Fenwick Island codifies apartment rule

Fenwick Island’s town council accepted a series of amendments to the town code Sept. 23, codifying what has been standard practice as regards the building and operation of apartments in the town’s commercial district.

The proposed amendments to town code regarding apartments, motels and hotels were painted as being, more or less, a housekeeping issue. The changes were proposed to essentially close a loophole that town officials hoped no one would take advantage of before the loophole was closed.

Council Member Harry Haon, chairman of the town’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee, noted that the existing ordinances could technically be read to allow an apartment to be placed over each business in the town — potentially numbering into the dozens in some shopping centers, he said.

Haon emphasized that the town’s standard practice had been to have — and allow — a single apartment above each business structure. Generally, he said, those apartments were occupied by the owner of the building or proprietor of the business below.

The proposed amendments were meant to codify that status quo, allowing a single apartment to be built and occupied above a given commercial building, no matter how many businesses might be housed in that building or how much area the building occupies.

That distinction brought questions from local businessman Tim Collins, who argued that the council shouldn’t move so quickly to eliminate the possibility of multiple apartments over multi-business buildings or multi-block commercial buildings. The move, he said, could prove detrimental to the town’s commercial district.

Collins offered the example of a commercial building occupying what might otherwise be six residential blocks. With the ordinance change, a single apartment could be built above the ground floor of that building.

But Collins noted that a similar amount of commercial space, divided into six individual buildings, would be allowed to house six apartments — putting the owner of a large multi-lot commercial building at a disadvantage in terms of his potential profit and/or property value.

With concerns often expressed about the viability of Fenwick Island’s commercial district as residential property values put pressure on commercial property owners to sell or develop lots for single-family homes, Collins said allowing apartments on a density basis might be one way to encourage commercial landowners to keep their commercial tenants.

The businessman said he would oppose high-density development, such as that allowing 20 or 30 apartments in a single block, but he pushed for a middle ground between a one-apartment-per-building restriction and that more extreme option.

The notion brought interest from Council Member and Commercial Liaison Committee Chairman Chris Clark, who questioned why council would codify the 1-to-1 apartment-to-building ratio at that evening’s council meeting when a middle ground could be investigated that both sides might be able to endorse.

Clark emphasized that allowing a more liberal number of apartments might also give the town a greater control over the aesthetics and other aspects of how those structures were built and maintained.

Mayor Peter Frederick again pointed to the original thought behind drafting the change: to codify the existing norm before anyone thought to apply for a multi-apartment/multi-business permit under the vague language that existed in the town code at that moment.

The revised code, he said, would also provide a “base line” from which the town’s ordinance committee could develop a solid bit of code that would leave no room for loopholes, vagueness or interpretation.

Council Member Martha Keller also voiced concern as to why the council would codify more restrictive language only to change the code to back to a more liberal reading in the future. Haon replied that changes take time — time the town could not afford to have pass without a clearer bit of code on the books.

Keller and Clark also expressed support for the idea of such apartments being devoted to moderately-priced housing or housing for the businesses’ employees or other valued local service workers, such as nurses or police officers.

Carmean, Keller and Clark all pointed to successful small towns where apartments above each business were common practice. And Carmean said she would accept the proposed change as a temporary measure — with the understanding that the issue would be considered again in the near future, once information gleaned from the Your Town seminar she and Clark recently attended was shared with other council members.

Clark noted that he had already spoken with some of the town’s landlords regarding overall zoning changes for the commercial district — a larger move that could include such a change in apartment regulations in the future.

That said, council members voted unanimously (with Council Member Audry Serio absent) to accept the amendments as proposed.

Along with the restriction on apartments in the commercial district, the amendments also tightened regulations to prevent establishments calling themselves hotels or motels from operating as apartment buildings, as well as to clarify tax and operational requirements for those establishments.