FenwickFenwick considers food, docks, and lifts

There were mixed reviews for two proposed ordinance changes in Fenwick Island at the June 24 town council meeting.

In both cases, further study and tweaking of the proposed ordinances were targeted as their futures, with a provisional rejection of proposed changes that would allow additional outside services areas at the town’s restaurants and provisional acceptance of proposed changes that would allow more docks and boat lifts in the town’s canals.

In both cases, the ordinances were up for a first reading — the first stage in formal approval.

The first ordinance change discussed would have allowed additional leeway for restaurateurs to provide outside food service areas at establishments in Fenwick Island.

Currently, the town allows limited service in outside areas at the front of restaurants. But restaurateur Gabby Mancini had earlier this year requested additional allowances so he could provide his patrons with a waiting-area in which they could be served, if they so chose. That area would be toward the side and rear of his existing restaurant.

While Mancini was the originator of the request, it has been emphasized by council members at all stages of consideration that any changes would be made in light of all businesses in the town and should be determined on that basis and not in Mancini’s case alone.

The specific request was complicated by the parking situation at Mancini’s, which is often at or above capacity and already makes use of a neighboring business’ parking area. Requiring an outside eating area to be located at the front of the restaurant would eliminate some of that existing parking, essentially necessitating another location for the eating area.

But that adds complications in narrow Fenwick Island, since nearly every commercial location in the town has a residence at its rear or side. Bordering residences could potentially be plagued with noise and other nuisances from their neighboring eateries, opponents have said.

Beyond that issue, Mancini’s request also raised another problem: parking capacity. With capacity already reached at the restaurant during its peak hours, the town’s parking requirements became especially problematic in that they limit how many seats a restaurant can provide in relation to available parking spaces.

In order to allow additional seating outside, additional parking would have to be arranged for, under current town code.

Thus, working to meet the needs of this particular situation required two changes: 1) allowing an outside service area not at the front of a restaurant, and 2) waiving parking requirements for the additional outside seating.

And along with those adaptations, a handful of restrictions were to be imposed: 1) no food service after 11 p.m. (alcohol service is already restricted to end at that time), 2) a 600-square-foot maximum size for the outside service area, 3) access to be available only through the restaurant (not from outside), 4) no wet bar or food preparation area in the outside service area, and 5) the area must be enclosed by fencing.

Those restrictions were not enough for Council Member Theo Brans, who expressed strong concerns about the added need for parking, as well as possible problems with noise and smoke carrying toward neighboring residences.

Council Member Vicki Carmean said she considered the noise of patrons congregating in the parking lot while waiting for a table to likely be as much of a problem as noise from tables outside. She emphasized the ability of the town to enforce existing noise ordinances and the lack of problems that have historically been reported with restaurants that already have outside service areas.

Town officials confirmed that only one such problem had been reported in the town’s history.

Council Member Chris Clark supported Carmean’s assertions, while also noting an increasing trend toward walking and bicycling that might help alleviate some of the parking concerns. He also emphasized the value of outside eating options for residents and visitors, as well as the importance of keeping restaurants within walking distance in the town.

Clark, chairman of the town’s Commercial Liaison Committee, had championed Mancini’s proposal as a step toward supporting the town’s commercial sector. Parking is necessarily limited, he said, and the only way to allow businesses to thrive is to find ways to allow them to expand without firm restrictions based on parking availability. He and Carmean both emphasized existing agreements for sharing of parking areas.

Resident Mary Pat Kyle urged council members to give the proposed ordinance changes some serious thought before implementing them, saying she felt the burden of a growing business community should not be placed on residents through the potential problems of noise and parking shortages.

That same point was key for Fenwick Island Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) member Bill Weistling. He was one of two CORC members who said they’d been opposed to the changes during their discussion by the committee, had then been convinced to support the changes by the restrictions and compromises made, but were now again opposing them, having reconsidered the problems they might cause.

“Changes in ordinances should be of benefit to the residents and businesses,” Weistling said, saying he felt the ordinance, as written, was not of much benefit to residents and would only serve to benefit the businesses.

He was joined in that change of heart by CORC member Buzz Henefin, who argued that, additionally, the waiver of parking requirements for outside service seats should be evenly applied for all seating or customer capacity — not just for outside restaurant service. To be fair, the town must either waive the requirements entirely or enforce them for all, he said.

Town Solicitor Tempe Steen had already voiced her legal opinion on that issue, calling council members’ attention to the possibility that the court might find such a waiver for outside service areas “arbitrary and capricious” were someone to challenge it in the legal system.

While some residents spoke in favor of the option of eating outside and at a restaurant within close proximity to their properties (as well as praising Mancini’s itself), there were generally caveats related to the concerns about noise and parking.

Resident John Belian pointed to the town’s history as one of the “Quiet Resorts.” Making such changes could adversely affect the very image and way of life the town had tried to promote, he said.

The arguments were sufficiently convincing to result in a 4-2 vote against the ordinance on its first reading. But while Council Members Martha Keller and Audrey Serio had voted against it, they both said the issue should not be considered dead. Instead, they encouraged that another swing be taken at allowing outside service areas, with additional steps made to address the concerns that had been raised.

Both said they would reconsider their stances on such an ordinance with adjustments made.

Closing the discussion of the issue, Carmean said she felt that change was not always bad and that a good case for trying such an idea in the town could be found. She also expressed her dislike for what she called an “us versus them undertone” the discussion had taken with residents pitted against the business community.

It was largely aesthetics versus boat owners’ options in discussion of the second ordinance considered at the June 24 meeting.

Tweaked again from two previous versions presented to the council for first readings, the proposed ordinance would allow docks to be built in canals that are 50 feet or wider, while allowing boat lifts (low-profile types only) in canals less than 60 feet in width where the resulting structures would extend into the canals no more than 20 percent of that width.

The provision for docks would add five canals to the allowed waterways for docks to be built, in addition to the four canals that are already permitted for such structures by virtue of being 60 feet in width or wider.

That change proved to be less than controversial, and when separated from the provision regarding boat lifts, was easily accepted on its first reading by the five of the council members present at the meeting. (Council President Peter Frederick was absent.)

Council Member Theo Brans was the sole dissenting vote, citing concerns about increasing navigation hazards in the canals while noting incidents of poor boat control he said he had witnessed in the town’s canals under existing restrictions on docks.

While it does bring the town closer to existing Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) restrictions, which are generally more lenient, the dock provision does contain some additional details.

Under the ordinance, docks may be up to 20 feet in length and can extend no more than 5 feet into the canal from the bulkhead — that width designed to allow the out-of-water storage of small boats, such as kayaks, on the docks themselves.

Council Member Harry Haon, in proposing the changes, noted that docks would still be prohibited in the five canals that are less than 50 feet in width.

That restriction is based on the logic that pontoon boats stored on each side of the narrower canals would produce a navigable stretch less than 24 feet in width — a measurement Haon said was the dividing line for a waterway too narrow to safely navigate.

Objection to lowering restrictions on boat lifts was stronger.

The proposed change there was also targeted at existing markers established by DNREC and neighboring South Bethany. It would allow boat lifts in canals narrower than 60 feet (the existing minimum width), provided the lifts (and boats) extend no more than 20 percent of the width into the canal.

That would allow a boat lift to extend up to 10 feet into a 50-foot canal, while essentially prohibiting a lift in a 40-foot canal due to the reduced 8-foot allowable extension. Haon said that measure would ensure that boats on lifts would extend into the canal no more than a floating pontoon boat with mooring whips attached.

Haon’s presentation of the ordinance cited disadvantages that were repeated by residents who objected to the proposal – primarily aesthetic concerns related to having a number of boats hanging above the water on the nine canals that are currently restricted from having boat lifts but that would be able to have them with the change.

Haon also cited advantages that included boat owners not needing to paint the bottoms of their boats due to out-of-water storage (pointed to as an environmental concern, due to the paint chemicals). And he noted the unlikely nature of an impending explosion in boat lift numbers as a result of the change, referring to the high cost of installation and maintenance.

Despite those points, the town had already received some nine letters opposing the ordinance on aesthetic grounds, with an additional two letters-to-the-editor noted as opposing it.

Residents pounced on that concern the moment the floor was opened for public comment. Lewis Steele called boat lifts simply “ugly,” while admitting he’d put one in at his own Florida property.

“Ugly” became the fallback term for most of those commenting, including Matt VanDyke, who emphasized that many of the town’s long-term property owners had planned to retire there and were unlikely to have envisioned a retirement with their views cluttered with boats and boat lifts.

VanDyke said he felt the current push toward loosening the restrictions was largely due to newer, more affluent property owners moving into the town and wanting a “new toy.”

Resident Alex Daly presented council members with photographs of boat lifts on the canals of Ocean City, also referring to them as “ugly.”

Opponents also cited existing options for boat owners to store their boats, including seasonal removal from the water by local boat storage companies. And resident Tina Osgood said she feared a looser set of regulations would turn the town into “the boat storage area for Sussex County.”

Most of those voicing support for the change were boat owners, including resident Wayne Carmean. (Carmean’s wife noted from her council member’s seat that she personally objected to the idea of a boat lift on her property and would be voting on the issue with no element of self-interest involved, despite her husband’s wishes.)

Brans again opposed a significant change on grounds of increased navigation hazards, saying he would not support lifts in any canal 50 feet or less in width.

Seemingly sensing a straight vote would kill the ordinance, Haon proposed another intermediate step: a survey of affected property owners to determine their clear will.

While the ordinance has been advertised and discussed in public venues, Haon said he felt the 200 property owners that would be affected should have a greater voice than the dozen or so responses the town had received thus far.

He proposed council members vote on whether to move the ordinance forward, and if they voted to do so, to then arrange a formal survey of those property owners.

While some council members preferred the survey precede any vote, Haon cited how long the ordinance had been under discussion and review thus far, and convinced them that it should formally move forward while the survey was taken. They voted unanimously to accept the first reading of the current revision, with the expectation of a survey toward the end of July.