [should be encouraged].”

“I worry about private sector dictating what goes on in the commercial sector,” Adkins said. “I think it would be nice to have a new structure there.”

Living near Seaside Inn Hotel, Pam Adkins said she hasn’t experienced any guest rowdiness, but she felt an upgraded Sands would fill the niche for a nicer hotel.

Bob Clark agreed, stating, “We have a lot of guests down at our house … and they were appalled at” Fenwick’s hotel options.

“There are a lot of people who come to Fenwick Island in the summertime who rent homes or motel rooms because they can’t afford to [buy here],” said Faye Horner. Allowing the Sands to rebuild would show Fenwick Island cares about visitors, she said.

The Town should take advantage of the Sands’ building permit fees, then reinvest, said Mark Tingle. “I think the Town should consider buying the PNC property. I’d rather have assets than money in the bank,” Tingle said, especially since the State of Delaware has been eyeing municipal real estate transfer taxes and could take advantage of Fenwick’s bank accounts.

“I think it provides necessary tax funds for the Town,” said Alex Daly. “I think it promotes a healthy commercial district. I think it opens up the beauty of Fenwick for people who do not own property here.”

“Approximately 25 years ago, if you owned a commercial property, you could not vote in this town,” noted Tim Collins, resident and business owner.

Those days are over, and business owners can participate. But now empty storefronts haunt the town.

“We have a serious problem in the commercial zone,” Collins said, but the Sands’ upgrade could bring more customers. “What we have today is a prudent effort by the town council to solve problems.”

Three more people spoke, some dismissing concerns of overcrowding, stating that 26 additional rooms ultimately isn’t a large number, and the beach has plenty of room for more.

Buas was the last to speak, joking that the public hearing was almost as big as his own wedding.

“I want to thank everyone,” Buas said, because even those against the amendment supported his desire to improve the motel.

The next step

The public hearing ended exactly one hour later, coincidently at the same time the council would normally have met. However, the hearing and meeting were separate, thus providing citizens with plenty of time to comment and the council with a week to consider comments before voting.

At their Dec. 11 meeting, at 2:30 p.m., the town council will consider and possibly vote on the second (and final) reading of Chapter 160-2B (Definitions) and Chapter 160-5C(5) — (Area Regulations).

They will also consider a possible moratorium on the issuing of permits or approvals for new motel/hotel uses in the Town of Fenwick Island.

Depending on the survey’s impact, the council could also return to the drawing board and re-hash the details.