Bethany officials recommend removing hurdles for project

Bethany Beach officials are moving expediently on a request from developer Jack Burbage to clear the way over some zoning hurdles that could keep him from transforming the Bethany Arms motel into a beachfront Marriott or Hilton hotel.

Planning Commissioners on Jan. 9 discussed a range of items, at the request of the town council earlier that week, that would increase the potential density for the four parcels he tentatively plans to buy, ensure all four are properly zoned for use as a hotel and set new standards for modern hotel rooms in the town.

Following up on his visit with council members at their workshop on Jan. 4, Burbage offered commissioners a little more concrete idea of what could be the future design for his hotel, with the first of two rough sketch plans he asked to make the best use of the property as a flagship hotel with at least 100 units, complete with spa and conference center.

Burbage said the first design he had received from his pair of architectural firms included about 100 units — in a combination of suites and single rooms — with a parking space for each and some to spare, as well as retail and restaurant space, a large meeting room with a capacity of up to 160 people and two smaller meeting rooms, each with a capacity of 30 people.

“I think we need more suites, being that we’re a family town,” Burbage told commissioners on Jan. 9, describing a larger room with a sitting room, featuring a pull-out sofa and desk, as well as a “micro-kitchen.”

Burbage noted that the Hilton hotel in Ocean City, Md., is entirely made up of suites. He said such a facility “will both extend the town” with year-round visitors and help the town prosper.

Councilman Lew Killmer, who chairs the commission, told Burbage he was pleased to see the larger meeting room sizes in the first initial plan.

“We have town-sponsored events, and there’s nowhere to put that many people,” he said, also pointing to the popularity of beach weddings in Bethany, while Burbage said he’d already heard interest expressed in Bethany as a destination for corporate retreats for 45 or more people, with only suitable hotel space lacking at present.

“It’s a destination,” Killmer said of the proposed hotel on the town’s beachfront.

Burbage also noted on Jan. 9 that the first plan he’d received managed to accommodate all the features he’d been looking for without having to exceed the town’s existing building height limit.

“We’re only asking for stuff we have to had,” he said of the requested increase in density limits that hinge on hotel room size, as well as the zoning changes.

Burbage described a top-floor spa that would be “first class” and open to the public, with all its staff registered and trained, as well as a fitness center on offer to guests, who he said could just walk down the stairs and onto the town’s boardwalk and beach.

Asked about the neighboring residential use on one side of the property and the lack of setbacks on commercial property in the C-1 zone, Burbage said he had asked his architects to “come up with something aesthetically pleasing, such as landscaping or a fence” to protect the neighbors from the commercial use.

Notably, one adjacent residential parcel is not currently under contract for sale to Burbage, but it is one he said he would like to acquire to include as part of the project. He said that he had been waiting for the architects’ initial designs in order to help determine whether acquiring the property at the high price of Bethany Beach land would make financial sense.

Another residential-zoned parcel is part of the property he is considering buying, and changing the zoning on the parcel to C-1 commercial zoning is one of the requests he has made of the town. As it stands, that parcel is already in use as a rooming house, which is not a currently permitted use for a residential parcel there but is a use that has been in place for many years and has been grandfathered under the newer code.

Killmer said the C-1 zoning would make sense, as it would more correctly identify the property involved and how it’s being used.

Burbage also appealed to commissioners to consider changing the maximum density of the property large enough to accommodate at least 100 units — the minimum he said Marriott or Hilton would require in order to put their name on the project. As it stands, the roughly 50 units of the Bethany Arms is about all that could be built there, due to minimum size limits for the hotel rooms there.

And while density is under discussion, commissioners were also asked to consider making changes to the town’s existing general standards for hotel-room size, which sits at just 150 square feet per unit, in what is believed to have been a nod to the smaller rooms of the former Blue Surf motel. Town Manager Cliff Graviet had told the council that something more in the 300-square-foot range was an industry standard today.

Killmer said he, too, had researched industry standards, and that he had discovered that a standard room today ranges from 300 to 400 square feet, while a suite usually runs between 800 and 1,000 square feet in size.

“I think 150 is way too small,” he said. “I don’t want somebody creating these tiny little European-style hostel units.” Instead, he suggested the town move up to a size of 200 square feet, minimum, which would be actual living space inside the room, with no more than a third of the space in a 300-square-foot room being non-livable space, such as closets.

While that’s not likely to impact the Bethany Arms project, the density of the resulting hotel would also be impacted by the dimensions developed from the Bethany Arms itself, which appear in the town’s Table of Dimensional Requirements. Under those minimum dimensions, hotel rooms with kitchens have to offer at least 800 square feet of living space, and one-bedroom rooms without kitchens (perhaps illogically) have to offer at least 1,000 square feet.

Killmer noted, “The code was created to accurately reflect what was in existence at the time they wrote the code. … It’s really out of line [with current industry standards]. It’s way too large,” he said, recommending that the minimum sizes be changed to 300 square feet for a one-bedroom hotel room and 500 square feet for a room with a kitchen, such as a suite.

Building Inspector Susan Frederick asked commissioners to consider how they might define a kitchen in that context.

“We don’t want someone to go with a coffeemaker, microwave and a bar as a kitchen,” Killmer said, suggesting the definition involved should reference a cooking facility.

Frederick noted that the Town of Ocean City allows a full kitchen in many of their hotel rooms and asked commissioners whether they wanted to make the distinction between a full kitchen and amenities such as a coffeemaker and microwave. Would a certain size of appliance be required for a designation as a kitchen?

“Some of these suites have really tiny, nice little kitchens,” she noted.

Commissioners expressed a consensus that they didn’t need to define what a kitchen would be in that context and, having done so, soon came to the conclusion that separate minimum sizes for units with and without kitchens wouldn’t necessarily improve the new code.

“We’re creating a density. We’re saying you can have this many people on this size lot,” Frederick emphasized. “I don’t know how a kitchen impacts that.”

Commissioners noted the potential for the presence or lack of a kitchen to influence the size of rooms but concluded that it was not something they needed to adjust for in the new size minimums, as larger rooms would likely naturally result when a kitchen was desired and smaller ones when it was not. They reached a consensus on a minimum size of 300 square feet per unit, but also decided not to specify how much of that must be livable space.

A public hearing on the recommended changes will need to be held before the town council can vote on whether or not to approve them. A single public hearing could cover the density, minimum size and zoning issues, increasing the minimum size of a hotel room townwide, increasing what can be built on the property from existing levels and rezoning a long-running conditional use to an accepted commercial zoning use.

For Burbage, the sooner the items are addressed, the better.

“We want to start by October and be done by next spring,” he told commissioners.