Setback an issue as guidelines near adoption

A single component of the proposed architectural guidelines for Bethany Beach’s C-1 commercial districts remained to be finally decided this week, before the package goes to the town council for a possible vote after an Aug. 7 public hearing.

That element — an 8-foot setback for structural elements above 24 feet — has been debated by both the Architectural Guideline Development Committee (AGDC) and the Planning Commission, with different results.

In the initial set of guidelines developed by consulting architect Jeff Schoellkopf, he included the upper-story setback as a required element, saying it would reduce the vertical visual impact of taller structures by pushing those upper stories back 8 feet in what is otherwise a zero-setback zone.

But AGDC member Jack Burbage, a local developer, had opposed the stricture as a mandatory element. He said the guidelines should instead encourage such an additional setback while not requiring it. At the least, he wanted the guidelines to include an option for property owners to get a waiver of the requirement.

Burbage’s argument on the issue was that requiring the building to step back 8 feet above 24 feet from the street would damage the ability of commercial users to fully use their land. For commercial property owners, he said, that lost “living space” amounted to lost revenue — the main reason for investing in commercial property in the first place.

On the other side of the argument, Schoellkopf had said the setback would actually be a plus for property owners who chose residential use for their upper story, creating an automatic bit of privacy and room for a deck or porch on those residential units.

In the end, the AGDC had generally been persuaded by Burbage’s argument, and the 8-foot setback had gone into the final draft of the guidelines as an “encouraged” element rather than a flat requirement.

That surprised members of the Planning Commission when that group gathered prior to a July 21 public workshop on the guidelines. Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink said the discovery had led to passionate expression on both sides of the argument, with the commissioners eventually coming to 100 percent agreement that they wanted the 8-foot upper-story setback as a requirement.

That means it will be up to the AGDC to decide when it meets prior to the Aug. 7 public hearing whether it will support the Planning Commission’s stance or put forward a second option for the town council to consider.

The confusion and change of stance aggravated Burbage, who was in attendance at the July 21 public workshop.

“Why have the committee if the Planning Commission is going to decide anyway?” he asked council members. “Who decides what the final form will be? It’s unfair to ask us to spend the time on this when the Planning Commission will decide,” he said.

Council Member Tony McClenny replied, “There are two distinct opinions on that one item. And the town council will decide what’s best for the town.”

When the Planning Commission met again July 22, Council Member and Commissioner Lew Killmer (who also served on the AGDC) allowed that it was possible that the council would indeed be presented with two different options on that issue, though the rest of the package should be identical. He noted that he personally favored it as a requirement.

But a final meeting of the AGDC could also potentially bring that group into alignment with the Planning Commission on the setback question, even though Burbage is expected to remain in favor of the setback as only encouraged. If the AGDC does not concede to the Planning Commission’s view, council members will have the opportunity to decide the issue, as well as vote on the entire package.

Burbage’s objections were the main ones expressed at the July 21 workshop.

Plan wins converts

Part-time resident Tracy Mulligan (who has since filed to run for a town council seat this September) noted publicly that he had reversed his former opposition to the guidelines’ height-cap allowance, which is similar to a controversial one enacted in April for the R-1 residential district.

“I am in agreement with the document. This will benefit the town,” Mulligan said. “This will make for a more viable third floor – but they can do a third floor now. … This balances the needs of the town and commercial developers.”

Resident Lois Lipsett objected to the height allowance in the matter of one particular lot, which borders on residential properties. She said the additional height would make the structure tower above the neighboring residences.

But Schoellkopf, Building Inspector John Eckrich and Vice-Mayor (and AGDC Chairwoman) Carol Olmstead emphasized that the new R-1 height allowance would permit exactly the same height in those neighboring residences and for many of the same aesthetic reasons.

Indeed, the proposed 35-foot cap was geared to help encourage pitched rooflines, just as in the R-1 district. It likewise prohibits the additional potential four feet of height to be used for “livable space.” And the AGDC and Planning Commission had finally decided to reduce the initially proposed 36-foot cap to 35 feet to make it exactly the same as in the R-1 district.

‘A learning process’

Other residents expressed concerns that, with a possible appeal of decisions by the proposed Design Review Committee, the guidelines and zoning requirements would be relatively toothless.

But Schoellkopf, Olmstead and Killmer noted that zoning issues would be appealed to the Board of Adjustments, just as other zoning issues are now. Other, more subjective, aesthetic issues would go to the town council on appeal. And in either case, having an appeal granted would be far from a simple or automatic thing, they noted.

“This is not a slam dunk,” Mayor Jack Walsh said, noting that an appeal was an elaborate process that required justification for overturning the original decision.

“And economic hardship is not a reason for the Board of Adjustments to decide in an applicant’s favor,” Killmer added.

Walsh further emphasized that the guidelines process was bound to be “a learning process” for the town, with fine-tuning likely to take place as the process is used.

On the other side of the issue, Schoellkopf noted that he had been told early on that the town didn’t want rules as strict as a Nantucket or Disney theme park, but rather to give a framework that would allow developers to use the town’s traditional architecture to “inspire” creative takes on its historical character.

Resident Dan Costello, who is in the midst of gathering signatures to force a referendum to potentially repeal the new R-1 height allowance, found at least one thing in the guidelines that he wholeheartedly supported.

If a Design Review Committee was appropriate to review the new C-1 guidelines, he said, would not a similar board be a good idea for the residential districts?

But Killmer noted that an architectural review board had been considered for the residential districts before being rejected as unwieldy and potentially too overbearing for residential property owners to accept. He said an ARB most commonly worked only in areas with real historic architecture.

“People don’t want you telling them what their houses should look like,” Killmer said, to Costello’s responding inquiry as to whether commercial property owners did want that oversight. Killmer replied that the two situations were different.

Costello had one other suggestion — adding two more members to the proposed five-member DRC, and those two being citizens rather than business owners or council/commission members. But that suggestion was rejected by AGDC members as unwieldy for scheduling purposes. The DRC was initially proposed with three members.

Much of the May 21 public hearing was spent in Schoellkopf giving an overview of the proposed guidelines. Presented with a slideshow that highlighted the guidelines, most of those present appeared satisfied. Others had their questions answered.

The summary of the document: work to encourage architecture with simple building forms, using generous porches, clapboard and shingle siding, board and battens on upper floors, shed-style window awnings and trim that creates shadow lines. Flat roofs are prohibited, except when decorated with architectural features that disguise them; and pitched or combination-pitched roofs are encouraged.

Schoellkopf said the guidelines had been geared to reflect elements of structures such as the Seaside Inn, Christian Church tabernacle (also reflected in town hall), the Addy Sea and the old lifesaving station. The general feel, he said, was a “fairly plan version of seaside cottage architecture,” not so much high-Victorian or Colonial, but with some elements of both.

The architect cited Bethany Blues as “a good example of what someone might do as a renovation,” using awnings and siding to remake a more modern building into something more typical of the desired architecture.

The guidelines and review process will apply to all exterior renovations, including painting (and paint colors), as well as new construction and rebuilding of “tear-downs.” The council will hear final public comments at the Aug. 7 public hearing before voting on whether to adopt the guidelines. Future work on signage and parking ordinances, to match, is expected.