Fenwick Island hotel ordinance passes first reading

Limitations teeter on the table

The Town of Fenwick Island took the first step this week toward loosening its hotel ordinance, which would help a local business owner renovate and upgrade the Sands Motel. A majority of the council voted on Sept. 25 to approve the first reading of commercial zoning changes (zoning Chapter 160-2 and 160-5).

If the ordinance is formally approved as currently written, hotels and motels would be capped at 65 rooms. But the required square footage of lot space per room would be drastically reduced, from one sleeping room per 1,000 square feet of land to one per 600 square feet.

Having mulled the topic in four meetings, the Charter & Code Committee had recommended the changes to the council on Sept. 25, which has itself now discussed it at two meetings.

Councilman Bill Weistling explained that the proposed numbers match what is already the case in Fenwick’s other two hotels, which were built in the 1980s, with 61 and 62 rooms, but on 639 and 362 square feet of land per room, respectively.

As the Sands is “deteriorating,” the change would give new owner Spiro Buas the chance to build a new hotel on the site, with a similar number of rooms to the other existing hotels.

The first reading passed last Friday, on a vote of 5-2.

Councilwoman Julie Lee said she wouldn’t support the proposed ordinance change without some limitations. She reminded the council that, as much as everyone wants to see a renovated Sands Motel, the council’s decision will affect the entire commercial zone and all potential future hotel locations.

“I’m against these changes,” added Councilman Roy Williams, emphasizing that he wanted more public input on the direction Fenwick Island will go in the future.

Town Solicitor Mary Schrider-Fox reminded the council that all zoning code changes must pass two council votes and undergo a public hearing.

Since the regulation passed its first reading in September, the public hearing will likely be before the October council meeting and a second reading/final vote. However, the October agenda has not yet been published.

The council can take public comment into consideration and make amendments to the proposal for the second reading, ahead of any vote.

Several residents shared their displeasure with the proposed change, noting that the stringent law took effect in the 1980s, just after the hotels with 60-plus rooms were built, with increasingly tighter densities.

“I don’t disagree that the Sands needs to be redeveloped, and that’s great, but there’s got to be limits,” said Richard Benn, adding that he felt that changing the entire commercial zone “could lead to 8,000 people on the beach.”

Weistling noted that there had been some discussion about creating a specific hotels district, which was one step neighboring Bethany Beach took ahead of the redevelopment of one of its longtime motels.

The council is also looking into a potential moratorium, so no more hotels could be constructed in the town for a certain time period after the ordinance was adopted. The purpose would be to monitor the ordinance’s effect on the community. It could last a few months or a few years. The council can always vote to end a moratorium early, or to extend it, as needed. Schrider-Fox recommended that any proposed moratoriums also begin with two readings and a public hearing.

Besides hotels, Weistling said, the town code also allows for other types of businesses, without requiring special permits, including shopping centers, gas stations, retail, restaurants and more.

“I’m missing something. Spiro … buys the Sands Motel and then asks us to change the zoning,” said resident Dottie Lopez. “And everybody’s just jumping for somebody who came to town … Can someone on council tell me why were changing zoning for one man?”

Weistling reiterated that Fenwick Island already has a precedent of hotels with more than 60 rooms. Buas originally requested 78 rooms, but the Charter & Code Committee compromised at 65.

Weistling said the proposed change isn’t special for one person. Plus, he said, he’s never heard of a negative impact from the hotels. But Lopez said residents nearby see the trash and hear the noise of beach parties.

Property owner R. Chris Clark encouraged the council to move forward, offering a different reading of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Around 100 people gave input on the plan, saying “what they wanted was a more welcoming, more palatable commercial district” — a seaside community — Clark said. “One thing everybody agreed on: having a better-looking town.”

Clark said the number of hotel rooms was not addressed in the plan.