Bethany forms group to address zoning

Members of the Bethany Beach Planning Commission at their Sept. 17 meeting officially approved the formation of an ad hoc committee to work on a proposed zoning overlay system for the town.

The system was targeted as a possible method to help preserve the town’s architectural character after the initially proposed method — an architectural review board (ARB) — was rejected by commission members as unworkable after months of discussion and an Aug. 3 meeting with local builders.

Instead of forming a standing committee to review building plans and recommend or require desired improvements, the commission will focus on codifying the preferred and undesired elements as part of the town zoning code.

It was an idea recommended over the winter by University of Maryland architecture experts after a “theming” presentation that focused on preserving the town’s architectural character. The original idea for an ARB was strongly supported by townsfolk in a 2004 survey, with that same aim — but support for the board, as such, was mixed as the idea was developed.

In contrast, initial discussion of zoning changes has focused on a “carrot and stick” approach, with builders possibly being offered incentives such as higher maximum building heights to encourage the use of more desirable elements, such as higher roof pitches. But the commission has been divided as to how heavy-handed to be in balancing requirements versus preferences.

The work of making those decisions — as well as beginning the codification of the desired and undesired elements — will now be handed over to a group comprising architects, engineers, builders, Planning Commission members, town Building Inspector John Eckrich and members of the general public.

Committee members have not formally been named, but the commissioners formally elected Commissioner Kathleen Mink to chair the committee after approving its formation. Builders Mike Cummings of Miken Builders and Mark Dieste are on the short list to join the group.

Commissioners were notably tempted at the Sept. 17 meeting to debate the issues involved in the proposed code changes, despite having just agreed to form the committee to help make those decisions.

Commissioner Steve Trodden emphasized that he wanted additional concessions to desired elements beyond higher roof pitch for the town to grant builders a higher maximum height. He said he feared such an approach would simply result in “a bigger box” and not address the overall architectural character the town was seeking.

Commissioner Steve Wode focused on the higher roof pitch, stating he’d rather simply require a minimum 7/12 pitch instead of the current 5/12 minimum, as it would force the architecture to be more broken up instead of presenting a flat front to the street.

But Commission Chairman Phil Boesch objected to that idea, saying he feared a flat requirement for the higher pitch would result in identical structures and not allow for the architectural variations the commissioners have praised.

Boesch then pushed the discussion back toward the committee, noting that they would be charged with converting a list of general goals developed at the Aug. 3 meeting into actual code requirements. He said the committee’s goal would be to “get their hands around the whole problem,” something Trodden also emphasized as key in that other issues may need to be addressed beyond those on the list.

Asked about the time frame for the committee to produce some sort of language for the zoning code, Mink estimated at least one year, to allow for full public input on the issues involved. She emphasized the importance of early input from the public to keep the project on track with the town’s desired goals.