Restaurant's off-site parking raises concerns

Fenwick Island officials and citizens offered a welcome to one of the town’s newest businesses this week, taking note of the immediate popularity of the restaurant Ropewalk. But the welcome came with a chorus of concern about the unusual step they have taken to handle limited parking at the restaurant.

“I have heard some concerns from citizens about the vacant lot at Coastal Highway and Dagsboro Street,” Building Official Patricia Schuchman told the council and assembled citizens at the June 28 council meeting.

She explained that the owners of nearby Ropewalk now have an agreement for use of the former Libby’s lot for use as parking by their patrons, as does St. Matthews by-the-Sea church for its parishioners.

“The terms of the agreement include that the property must be maintained to the satisfaction of the Town and that liability insurance be obtained,” she noted, adding that the lot’s owner is not charging for its use.

Some of the concerns, Schuchman said, were about a town ordinance that prohibits vacant lots from being used as parking lots. The ordinance, she said, spells out that unimproved lots cannot be used for vehicle parking. However, she emphasized, that lot is surfaced with asphalt and stone, which means it is not considered unimproved under town code.

“Ropewalk is in compliance with the parking requirements for a restaurant,” she added. “They saw a need for additional parking, and partly in an effort to reduce traffic congestion from people parking on Atlantic, made an agreement for exclusive use of the lot for their employees and overflow parking for customers.”

Schuchman said Ropewalk had agreed to monitor the satellite parking lot to avoid having people park there for beach access, which would otherwise require a paid parking pass. It’s also closed off after hours with a chain.

The only violation Schuchman said she had found in the situation was the presence of a sign there that said it was parking for Ropewalk customers.

“The sign for the parking was found to be commercial in nature and was removed,” she explained.

Resident Buzz Henifin said he had been concerned that the lot would be used for illegal beach parking but that he had been relieved to find someone was monitoring it at least part-time. He said he had seen people park there when it was unmonitored and go to another Fenwick restaurant, though.

“It is a business in town, but it’s an improper use,” he said, asking that Ropewalk expand the hours during which the lot is monitored.

Resident Lynn Andrews said she was also concerned about the parking use on the lot.

“A parking lot is not allowed in Fenwick Island and, if it is an unimproved lot… I don’t understand how some gravel makes it an improved lot. I don’t wish anyone bad luck in business, but the point is it is a parking lot, and they have to walk two blocks, which we all know is not the safest situation in the world.”

Andrews said she also questioned the restaurant’s stated 200 seats for customers, recalling an attempt to move a restaurant to the town years ago, in which the owner had been told there was not enough parking there for a restaurant.

“How come we can have a restaurant with 200 seats in the old Captain Pete’s?” she asked.

Schuchman explained that the town’s zoning ordinance had been updated in March, with the requirement for restaurant parking changed to one space per 100 square feet of customer area.

“They have just under 2,200 square feet of customer area and 28 parking places at the restaurant,” she noted of Ropewalk, adding that the requirement for parking as related to the number of seats had been removed from the ordinance.

Henifin pointed out that Ropewalk actually has six more spaces than required under the new ordinance. “Why do they need an additional parking lot?”

Ropewalk representatives present at the June 28 council meeting said parking was the biggest concern they’d heard from their neighbors.

“We’re trying to fit in as well as we can,” they said. “We were fortunate to be able to use the lot up the street.” They said they’d ideally wanted to have a shuttle to take customers from the satellite parking to the restaurant and back again but found out the shuttle wouldn’t be allowed. With a need for parking for employees, as well, they said, “We want to make it as convenient for our customers as we can.”

They said they were open to any suggestions to improve the situation and wanted to keep the lot just as parking for Ropewalk, with potential plans to add plantings to the lot and perhaps a bike rack to the restaurant location itself.

“We do want to be part of the neighborhood and make it more positive, rather than just coming in and trying to change things.”

Resident Ben Wade praised Ropewalk’s efforts to monitor the lot, including during rain and heat. But he said that, long term, the Town needed to consider parking issues. He also noted that Ropewalk was one of the first businesses in the town to comply with new comprehensive plan ideas of moving businesses to the front of the street and parking to the rear.

“Unfortunately,” added Councilman Todd Smallwood, “I think you’re going to be a victim of your own success, because that lot is going to sell.”

Councilwoman Vicki Carmean said she, too, was concerned about the parking issues over the longer haul.

“Parking here in town is a bigger topic, and it needs to be addressed comprehensively. We have issues with the Town providing services, and residents pay for that, and then we have visitors coming in and they’re not paying for parking, not paying for anything, and benefitting from things that the Town provides. And then we have restaurants that have a legitimate need to provide parking space.”

She noted that, even when the church is not having services, she sees “cars there from everywhere in the world,” with at least some of those people headed to the beach when they park in the church’s lot.

Councilman Bill Weistling said, “I was a little concerned when you first opened that parking lot, but the monitoring has been great.”

Resident Pete Frederick said he was concerned about the precedent that allowing parking on the lot might create, asking if someone with a lot for sale could just put in some gravel and use it for parking while waiting for a buyer.

Weistling said he agreed about setting a precedent but noted that he felt the lot in question was different, as it had been used for parking for the last four or five years for the church, without complaint. He noted it had also been used by DelDOT workers during street projects and by the Town’s paving contractors, all without a charge levied by the lot owner. He said the Town should still probably look at the issue.

Schuchman said she felt precedent wasn’t so much of an issue because the former Libby’s had an entrance permit with an existing driveway, from its time as that former restaurant. Someone couldn’t just come in and pave a lot without a driveway accessing the road, she said.

Resident Gail Warburton said the issue raised a question for her about parking for the Fenwick Island Farmers’ Market, where customers, she said, often park on a nearby unimproved lot.

Schuchman said the farmers’ market was a permitted use, with the lot it operates from roped off when it’s not in use, to prevent others from parking there. That lot, she said, is not an unimproved lot. But the unimproved lot Warburton mentioned was a location where people were not allowed to park, she added.

Weistling said he felt the Town needed to clarify those issues. “They may have to park for the farmers’ market on a side street,” he added.

Ropewalk’s owners said the ruling on their customer parking sign at the satellite lot had left them at loose ends. They wanted to make it clear it was only for their customers but couldn’t figure out how to do that without putting the restaurant’s name on it — a violation of signage ordinances, as Schuchman said it constituted off-site signage for the business.

“That’s really a Catch 22,” she admitted, suggesting it could say “no beach parking” but not offering a way in which Ropewalk could state that customers of other businesses weren’t allowed to park there.

Councilman Gardner Bunting said the Town would establish a committee to deal with the issue of the off-site parking and perhaps discuss it at a future council workshop.