Bethany Beach voters show strong support for commercial lodging zone

Ballots in Bethany Beach’s non-binding referendum on the possible establishment of a commercial lodging (CL-1) district on the Bethany Arms Motel property and an adjacent one streamed in this week ahead of an Aug. 12 deadline to be counted. And counted they were, by the town’s election officials, prior to and during an Aug. 13 session, after which the results were posted at town hall.

By a vote of 1,790 for and 745 against, voters affirmed their support of the zoning proposal, 71 percent in favor and 29 percent opposed. In all, about 4,200 ballots were sent out to eligible voters.

The Town on the afternoon of Aug. 13 held a required public hearing on the related zoning ordinance amendments: to amend the town’s comprehensive plan to designate those areas as commercial and add language to allow for CL-1 zoning; to adopt the CL-1 classification; and to adopt CL-1 zoning for the Bethany Arms Motel property, both on the north and south sides of the beach block of N. Hollywood Street and Atlantic Avenue, as well as an adjacent parcel that is under separate ownership.

A vote on the amendments was scheduled for the council’s regular meeting on Friday, Aug. 16, at 2 p.m. at town hall. The attorney representing the town emphasized that when the town council votes on the matter, council members must articulate their reasons for their votes and that the public hearing was an information-gathering process for the council.

He also reported the receipt that afternoon of a written statement from the Preliminary Land-Use Service (PLUS) and Director Constance Holland as to the agency’s stance on the proposed amendment to the comprehensive plan. He said PLUS had approved the application he had submitted on behalf of the Town.

A late change to the proposed ordinances was also requested by Councilman Joe Healy on Tuesday, requesting that Lot 12 — the parcel under separate ownership from the Bethany Arms — be expressly included in the ordinances in which it had not already been expressly included. He said it had been included and referenced in the PLUS application, and he wished it to be made clear that Lot 12 was to be included in the proposed CL-1 zoning area.

Additionally, he requested that the ordinances also make it clear that the Town may create a digitized map related to the changes to the comprehensive plan, with further action of the council.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet further explained that the owners of Lot 12 had met with the town building inspector and himself, requesting that an amendment be made to the ordinance establishing the CL-1 zone, reducing the minimum lot size for the zoning from 5,000 square feet to 3,750 square feet. Lot 12 is already a non-conforming lot and doesn’t meet the 5,000-square-foot lot size.

Attorney Robert Witsil, representing the owners of Lot 12 — also known as 98 Hollywood Street — formally requested such a change during public comments on Tuesday, as well as the ordinances’ approval, saying that, while it had not been generated by his clients, they found, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Some opponents discouraged by vote, others argue vote was swayed

While many opponents had called for a referendum on the zoning proposal, reactions to the vote tally were mixed this week.

Resident David Limroth said he took issue with the informational package sent out by the Town, “supposedly prepared by town manager,” which he said “warns that if this rezoning does not occur the town will be a victim of change the town can do little to control.” On that point, he said he agreed, but he argued that the Town has been able to do little to control other changes, such as the selling of alcoholic beverages inside town limits.

“A few years ago, one could not buy an alcoholic drink in the town of Bethany Beach. Then, a group of small business owners took the Town to court and won their case. We’re led to believe the Town can’t control a few shop owners but can control a large hotel corporation?”

Limroth said he didn’t agree with the assertion that no compromise on the zoning issues would have worked for the Bethany Arms’ owners “who stands to walk away with a big check.” He asserted that one alternative not offered to referendum voters would have allowed a 65-room modern hotel while limiting the residential-zoned property to four residences that he felt could sell for prices similar to recent sales of $4 million, totaling about $13.5 million.

“This, combined with income from a more modest hotel, would be a more modest and credible compromise,” he argued, adding that he felt the council had “dismissed with what can only be called disgusting disdain” the suggestion by Councilwoman Margaret Young of that compromise, which would have rezoned the existing commercial parcel north of Hollywood Street as the more restrictive CL-1 and left the other parcels zoned as residential, despite their historic use as commercial lodging.

He went on to question whether the elected town council members represented the wishes of citizens and to urge citizens to get involved in the town government, lest their vote be “worthless.”

Resident Neil Hopper acknowledged, “Hearing the vote count is discouraging,” but he, too, argued that the process hadn’t been fair to opponents. “I think it was inappropriate where the council promoted videos and sent out information,” as well as council members as private citizens expressing their views on the referendum. “I don’t think that was right.”

Hopper argued that the town’s history has been one of offering “a modest vacation for people who wanted to get away from big, corporate-sponsored things,” and that he felt the hotel project proposed for the property by developer Jack Burbage was just such a big, corporate thing.

“The vote count is not encouraging,” he said. “But the majority will rule, and all of us will live with that if we need to, but I think a lot of folks who voted yes may not have thought beyond the video, the brochures with pictures of one building or that deemphasized a second building. To me, that was nonsense. I think this is a case where somebody had an idea for Bethany and had the money to back it up and wants to do it and I’m afraid, realized or not, it’s just against what Bethany has meant. Yes, change comes, but I don’t think we need to have change come in the form of a large hotel complex.”

He said he felt the vote was “in concert with the propaganda that was out there. Had I not gotten involved with it more, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have in favor,” he concluded.

Proponents take issue with claims of being duped, opponents question process

Resident and former council member Harry Steele said such comments had changed his mind about not speaking at Tuesday’s public hearing.

“You’re telling me I didn’t know what I was doing and that I was duped by this council, that the council is against what this town is for. Well, the votes were 71 percent in favor and 29 percent against, and that speaks for itself. And you’re telling me I didn’t really know what I was doing because I was duped by the mailing, the video, the pictures. … I did a lot of research. … to tell me that I was duped, I find that offensive. The people who voted in favor find that offensive.”

Steele referenced letters to the editor on the issue that suggested “malfeasance by this council.” Having served on the council for four years, he said, “I can say everyone up here is an honest person, and I’m in favor of it.”

Jane Richards, a resident of Hollywood Street, said she had lost confidence in the governmental process followed for the proposed zoning changes, after reviewing the comprehensive plan and its references to being a quiet resort and preserving the integrity of the town.

‘I was initially for a small, quality hotel, and I still am. I hold no ill will toward Mr. Burbage or Mr. Powell,” she asserted.

Richards said her review of the audio recording of the Jan. 19 planning commission meeting had revealed to her that Burbage had asked the commissioners for their help in building a hotel with 300 square feet per room, compared to the 800 to 1,000 square foot minimum that existed at the time, and had said he wanted to build over pilings.

“That puts the hotel directly on the boardwalk,” she asserted. “I don’t blame him for asking, but what I was shocked about is that, within 10 minutes, our Planning Commission had voted to change the zoning of Block 110.”

She said she also was troubled by the fact that Councilman Lew Killmer — who heads the Planning Commission — had already prepared an informational packet on the proposed changes for the council four days after Burbage made his proposal to the Town. She also questioned whether Burbage’s statement that he had never considered a skywalk to connect the two proposed buildings was accurate.

Resident Carol Breedlove questioned how Lot 12 would be dealt with in the context of the proposed rezoning. “What will happen to that parcel should Burbage move forward? Will it become part of the hotel?”

Burbage currently has a contract on the other portions of the property, but said earlier this summer that he had not yet been able to reach an agreement with the owners of Lot 12.

Breedlove said she was in favor of rezoning Parcel A, on the north side of Hollywood, but not B and C. “As this goes forward, Parcel C will end up being part and parcel — no pun intended — of the hotel property. Then, the density to this becomes overwhelming. I’m hoping you’ll reconsider that vote.”

Resident Mary Lou Tietz said she felt, “It’s important to point out that 745 of our fellow citizens voted against those changes — considerably more than those who live right across the street, as we do. I was disheartened to see how the opponents were mischaracterized as small vocal group stuck in the past and trying to derail positive change. Most of those opposed do not live in the vicinity,” she asserted. “Most of us are not opposed to a new hotel, only to a large hotel that would occupy most of the residential lots on the south side of Hollywood.”

Tietz argued that the change from the current motel buildings and apartments would be substantial, a change from a two-story, 10-unit hotel covering about 35 percent of the lots to a three-story hotel that could cover 100 percent of the lot. “That is a substantial difference in appearance and mass that will impact the beach, boardwalk, streets and surrounding neighborhood.”

“People who supported this will leave the issue behind them, but those who live in the neighborhood will live with consequences of those decisions forever,” she said.

Her husband, Gilbert, echoed prior comments questioning the fairness of the referendum.

“I think the 745 who voted no is significant,” he said. “I look back at some of the propaganda the Town sent that said … ‘a few citizens are opposed to this.’ Seven hundred people on a question that was not properly presented is not a few people,” he argued.

But resident Robert McCarthy said he supported the rezoning.

“The Blue Surf is gone. The Bethany Arms will soon be gone, one way or the other,” he noted. Referencing opponents’ comments about the town’s history as a getaway or retreat, he asked, “Where will those people stay in the future without any hotel rooms? A great town will be an even better town with a place where leisure guests and business guests can visit. The will of the people speaks loudly, and more than two-thirds have endorsed this. It should pass without hesitation.”

Owner, developer take on misinformation

Wilbert Powell, who is among the owners of the Bethany Arms property, again said he was in favor of the zoning proposals, but he took issue with arguments that a compromise of rezoning only some of the land was acceptable.

“We agreed to changing both parcels. Rezoning only one would be downzoning,” he said, cautioning the council to check with their attorney before considering such a move, as he said it would impact the owners’ ability to sell or redevelop the property.

He said a Dover-area hotel suggested to him by Young as a size and style that could fit on the north-side lot alone was unworkable, as the coastal location wouldn’t allow it to be safe during a hurricane, nor would it be able to house the 100 or more rooms that Burbage said studies showed to be needed for the project to be profitable.

Powell said he, too, felt there had been propaganda at play in the public discussion of the zoning proposals. In a mailing by opponents, he said, there was a false number of 189 hotel rooms to be built, even though parking restrictions would permit only 100 to 115 rooms to be built. He said their mailing had also referenced commercial zoning restrictions and not the proposed commercial lodging zone, which has a higher level of restrictions.

Powell further said that he appreciated comments from some supporters of the rezoning that labeled the 50-year-old Bethany Arms as an “eyesore.” “It’s not what we would like it to look like, but we try to keep it up.”

He also noted that there had been other changes in the town over the years, including small cottages replaced by larger beach houses, which have since been replaced by large three-story homes, including those owned by some of the opponents, as well as expansion of the fire hall, town hall and bank building. “Only the post office hasn’t grown to meet our demands and provide off-street parking.”

Powell argued that the letters to the editor written by opponents had been somewhat deceptive in their number, as of 50 letters he had read, 24 were written by opponents, but among those 24, he asserted, all had been written by the same five people or written by them and signed by others.

He said he had had conversations with nearby residents and that, once he had discussed the false information that was being spread, they had said they were voting in favor of the rezoning. He further referenced statements by opponents that the town already has a hotel — the Holiday Inn just to the south of town limits.

“I see many people walking up Cedarwood to the beach from properties outside town, which bring no revenue to the town,” he noted. “I wish we were doing this project, but I feel Jack Burbage will build a nice property that will allow families to continue to visit Bethany Beach for brief stays of a week or so.”

Resident Peggy Myer said that, if the town needs another hotel, “We can have a hotel. Put it back there somewhere,” she said gesturing to the west of Route 1, “where there’s more land. They can take the shuttle to the beach like the rest of us. This is just cramming too much into too small a space.”

Amy Jones, who noted that she is the great-granddaughter of William Errett, one of the town’s founders, said she felt approving the new zoning would be contrary to the principles under which they founded the town, “a vision of a peaceful retreat by the shore. … You only have to drive 15 minutes in each direction to see what happens when towns abandon these principles,” she asserted.

Jones said she felt the proposed hotel project would “do nothing to contribute to the common good, would have the effect of benefiting one developer, would diminish [the town’s] unique charm, would not contribute to preserving land for residential use and would open it up for use not beneficial to visitors or residents nor that is environmentally sustainable.”

Burbage, for his part, thanked the council for taking so much time and putting so much detail into vetting the issue over the last eight months. “I have never seen a town take so much time and effort,” he said. “I appreciate that you’re doing what you feel is best for the town.”

Of the referendum result, he said, “I think the 71 percent vote that the town citizens came up with is a resounding victory. They listened, they’re well informed and they want this project.”

He, too, referenced false information that he said was spread around town.

“I’m not going to condemn the people, because fine people said it, but they were half-truths. People mean well, but they don’t get all their facts. Even today, they said we’re going to build on 100 percent of the lot. That’s an untruth.”

Burbage said the numbers of rooms bandied about were inaccurate, as some said 111 rooms would be built on the north side alone. “You must have parking for every unit that you have, and there’s no way I can put 111 parking spots on the north side.”

“This has been a long process. The town has spent tons of time investigating and trying their best to inform everyone. … They let the people speak because they want to know what they thought. The town has spoken, and 71 percent of people want it, and I beg the council to carry out their wishes.”

The council could take the first step toward doing so on Friday, Aug. 16, at 2 p.m., when the related ordinances are on their agenda for a possible vote.