The people spoke, and the Fenwick Island Town Council listened, voting 5-1 not to expand allowances for docks and boat lifts on the town’s canals at their Sept. 23 meeting.
The vote followed in the wake of a survey of property owners that showed a significant majority did not favor allowing docks or boat lifts on narrower canals than is currently permitted. Facing mixed input from open public comment in the issue previously, the council members decided a formal survey was in order.
On the issue of boat lifts being allowed in the town’s 10 canals less than 50 feet wide, 57 property owners responding to the survey were in favor, with 160 opposing the idea. Among those living on the affected canals, 22 of the respondents were in favor of the change, with 85 opposed.
On the question of allowing docks in the town’s six canals between 50 and 60 feet in width, 84 respondents were opposed, with 110 in favor of the idea. Among only those living on the affected canals, 21 were in favor, with 40 against it.
The ratio of those speaking for and against the idea at a public hearing prior to the Sept. 23 council meeting was similar to that of the survey, with five speakers opposing it and three supporting it.
Resident Alex Daly, who had spearheaded an effort to block the dock and boat lift expansion, said he applauded the town taking the survey and particularly noted the stronger opposition of those whose property fronted on the affected canals.
Mary Pat Kyle voiced concern over the safety of boat lifts during severe storms, the images of damage from Hurricane Katrina fresh in the minds of most in attendance. Kyle said she had seen davits break on cruise ships and worried about the danger a falling boat would pose in a storm.
Storms were also on the minds of other opponents, who sounded a note repeated throughout the hearing: worry over the environmental effects on the town if additional boats were berthed over the canals, possibly over the winter.
Would protective chemicals end up in the waterways? Would boat owners take advantage of their new lifts to winterize their craft over the canal and drain oil and other chemicals into the water? Could a hurricane result in spilled fuel plaguing the sensitive bay and wetlands environments? Wouldn’t the environment be safer if boats were stored on land rather than on lifts and at docks?
Proponents asserted that the lifts would allow the boats to be kept out of the water, reducing the need to coat crafts in pest-resistant chemicals and perhaps even the need to paint them each season. The latter claim was contested, however, with environmental negatives weighed against any positives.
Aesthetic concerns remained a top issue for the opponents, with even one boat-lift owner opposing the expanded allowance by calling them “ugly.” Louis Steele said he had a lift at his home in Florida but strongly opposed them in Fenwick Island due to the aesthetic impact and concern over the navigation ability of the town’s boating population.
Gail Warburton also expressed concerns about the idea, noting that some canals might not be as wide as indicated in whatever town documents had been used to determine affected canals for the survey.
Council Member Harry Haon noted that builders of docks and lifts would be required to certify the width of the canal when applying for a permit to build the structure.
Most of those speaking in favor of the measure were boat owners who would be able to dock or lift their boats as a result of the changes.
Jim King was one of those boat owners, stating his desire to have a lift and saying he believed the aesthetic impact wouldn’t be so bad. He also said they would benefit the boats and owners by keeping the boats out of the water at least part of the time.
Jim Jeffers agreed, noting it would allow boat owners to take better care of their craft, with better access for maintenance and less time in the damaging water.
Also on the pro-amendment side, concerns were expressed about the fairness of allowing docks and lifts on some canals but not on others.
Resident Wayne Carmean said he considered the existing restrictions to be a violation of his 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law, since reasons other than safety — namely aesthetics — were being used to justify the restrictions. Carmean said also that the proposed changes would also make the town’s rules consistent with state requirements.
Along those lines, questions were raised about existing docks and lifts, including a “floating dock” that Building Official Patricia Schuckman said she had been unaware existed in the town.
Council members clarified that floating docks are not permitted in the town, and that existing docks and lifts — conforming to the current standard or previously grandfathered — would not be affected by any changes made, or not made.
Council Member Chris Clark noted that his own boat lift had been built to conform to the requirements that existed at that time.
Council President Peter Frederick emphasized that, as with many proposed ordinance amendments the town has recently tackled, the effort was intended to clarify existing ordinances, removing loopholes or vagueness to make them easier to enforce.
That has often meant that amendments are proposed to, in effect, test the waters for looser regulations or simply to codify the status quo for enforcement issues. In the case of the additional dock and boat lift allowance, the council elected to follow both the status quo and the will of the people.
But the latter element was a matter of debate between council members, with Martha Keller saying that the survey could not be ignored, while Theo Brans asserted that the council members had a responsibility to, “in good conscience,” follow the wishes of the people who had elected them.
Vicki Carmean — the only council member voting for the amendment — responded that council members still had to weigh the issues on their own and make independent decisions. She further said she had felt the materials accompanying the survey had been skewed against the amendment and noted it was a non-binding survey.
Carmean, who had previously noted her husband’s support for the amendment and her own personal unwillingness to have a boat lift on their property, took extra care to explain her reasoning for the positive vote.
She praised Daly’s efforts to block the change but said she had come to consider the issue one of fairness to part-time residents who are often unable to get to Fenwick Island in time to remove their boats from the water in case of a storm.
Being able to store a boat on a lift, or raise it quickly for storage in a back yard, might prove to be the difference between an intact boat and a destroyed one.
Carmean also seconded her husband’s concerns about fairness, saying the town should get rid of all docks and lifts if they sought to limit them on the grounds of aesthetics. She said she feared the town was on shaky legal ground if aesthetics were the reason permits for the structures were denied.
Haon noted that the idea had originally been proposed as a way to enhance life in the town for its property owners and residents. Focusing on positive results from the process, Haon said there was a clear feeling from the people of the town for preserving its existing aesthetics and the response to the issue had proven that they care about the town.
Frederick said part of his concern about the proposed change related to the town’s fencing regulations — specifically those restricting the height of fences in the town.
He said he was concerned that allowing lifts that could potentially raise boats above the maximum fence height could put the town in the position of having to raise the maximum fence height. Both would impact the aesthetics of the town, he said, and potentially change its character. And that would be moving down the wrong path, he said.
That was a lesson learned from the town officials’ presence at a Sussex County Board of Adjustments hearing earlier in the week, Frederick said. Being out of character with the surrounding area was a solid justification for rejecting a structure.
Council Member Chris Clark pointed to his and Carmean’s recent attendance at a Your Town seminar that focused on such issues and noted that the change could change the shape and look of the town’s canals. He and the other council members, with Carmean as the sole exception, then voted against the proposed amendment.