Fenwick gives neither inch nor mile

Members of the Fenwick Island Board of Adjustments (BoA) were quick to respond to concerns about setback variances with a statement of fact: In the last two years, only a single variance has been granted by the board.

And they kept that statistic after their Aug. 28 hearing, too, unanimously denying a request to permit an enclosed porch that would intrude into lot setbacks.

The Moyer family had requested that they be allowed to expand an existing enclosed porch and open deck at their lagoon-front home on the west end of West Virginia Avenue, as part of an effort to refurbish the areas and slightly expand the living space at the home they purchased in 2005.

“I just want to say that what we’re asking for is very minimal,” Diane Moyer said of their requests. She said they had purchased the house with plans to expand the existing porch and deck areas on the east and north sides, to better accommodate their family. It is not a rental house, she emphasized.

Moreover, Moyer said, the lot in question is smaller than most neighboring properties and further hampers their original building plans because its buildable measurement is some 14 feet narrower than its overall size, due to a Fenwick Island measuring standard that only includes dry land.

Moyer told board members that she and her husband had looked at a neighboring home when they purchased their Fenwick Island property and had assumed they’d be allowed to expand the porch and decks to the same distance from the lagoon-front bulkhead as had apparently been permitted on that property.

Instead, Building Official Patricia Schuchman had been forced by town ordinances to reject the Moyers’ request for a building permit for much of the planned project, due to the fact that the existing structure was already non-conforming.

Indeed, Schuchman said, the previous owners had apparently added the existing decks and porch without any building permit, because she could find no record of one. But they had been held back somewhat by the lot’s setbacks, as evidenced by an 18-inch “ledge” where the screened porch’s deck extended into the 7-foot side-lot setback but where the screened portion met that setback. The roof, notably, extends to the end of that ledge.

The Moyers’ requests had included the ability to enclose that 18 inches of space on a screened porch that ranges from 6 to 8 feet in width along its 21 feet of length. They had also wanted to add an additional 10-by-10-foot space that would tie that existing screened porch into the open deck on the lagoon side of the property, making the whole a single, enclosed space.

As it stands, a 20-foot setback exists on the lagoon side of the property — about where the existing screened porch ends. Thus, the proposed addition would encroach 10 feet into that 20-foot setback, just 10 feet from the bulkhead. The existing open deck comes to approximately 7.5 feet from the bulkhead.

The Moyers’ builder, Charles Jarvis of Seaside Builders, said the plan for renovating the structure called not only for enclosing the existing open deck and proposed new porch area but also for adding a second-story, open deck above, both wrapping around the northeast corner of the home. Town ordinances do allow the Moyers to rebuild the existing structure or to make the proposed 10-by-10-foot portion an open, unenclosed structure.

Jarvis emphasized that the lot is smaller than the 5,000 square feet that Fenwick Island now defines as a buildable lot, at just 4,675. It’s further reduced by the 783 square feet that sit under water. And Jarvis said the addition of just 110 square feet of enclosed porch was, indeed, minimal considering that unique situation and would make the space more usable for the Moyer family.

However, Jolene Barthell, the Moyers’ cross-lagoon neighbor, emphasized that the previous owners had often made use of the existing porch and deck, even using a picnic table there for family meals. To her, that meant there was no issue with usability. (Moyer countered that the table was attached to the structure on one side, with the porch too narrow to allow use in the center of the porch.)

Barthell said she also believed that the Moyers should have been aware of the buildable lot dimensions when purchasing the property, as well as setbacks and other restrictions. And she was critical of attempts by any property owners in the town to test its existing setbacks with appeals to the BoA, saying that the recent passage of a floor-area-ratio (FAR) ordinance was proof that the townsfolk wanted smaller homes.

Board members were of a similar mind regarding the need to encroach into setbacks. Member Mary Pat Kyle said she opposed encroachment on the basis of fire safety, air flow between homes and generally keeping the community a pleasant place to live.

Member Dave Andrews said such encroachment was “contrary to the public feelings and interests. The setbacks are there for a reason and they should be followed. The zoning ordinance should be observed,” he said.

Chairman Dick Griffin said he was sympathetic with the difficulties of small lots, owning one of similar size himself. But he said he found no exceptional practical difficulty being imposed on the Moyers by their circumstance — a key qualifier for a possible board ruling in their favor.

Member John Rhymer was willing to see their view on the issue of the 18-inch ledge, citing Schuchman’s clarification that the town considers “enclosed” porches to be anything under a roof — the technical definition of the existing screened porch and ledge, whether they are actually screened or not. But he was likewise unwilling to budge on the additional enclosed area, not finding anything exceptional to justify such a ruling.

Thus, with Member Mike Quinn absent, the board ruled 4-0 to deny the Moyers’ appeal and keeping intact their record of stringent adherence to the town’s setback requirements.

With that ruling, the Moyers will instead look at finishing their porch and deck renovations without fully enclosing the planned wrap-around porch. Instead, they are permitted by town ordinance to continue the open deck around the ground-floor corner and will proceed with adding a permeable, non-roofed second-story deck.

There is a 30-day appeals period on all board decisions, once they are formally filed. Appeals go to the state Superior Court, which is the final arbiter in those cases.

In closing out their Aug. 28 meeting, board members noted a changing of the guard. Griffin, Kyle and Quinn have served out their terms and will not be continuing on the board. (Andrews’ term ends in 2007, Rhymer’s in 2008.) The Fenwick Island Town Council has appointed Norma Yori, Jesse Shepherd and Tim Collins to replace them. Griffin thanked his outgoing colleagues for their service and they thanked him as well.