Fenwick Island splits on planning process

Council Member Chris Clark might have unexpectedly become the first appointed member of Fenwick Island’s new Planning Commission at the council’s recent reorganizational meeting, but town officials appear to want to take further decisions on the town’s long-overdue, state-mandated comprehensive plan at a decidedly slower pace.

Clark, who has championed long-range planning for the town since he first took office, recently raised the issue again as part of his vote against the new floor-area-ratio (FAR) ordinance. Clark said he felt FAR should have come as part of an overall comprehensive plan.

Indeed, Fenwick Island has been talking about long-term planning issues for many years, focusing in recent years on the viability of its small commercial district, as well as issues of annexation and the trend toward tearing down smaller, older cottages in favor of larger homes.

With the current push to develop the state-required comprehensive plan (CP), Clark got in touch with some of the state’s foremost experts on planning — the University of Delaware’s Institute of Public Administration (IPA), which has helped many towns develop their comprehensive plans.

IPA recently helped Bethany Beach update its comprehensive plan, making use of the graduate students that reduce the cost to municipalities of such planning advice while providing much of the expertise and manpower needed for such an important undertaking, since the plans have the force of law.

Going it alone

In contrast, South Bethany planners decided to update its comprehensive plan on their own, completing the work of five years prior, when the plan had been created but – unbeknownst to town officials — never officially accepted by the state.

Admittedly, that town’s small size and lack of plans for annexation made that job much easier than it might have been. And they had a base plan from which to work. Fenwick Island, with no plan at all and no planning commission, is starting from scratch.

Actually, Clark said, a Rehoboth Beach official had told him it would be “unthinkable” for citizens alone to try to attempt developing a first-time CP in a town without an established planning commission. But that’s just what had been championed by some of the members of the prior council, as a cost-saving measure.

A third option for developing a CP would be to hire an independent consultant, such as the one Clark also consulted in researching the project for Fenwick Island.

In comparing the various options at an Aug. 25 council meeting, Clark said such consultants might be more “cutting edge” than IPA, which is used to developing some pretty typical comprehensive plans. But he expressed concerns that there might be a tendency for a commercial consultant to build in future work for themselves, potentially raising long-term costs for the town and skewing the final CP.

The bottom line, for Clark: with creative, energetic young MBA’s working on their plan through IPA, they could be expected to think outside the box and tailor a plan specifically to Fenwick Island’s needs. Further, with state grants, the development of a plan could cost half of the estimated $30,000 for contracting work with IPA. Some $5,000 is already budgeted for such costs, in fact.

Thus, Clark proposed Aug. 25 that the newly reconstituted council agree to the proposal submitted by IPA and get the planning process under way, finally. And there was no time to waste, he said, with the looming threats of residential conversion to commercial properties, the tear-down trend and environmental factors such as lot coverage and porous surfaces to be considered.

Former Council Members Peter Frederick and Vicki Carmean agreed, championing that view and emphasizing the delays that had already held the town back from completing a plan in the past few years. Resident Ann Welsh also agreed, voicing disappointment that the project wasn’t already moving ahead.

But other council members put on the brakes at the Aug. 25 meeting.

Opinions differ on process

Council Member Martha Keller said she championed the townsfolk doing the job themselves and the savings it would bring. She also reiterated Clark’s previous concerns about whether the IPA would provide what the town needed in terms of tailoring their plan — concerns Clark said had since been resolved.

New Council Member Diane Tingle said she felt the town should be looking at the plans of other towns as a preliminary step and should definitely wait until a town manager was hired before moving fully into the planning process. “The town manager needs to be involved,” she said, asking the council to table a decision on the IPA contract for at least a month. Fellow newbie Gardner Bunting agreed. (Both serve on the Town Manager Search Committee.)

The third council newcomer, Bill Weistling Jr., said he was “uncomfortable” with the idea of proceeding with the contract, asking for additional days to research and recommending that the required planning commission be set up first to study the process and give its recommendations to the council on how the town should proceed.

Council members did seem to agree on the importance of having a CP, with Theo Brans saying it was time for the council to move on the issue to best serve Fenwick Island. But most were unwilling to sign the IPA contract without either additional research or a town manager in place.

Long-term impacts

For his part, Frederick noted that the town was talking about more than simply filling out the state CP form, echoing the comment of the Rehoboth Beach official about the realism of trying to create a CP on their own. He emphasized the town’s need for a long-term plan to lead it into the future, a step beyond the simple state requirement.

Clark emphasized that point as well, encouraging the council to consider the impact of their decisions from 20 or 30 years in the future and what might happen if the town did not make wise planning decisions. And Welsh noted not only the overall demands on a new town manager but the ability to bring that person into the process once they had gotten started in the new role.

In the end, it was caution that won the day, with Clark withdrawing his motion to approve the contract, in favor of tabling it at least until the council’s September meeting. The council still needs at least two other members to create a planning commission.

Also at the Aug. 25 meeting:

• STAR Business Awards were presented to Warren’s Station, Mercantile Peninsula Bank and Charlie’s Bayside for aesthetic and beautification efforts at those businesses.

• Fenwick Island Beach Patrol Capt. Tim Ferry praised members of the FIBP 4-by-100 relay team after a their win in the U.S. Life Guarding Association national championships in California. Despite a last-minute injury and substitute runner from Rehoboth Beach, the team won that event and turned in stellar showings in the championship overall. Ferry thanked the community for its support.

• Ferry also noted reduced lifeguard staff as the summer comes to a close but said no beach closures would result, simply a more spread-out patrol. He said he also planned to inquire with scientists as to any trends behind a recent spate of dead and sick marine animals that have washed ashore in and near the town, and he passed along the praise of a Loudoun County, Va., EMT for the professionalism and knowledge of the lifeguards in handling a surfing-accident victim this summer.

• The town again recorded only a single real estate transfer for the month of July, bringing in just over $18,000. But the overall news was rosier, reflecting revenue for the 2005 fiscal year coming in at nearly $70,000 over budget while expenses were $64,000 below budget. Only the FIBP came in over-budget among town departments, due to the emergency need to replace their ATV.

• Council members unanimously approved live music at a planned town “block party” on Sept. 2, between 6 and 10 p.m. at the King Street beach and street end. The Honeycombs will perform for the end-of-summer bash, while those attending are asked to bring their own beverages, food and chairs.

• Citizens were offered a new committee form that they can fill out if they want to volunteer to serve on a committee or in some other volunteer capacity. Serio said the forms, available at town hall, will help determine committee assignments.

• Council members unanimously approve the donation of the town’s previous set of cell phones to a victims’ services group for battered spouses to use in emergencies.

• The council appointed Norma Yori, Jesse Shepherd and Tim Collins to the Board of Adjustments, filling the terms of the three outgoing members.

• Council members unanimously approved the outright purchase of a new Crown Victoria police car, on the recommendation of Bunting, the new council treasurer. Bunting said the usual lease-purchase agreement would be more costly over the long term and the town could recoup its full cost from a regular county grant for such police needs. Bunting further recommended the town accelerate its replacement schedule for police vehicles, since the cars rarely last beyond three or four years before needing major repairs or becoming unreliable for patrol and pursuit.

• The council reformulated the second-stage committee for its town manager search, owing to the election of Tingle and Bunting to the council. Rather than adding Clark and Serio to the committee’s makeup and overweighting it with council members, former chairman and facilitator of the committee Buzz Henefin recommended resident Todd Smallwood and Selbyville Town Administrator Gary Taylor fill the two open seats. Council members agreed.

• Keller reiterated a long list of objections to the planned 1,000-plus lot Estuary development off Double Bridges Road and near the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, citing both environmental and infrastructure concerns, as have been voiced by South Bethany officials and area residents. County planning officials could make a preliminary recommendation on the subdivision at their Sept. 14 meeting.

• Resident John Belian joined with Keller in voicing concerns about a request to add a large deck to an existing pier on the bay and the neighboring Swann Cove development. A meeting of those opposed to the idea is set for Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. at the town hall. Belian said such plans often lead to the eventual creation of a marina — something many oppose in the area.

• Weistling and Public Works Supervisor Neil Hanrahan requested that any projects requiring public works employee time be planned in advance of the fall season, so Hanrahan can properly schedule the work for his employees.

• Clark updated the public on plans to place decorative banners on utility poles along Route 1, saying that legal issues for Conectiv and Verizon had delayed the plan until the spring of 2007.

• Resident Mary Pat Kyle noted the planned Labor Day Celebration at the town park on Sept. 3, at 5:30 p.m., featuring the calypso music of Plenty Problems.

• Henefin touted the town’s oyster-farming program, noting that 18 floating frames currently house young oysters in the town’s canals and lagoons. The oysters help clean the water. Additional frames are available to any waterfront landowner who will accept them, and care requirements are minimal.

• Carmean reiterated her prior objections to the town’s decision to purchase Nextel cell phones, saying she’d been proven correct that items put into the budget are purchased and not reconsidered later as simply a “road map.” Carmean had suggested fewer phones or less expensive models be purchase but was outvoted at budget time. The approximately $10,000 in phones was purchased soon thereafter.

• Resident Wayne Carmean questioned whether with the unbudgeted revenue and lesser expenses the town was going to reduce taxes after having raised them last month to help reduce reliance on transfer tax reserves. Serio replied that there were also plans for the funds, in addition to the philosophical purpose behind the tax hike.