Bethany property owner fighting for lost parking

It’s frustrating for any motorist to see another car take the last empty parking spot in downtown Bethany Beach on a busy day. But Randy Gross co-owns the property at 98 Hollywood Street, where ownership in the rental property would generally all but guarantee guests would have somewhere to park. But it’s also where the Town of Bethany Beach is putting an end to decades of loose parking rules.

Located just one lot away from the beach, at the intersection of Hollywood Street and S. Atlantic Avenue, the house itself is at least 50 to 60 years old. The property line is 9 feet north of the house, leaving an area where eight vehicles (most often renters) could park head-in, with their front fenders facing the house and their tails hanging over Town property.

Even 15 or 20 years ago, when the Town paved that chunk of roadway next to the boardwalk, Gross said, the unit’s parking privileges continued. The road contained no parking meters there, and renters at 98 Hollywood Street parked without having to feed a meter or display a town parking permit.

However, no signed agreements have been produced that would prove the parking easement was in any way official.

“Essentially, half a car was on his property and half was in the roadway. This is an ocean-block street. Almost every inch of those ocean block streets is very precious,” explained Cliff Graviet, town manager. “Parking is very well-regulated and laid-out.”

So, in a particularly dramatic land take-back, Gross was startled this spring to find fencing around the house, wrapping the construction site for developer Jack Burbage’s incoming Bethany Beach Ocean Suites hotel, which is being built on the former Bethany Arms Motel property that neighbored Gross’ rental property for so many years.

The Town first examined Hollywood Street in detail around 2013, when the new hotel was proposed. When the site was surveyed, “my office and Public Works were surprised that a significant part of the street had been appropriated … in the past,” Graviet said, “and that no one has record of it.”

Yet, the casual observer would likely assume that the area was private parking for the rental property.

“Almost the entire south side of street had been given to the Bethany Arms [and 98 Hollywood]. That was something the Town would never allow,” Graviet said.

“Clearly, the arrangement where they were able to park more than four cars was nothing that had been formally permitted,” Graviet reiterated. “It wouldn’t have been permitted during my tenure.”

Graviet noted that he’s been town manager for around 13 years, and police chief prior to that, with the two previous town managers each having served in that position for about two years.

“Unfortunately for the property owner, they don’t have an official easement granted to them, so they’re much more vulnerable,” Graviet acknowledged.

“The gentleman was notified,” Graviet said, that he would lose head-in parking privileges and that the street “would be marked to give us the most public parking on the street, which was not occurring at that time.”

Along with the loss of the parking privileges, the second issue impacting the property is the hotel’s construction on both sides of Hollywood Street in the beach block.

Making the situation even more difficult for Gross, the construction fence for the project squeezes around three sides of Gross’s property, enclosing the hotel construction zone. Currently, that barrier severely marks Gross’s boundaries, allowing just enough space for parallel parking on the north side (which is then further blocked by supportive guy-wire) and a few feet on the south and east. Gross said there’s no need for the fence to be there. “There’s no construction on our property at all.”

Burbage had offered to purchase 98 Hollywood, but the price he named didn’t interest the owners, Gross said. They continued to rent the property to vacationers, with the season’s first renters booked for May. Then the construction fence was erected, leaving Gross with a major parking problem.

“The Town is well within its right to close the street for safety purposes … with the amount of heavy equipment,” Graviet explained. “From our perspective, the safest, sanest thing to do and expedite construction [would be to] let the developer close the street … to prevent people from getting hurt.”

But the property isn’t just a vacation house. With four rental units, 98 Hollywood is a livelihood. Gross said they’ve lost the whole months’ rentals for May and June.

“The whole season may have been blown because of them putting this fence up,” said Gross, asking Town Hall to provide the same parking that has been available to the property for the last 20 years. “It’s not fair, and it’s unethical. I think this is a black eye that they need to remove.

“The Town even told Burbage he could put a construction trailer right up on our right-of-way, and he put the ‘job johnnies,’ lined up right around our house,” Gross said. A complaint from Gross got them moved to the other side of the house. After a backyard barbecue was sullied by the smell, Gross complained again, and the portable toilets were moved once more.

Accommodation leaves owner unsatisfied

Some accommodation has been made for Gross. Temporarily, parking for his tenants will be permitted during summer construction. Burbage’s company has paid the Town for three parking designated spaces on Atlantic Avenue, directly in front of the house, at a cost of $1,850 apiece. That’s the cost of filling the meter for the entire day, for every day of the summer.

But Gross has four rental units.

“Eight cars,” Gross said. “Where are they going to go park? They’re going to have to fight for spaces.”

“Truth be told, even if a driveway was back there … we probably would have gone ahead and closed that off anyway and made an accommodation, much as Mr. Burbage has.”

“It’s big government trying to step on the property owner, not giving us access to our property, not taking fence down,” Gross said, “forcing us to go to the trouble, hire an attorney and prove in court that the Town has allowed us that right-of-way and parking, that we shared eight spaces.”

According to Gross, when Gross complained to a Justice of the Peace that the Town was trespassing, it was suggested that he should file a lawsuit for access. Gross said Mayor Jack Gordon told him he didn’t wish to get involved in the situation.

For now, three parking spaces are available to Gross and his tenants, and after Sept. 15, meters and permits are no longer needed. But Graviet said he doesn’t know what happens next.

“Even if the fence wasn’t there, measured 9 feet from the house, parking is problematic,” Graviet said.

The Town is currently considering plans to build a new sidewalk along both sides of Hollywood, in the new CL-1 commercial lodging district, which would reduce the amount of blacktop there.

Gross said it isn’t only the presence of the fence and the loss of the additional space that has him and his co-owners in a difficult spot. It’s the issue of access that is now blocked by the fence.

“They still have to provide us a way to get into our property,” said Gross, arguing that the Town must provide them at least two 10-foot lanes for entrance and exit, and perhaps four such areas. “Even if they’re going to be reclaiming it after 50 to 60 years of use as private parking, they can’t turn around and just put a fence up.”

He said even getting trash out to the curb was a problem when the fence pressed heavily on the house.

To address the issue of whether the provision of access is required, a Town safety engineer will examine how parking could occur on the property, Graviet said. If the 9-foot stretch was converted to a parallel parking area, that would make for a tight squeeze, even with a 20-foot access. The proposed sidewalk would make things even trickier.

According to Town Code, Bethany must provide access to a parking lot or driveway, but “there is no true adequate place to park,” Graviet argued, noting that the Town is constrained by existing regulations. “After the project is over, we’re not allowed to provide him a driveway along the side, because the code in the commercial district allows no driveway within 10 feet of an intersection.”

And the three designated parking spaces aren’t likely to remain available to them forever. And, while property owners can purchase parking permits, Gross and his tenants would have to hike at least a block to and from the permit zone, and availability of parking in the permit zone far from guaranteed.

“It’s an unfortunate situation with the fact that the [house] is this small for the property. And, for better or worse, it really is not the Town’s issue. The property owner did not provide enough room to park,” Graviet said of when the structure was built, noting that the inhabitants were lucky to have had access for so long.

The existing house is grandfathered as it stands, but major renovations would require the property owners to bring it up to code. Gross said future renovations may occur, but not at this time.

As it stands, he believes four cars can parallel park beside the house, Gross said. But there may not even be enough of a radius on Hollywood Street to turn into such a parking area, Gross said the Town’s building inspector told him.

“If I have a Mini [Cooper] or moped, I am still entitled to” access to parallel park, Gross argues.

“We can coexist. It has nothing to do with the hotel, but for them to take all eight parking spaces and then fight about the rights-of-way… The previous owner used those spaces, too,” Gross emphasized. “We’re not redeveloping our property. Ours is grandfathered. If, someday, we want to build a hotel in there, it would be a different story.”

Otherwise, “Everything should stay the same way it was prior for last 50 to 60 years,” he said.