Fenwick considers limited hotel expansion options

The Fenwick Island Town Council has backed off its original proposal to increase permitted hotel room density in the town. On Oct. 23, they approved, 5-2, the first reading of an ordinance that allows only existing hotels to increase density, to one sleeping room per 600 square feet of land.

“All hotels that are built in the future would follow existing [code],” allowing one room per 1,000 square feet, which was enacted after Fenwick’s three existing hotels were built, said Councilman Bill Weistling Jr.

No hotel could exceed 65 rooms.

That particularly affects the Sands Motel, whose owners requested the change, because they hope to renovate the motel and build more than its existing 39 rooms on 39,000 square feet of land.

(According to the Charter & Ordinance Committee, the Seaside Inn has 61 rooms on 39,000 square feet, and the Fenwick Islander has 62 rooms on 22,500 feet. Those buildings average one room per 639 and 362 square feet, respectively.)

After residents complained that an influx of hotel visitors could flood the town, beaches and roadways, the council withdrew the original first reading of the ordinance (from September). They had received a dozen letters in opposition to the original proposed ordinance, said Councilwoman Julie Lee.

Lee asked whether, if a hotel is rebuilt, it would still be considered a hotel that was built before the ordinance.

That might depend on whether it’s demolished or fills the same footprint, said Town Solicitor Mary Schreider-Fox. But, after the meeting, she clarified that the “existing” hotels more relates to the property’s use as a hotel, not just when the specific building was constructed.

A public hearing on the revised ordinance was scheduled for Dec. 4, before the Town Council’s second and final vote the changes to the town code’s Chapter 160-2B (Definitions) and Chapter 160-5C(5) (Area Regulations).

A fourth hote

But the possibility of a fourth hotel surprised everyone, when hotelier Reid Cummings stood up to announce his plans to build in Fenwick. He said he was prepared to sign the final documents and build, but only under the previously proposed ordinance (65 rooms for anyone). But “I can’t pay what I’ve agreed to pay” if the council limits new hotels to a minimum of 1,000 square feet of property per room.

Although he wasn’t ready to share the exact location, he said it’s well situated and is approximately the size of the Sands property, so he could only build 39 rooms under the newly proposed regulation. The site is not currently a hotel but is zoned to allow that use.

“The fellow who’s gonna build this is known to most of you on the council. … I just want you all to know,” Cummings said. “I think I have right to build it if it comes through. I just don’t understand how you can limit it.”

He warned that the council could be “hindering the value of the property” if it limits hotel size, especially when the town’s precedent for maximum density for a hotel is less than 400 square feet per room, as the Fenwick Islander has 62 rooms on 22,500 square feet of land.

As the owner of the Atlantic Coast Inn on Route 54, just outside of town limits, Cummings said he had not wanted to announce his plans at the Oct. 23 meeting but didn’t want to later be accused of trying to hide his intent.

“It’s not a private beach. The beach belongs to everybody,” Cummings told the Coastal Point after the meeting. “The season here is literally three months,” so hotels need to fill as many rooms as possible to pay their mortgage, he said.

The public responds

During public comments, some residents and property owners still weren’t appeased by council’s change to the proposed ordinance. Some suggested that council was jumping to act when owner Spiro Buas had known what he was buying with the Sands Motel. Many of those people weren’t opposed to improvements being made to the motel, but they said they wanted the council to truly examine all impacts that it, and others, could have.

Richard Benn bluntly asked Mayor Gene Langan why he thinks increasing the number of hotel rooms is in Fenwick’s best interests.

“I think the thing needs to be rebuilt. I don’t see a downside,” Langan said. Asked what assurance the Town will get, Langan said, “What assurance do we have for any business or any homeowner? What do you want me to do?”

Benn said he wanted a letter of intent and building plans, but Langan said Fenwick doesn’t have those kind of requirements.

“Personally, I’m not opposed to redeveloping the property,” Benn said. “I’m just opposed to not addressing concerns of the immediate neighbors.”

Residential or commercial, architectural drawings have never been made publicly available before buildings were approved, although building and parking codes must be followed, Weistling said.

Dottie Lopez suggested that town business, such as public hearings, be delayed until more people are staying in town: “My biggest concern is 70 or 80 percent [of people] that make up Fenwick Island are non-residents, and you’re holding this public hearing in the dead of winter, December, when these people are gone. … We got in trouble last year when some things were passed or looked at without the majority of the people here. I’m hoping you will delay the decision until the people are here.”

Tim Collins rejected that idea, stating that the town council’s objective is to address issues as they arise: “Libby’s [restaurant] was vacant for years because there was no move to do anything or there was resistance to doing anything. When we don’t make an effort to change or better the town, these are the things we end up with,” said Collins.

He brought up the outdoor patio at Mancini’s restaurant, which people railed against because they didn’t want an outdoor party atmosphere, “And you know what? The guy did a great job with it,” Collins said. “I’m not saying this is the answer, but … it’s a negative presentation to leave [the Sands] as it is.”

The council was asked about a state law requiring 75 percent of town council to approve any zoning measure, if the measure is opposed by at least 20 percent of owners within a certain radius of the affected commercial zone.

Anyone truly dissatisfied may take the town council to court for any decisions it makes, Weistling said.

But the council should represent the people, said Ann Christ, so “Why would anybody have to go to court?”

“I’m saying anybody can appeal our decision,” Weistling said.

Baby on the mend

Police Chief William Boyden reported that Cpl. Stephen Lowe and his wife, Amanda, had their baby Oct. 7. The first operation to begin treating the baby’s congenital heart defect was successful.

But the second, seven-hour, operation had complications, including a blood clot in the baby’s leg, damage to his esophagus and a stroke during the procedure.

However, despite those complications, and most importantly, baby Coleton came home this week with his family.

“It’s going to be constant care. I think it’s going to be a tough year,” Boyden said. “Thank you so much. The amount of people that have stepped up and donated money has been incredible,” from a police retiree donating $500 to a child delivering $5 in quarters, he added.

Town survey coming to a mailbox near you

In a flurry of motions and seconds, the town council approved a town survey, to be mailed out in the final week of October.

“With new construction, if there is an 18- to 24-inch increase in the lowest floor to accommodate for freeboarding [sic], should the owner be allowed to raise the overall height of the structure by 18 to 24 inches above the current 30-foot height limit?” the survey asks.

The options for answers are: yes, no or neutral.

The council agreed to include a freeboard fact sheet, published by FEMA, for people to draw their own conclusions about the definition and potential benefits of freeboard.

The survey was approved 6-1, with Councilman Roy Williams objecting because he wanted people to vote on the individual halves of the question separately. However, as Councilman Richard Mais pointed out, the increase in the building height limit was only ever discussed in the context of allowing freeboard.

Responses to the survey are due by Dec. 1.

In other Fenwick Island news:

• The council unanimously approved a weapons ban in municipal buildings and properties, such as the town parks. Chapter 116, Article III (Gun Ordinance), prohibits the open carry of firearms, but allows concealed carry, with a permit.

• Committees were named for the 2015-2016 council year, including the new ad hoc election committee led by Julie Lee.

“Anybody that submitted an application has been either included on a commission or on a board,” Langan said. “There’s nobody that’s been excluded whatsoever. In fact, there’s 22 new people [for a total of] 90 committee members. That’s pretty amazing for such a small town, that we get such a good [turnout].”

• Contractor George & Lynch was the low bidder, asking $109,000 for the 2016-fiscal-year street repairs, which will nearly complete years of heavy roadwork in Fenwick. Local legislators have contributed about half that cost, significantly reducing the Town’s payment. The council unanimously approved the bid.

• The beach services contract is up for bids, now for three years, plus one year’s renewal, for a concession to supply rental chairs and umbrellas at the State Line Beach.

• After the council agreed to sell 13 surplus wooden beachfront signs for $50 apiece, 13 audience and council members raised their hands to purchase all of them.

“I told you we should have done $100,” Weistling quipped of the antique signs, crafted by Shorty’s in Bethany Beach.

• Mary Ellen Langan will meet with someone from the State regarding beetle inspections around the town in late October.

• The Town received $1,400 from the American Lung Association for signage about tobacco use to be placed on lifeguard stands. On a related note, more than 1,200 cigarette butts and 21 cigars were found discarded on the beach this summer.

• Langan reported that the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company doesn’t intend to request a rate increase this year, leaving the annual fee for Fenwick Island homeowners at $53. “It’s our intent to approve the budget with the fire company when they present it to us in November,” Langan said of the area service members.

• The Fenwick Island Public Safety Building has closed for the winter, as usual. It will reopen in spring.

• Progress continues in work to develop a stronger Town website. New improvements may be presented as early as the Dec. 4 council meeting.

The next regular Fenwick Island Town Council meeting is Friday, Dec. 4, at 3:30 p.m., with the planned public hearing set to begin at 2:30 p.m.