Bethany council considers new hotel zoning district

The Bethany Beach hotel debate may be closer to compromise this week, with the recent suggestion of creating a new Commercial Lodging district (CL-1).

Residents and council members met at a June 17 council workshop to discuss the proposed district that could help propel Wilbert Powell’s sale of two beachfront properties and construction of a new 100-room hotel on the site, as proposed by developer Jack Burbage.

A portion of the Bethany Arms property is currently zoned R-1 Residential, and the rest is C-1 Commercial. In addition to the inconsistent zoning, the Bethany Arms Motel has historically operated as an integrated commercial lodging establishment on the Bethany Arms property.

If adopted, the CL-1 zone would allow for uses such as hotels but prohibit other commercial uses, including shops or restaurants. However, small shops would be allowed within a hotel.

After discussions with Powell, Burbage and citizens present at Monday’s council workshop, Councilman Joseph Healy called the CL-1 zone an “opportunity to develop a quality, tasteful facility that could be a centerpiece of town. The alternate is an unknown development,” he said. “The Bethany town council has the rare opportunity to manage this change that could have a significant positive impact.”

Ultimately, he noted, Powell’s goal is to sell the property.

Councilwoman Margaret Young asked: Why not just make the existing commercial zoned-property into a CL-1 zone, build a smaller hotel and leave the residentially zoned parcels alone? She cited nearby hotels that have fewer than 100 rooms, such as the Brighton Suites, Boardwalk Plaza Hotel, SandCastle Hotel, Breakers Hotel & Suites.

“Apparently, they do OK. They’ve been here a while,” Young said.

According to Town Manager Cliff Graviet, Burbage said that, when he creates a business model for the project, he needs 100 to 115 units to repay his initial investment, so a 65-unit hotel would not work.

But by rezoning the property, Councilman Lew Killmer said, the Town is guaranteed a hotel or lodging there, even if Burbage chooses not to buy the property.

“Since it’s a new district, we can create all new requirements,” Killmer said. “It allows us … more confidence that the history of hotels in Bethany Beach will continue. This is the last hotel of size in Bethany Beach.”

Many people vacation in town before returning to invest and make a home there, Killmer noted.

The residential side of the property “has been utilized as commercial lodging for the last 60 years,” but a rezoning would allow for a hotel built to Town specifications, said Councilman Jerry Dorfman. “We could manage the change more effectively.”

Mayor Tony McClenny said that, if he were a neighbor of the property, he’d prefer to see a hotel with a few linen truck deliveries, rather than a “golf course or 15 storefronts” with traffic and noise, and “I think it would retain the Quiet Resorts feel more than would a number of commercial ventures.”

Councilman Jack Gordon asked, if the CL-1 passed, would there be any strings attached, or was there a chance Burbage would back out?

Graviet said there is a “contractual obligation between the buyer and owner that Burbage is heavily obligated to the sale and Powell to allow rezoning.” If the rezoning didn’t pass council, the zones would remain as is.

“I very much like the idea of the CL-1 classification,” said Councilwoman Carol Olmstead,, although she said she recognized the concerns of opponents. “I can’t imagine anything but a nice hotel to maintain the quiet atmosphere. That would serve the town well.”

The public responds

Celia Rick was the first resident to speak at Monday’s council workshop. While she said she liked the idea of having a hotel there, Rick said she was concerned that the Town has not seen a concrete plan.

An argument was made that guests of the large-scale conference room planned for the hotel would shop at local businesses. But Rick said guests are unlikely to go shopping when they have a wedding to attend. She added that traffic is the major factor to consider, not people.

“This may be your most substantial vote in your time on council,” said Gilbert Tietz, who asked the council to be well-informed and answer every question before voting. “I’d like to hear more, and I’d like to see more,” he said, although as a Bethany Arms neighbor, he said the council has certainly communicated already.

Based on personal conversations, Tietz said he was under the impression that Powell could sell for the same amount of money, regardless of how the lots are zoned.

Killmer reminded residents that the town council still must request a recommendation on the proposed new zoning from the town’s Planning Commission. Then, the State of Delaware must review the plans and determine if Bethany’s Comprehensive Plan may be amended to include the new zone.

A hotel could be built in the C-1 zone right now, Killmer said, but the R-1 lot is too small to create a new CL-1 zone in just a single parcel.

Healy said the June 17 workshop was to allow for more discussion, rather than just stick the agenda items on the regular council agenda June 21.

“I believe we’re giving it a great amount of time,” since Burbage approached the Council in January, said Olmstead. “It is time for us to get the ball rolling.”

Young said the rush may have begun when Burbage said he would lose his option if the town didn’t decide soon.

Graviet expected to receive an initial set of plans on Monday afternoon, which would show 80 to 90 percent of the exterior elevations, and a definite number of rooms.

Resident Joan Gordon said compromise is an important part of this process. She reminded people of the importance of having conference rooms, as South Coastal Library is so overburdened with requests for meeting space that Bethany Town Hall has opened to groups. A councilmember noted that other spaces are available, but they aren’t free.

As to complaints about the deteriorating “character” of the town, Joan Gordon said that classic cottages are already being replaced with “McMansions.”

Jane Richards said that after Burbage requested code changes and two lots, she contacted the Marriott company (one of Burbage’s top choices to build). Instead of 100-plus units, she asked if there is a smaller “brand” of hotel that could fit Bethany.

Also, she felt “disheartened” that the council seemed eager for the new hotel, especially with so little discussion at a previous committee meeting. Olmstead argued that this is not so.

Rick spoke again that the perception may appear that the Council is eager.

Ultimately, “I feel better after this meeting. I feel you’ve done your job [in researching the project],” said Rick, noting that it’s not the council’s fault if she or anyone doesn’t attend a meeting. But as a homeowner, she hopes to sell her own property one day, and expects Council to move along.

McKlenny closed the meeting, saying he hoped the public might have offered more new ideas.

The regular Town Council meeting on Friday, June 21, will include a discussion, consideration and possible vote on the following agenda items: requesting the planning commission to review and make a recommendation on whether the council should consider creating a CL 1 zone; requesting the planning commission to review and recommend whether the aforementioned lots should be rezoned to CL 1; authorizing the planning commission, upon majority vote, to recommend whether council should amend the 2010-2020 Comprehensive Plan; authorizing planning commission to, upon majority vote, to send draft ordinances to the State Review to amend the comprehensive plan to allow for CL 1 zoning; and setting a date for a public hearing for commission-approved items.