For more than 60 years, the Sands Motel in Fenwick Island has operated with fewer than 40 rooms. The current town code prevents new owner Spiro Buas from rebuilding a hotel with more than 39 rooms, which is a third less than the other hotels in town.
Buas is requesting that the Town significantly reduce the density limit so he can build a comparable motel.
According to the Town’s commercial zoning code, any hotel/motel can only provide one sleeping room per 1,000 square feet of land. So the Sands’ 39,000-square-foot lot only allows for 39 rooms.
However, in today’s market, the 39-room restriction is not marketable, Buas told the town council on Aug. 28. He said he hopes to rebuild the motel, which he just purchased this season, as “a newer-style hotel, a little larger and nicer.”
He is requesting to be allowed at least one room per 500 square feet, which would provide him about 75 rooms.
The Charter & Ordinance Committee, after its fourth meeting on the topic, on Sept. 1, is forwarding a recommendation to the town council a recommended requirement of 550 to 600 feet per room.
Councilmember Bill Weistling stated that he preferred a limit that would put the motel in the 65-room range, saying it’s only fair for the Sands, or any hotel, to have a density comparable to the others.
Comparing apples to apples
According to the 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.
When they were built, there was no density limit for hotels. After those hotels were built, in 1985 and 1986, a new 1,000-square-foot density ordinance went into effect. (The Town staff tried unsuccessfully to find minutes from those meetings, so Weistling said they can only assume that change was made in response to the new construction of that time.)
Buas said he needs at least 65 rooms to make the building attractive to a potential hotel chain, upon which he could piggyback marketing and reservations. If he went the franchise route, he would have the option to remain a very hands-on owner, or hire a management firm. He said he envisions a three-story complex with ground-level parking.
“So I’m looking for everybody’s support,” Buas said, recognizing the quiet, family-friendly atmosphere of town. “But as you can probably see, in the few months I’ve had it, the demeanor’s already changed.”
There is a demand for rooms besides the rental house market, Buas said.
The people who already have houses
But some residents on Aug. 28 countered that the beach and roads in Fenwick are already crowded. As for community problems, Weistling said hotels have low noise, parking and trash problems, compared with restaurants.
People also warned against the town council granting concessions to the developer, but Weistling said there have been no requests yet for fee waivers. He said he wanted to give a fair option to Buas, since something far less desirable could be proposed at that property a year from now.
Councilman Roy Williams (and other residents) suggested that Buas knew at the time exactly what he was buying and made no requests then.
“If you change this ordinance, what is this going to do to the town? Are we opening up more doors to expansion?” said Williams, who added that he was “against changing this at all.”
As a council member, Diane Tingle said she had to consider how much money the motel could bring to town, which Buas said could be considerable, although she later clarified on Sept. 1 that taxes weren’t her sole concern. She said the town currently has 12 empty storefronts and about as many restaurants.
Treading carefully and planning for the future
Although the Town has successfully controlled gaudiness in town, committee member Ben Waide pointed out that there are now some empty and embarrassingly old buildings.
Town Manager Merritt Burke read from the Town’s 2007 Comprehensive Plan, which states, “The economy of resort communities is dependent on the quality of their bed base, or accommodations. The town has three hotel/motels … with a total of 159 rooms. The hotel/motels offer mid-priced accommodations at less than $200/night during the peak season. There is mixed opinion in town regarding the importance of maintaining or expanding upon the present bed base.”
But public input on the plan made it clear that people want to keep the “Quiet Resort” mentality of Fenwick Island, Burke said. “I think there always has been and needs to be [balance] to keep that ‘Quiet Resort’ mentality and to raise the income … to balance the budget.”
Tingle suggested the proposed upgrades could prevent a rough crowd from frequenting the motel, which she said has housed felons and thieves who stole from the nearby Chamber of Commerce.
“We don’t want those people around,” Tingle said.
Resident Bill Mould’s home abuts the property. He said he’s seen the deterioration of the motel but favors some restrictions on the proposed upgrades.
“I would like the committee to have a definitive number of rooms that would be allowed in the hotel. I’m not too concerned about the square footage. I am concerned about the number of rooms,” Mould said.
“This is not about one motel, but potentially four or six motels that could be fit onto Route 1,” Councilwoman Julie Lee said on Aug. 28, and Williams agreed.
But there is no other place to fit a profitable hotel in town, except a particular bank lot, Tingle said on Sept. 1.
“If you’re going to make a change, you have to assume the worst,” countered resident Pete Frederick, suggesting that current strip malls could be razed to make room for more hotels. “There’s got to be a way to limit future growth. That is a concern.” (Bethany Beach recently addressed this issue by designating a commercial-lodging zone with its own zoning regulations, including parking requirements and density limits.)
Frederick said he didn’t want Fenwick to become an extension of Ocean City, Md.
He also suggested that state law would requires 75 percent of the town council membership to approve a density change measure, if the measure is opposed by at least 20 percent of owners within a certain radius of the affected commercial zone.
Weistling said he would research that with the town solicitor.
Resident Phil Craig said he’d heard a rumor about a council member knocking on doors to ask people about the future of the Sands lot, using hypotheticals mentioned at a previous committee meeting.
“You’re referring to me,” Williams said. “I did it for myself. Being a member of council, I want to know how people felt.”
Committee member Winnie Lewis also spoke, taking exception to what she’d heard about allowing more newcomers into town.
“I’ve lived here longer than anyone here today,” Lewis said. “The town was not founded on arguing. It was founded on being a good neighbor. …We have to work together. This man has an opportunity to do something for this town.”
While many opponents of a quick zoning change stated how long they’ve lived in town, Lewis continued, “You all mentioned how long you’ve been here. …We let you all come here. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.”
Waide said he didn’t care that Buas had known what he was buying, since he is trying to do what a businessman is supposed to: make it better.
“He knew what he bought. And I bet you he can continue to make money at 39 rooms because he’s managing it well,” Waide said. “We are doing it for the reason, which we think is the proper reason for this committee,” he said, which is to improve the town.
Some residents favored a moratorium on future hotel building, or limiting the town to three hotels. But the suggestion did not gain traction within the committee.
“You bought the lot,” resident Richard Klein told Buas. “At that time, the lot was 39 rooms, and that was the restriction. Why would you do that if you had to make major concessions?”
“My reason and my profitability I’d like to keep to myself. That’s my business,” Buas said.
Ultimately, he said, he’d like to begin planning a new design. Otherwise, the Sands will remain as is.
The town council may discuss the zoning proposal at their regular monthly meeting on Sept. 25. If a second reading is approved, a public hearing could be held in October.
Coincidently, planning for the 10-year Comprehensive Plan update will begin at a working session on Sept. 15 at 2:30 p.m.