Bethany Beach planners retool guidelines

In a marathon special session, the Bethany Beach Planning Commission on July 7 performed a page-by-page review of the proposed architectural guidelines for the town’s C-1 and C-2 commercial zoning districts, making their own recommendations for changes to the 40-page document before it heads to the town council in coming weeks for possible adoption.

Much of the discussion among the commissioners last Friday focused on the height cap increase recommended by the Architectural Guideline Development Committee (AGDC) that drafted the guidelines, along with consulting architect Jeff Schoellkopf.

Under the most recent draft, AGDC members had recommended a maximum cap of 36 feet above the base flood plain. That would allow for steeper pitched roofs and other architectural features, above the 31-foot cap on habitable space they also included.

Above that 31-foot level, only architectural elements — such as the roof, cathedral ceilings under a pitched roof, cupolas and other decorative features — would be allowed. The 31 feet is measured to the sill plate, where a typical ceiling would start.

During the extensive examination of height limits at the meeting, commissioners particularly concerned themselves with the 1-foot difference between the proposed commercial guidelines and the recently adopted increased height limit in the R-1 residential district — 35 feet.

Commissioner Steve Trodden repeatedly asked for justification of a “sweeter” deal for commercial property owners, with the additional foot. The commissioners, as a group, were loathe to give that additional foot simply on the recommendation of Schoellkopf and his previous calculations as to what was reasonable.

They accepted that standard ceiling height was higher in commercial properties versus residential ones — up to 9 or 10 feet, versus 7 or 8 feet. But they were disinclined to create an inconsistency between the standards in the two zones that could be resolved simply by making the two limits equal — 35 feet in both districts.

In the end, that was exactly what they decided to do, chopping the AGDC recommendations by 1 foot.

Flat roofs fall flat

AGDC recommendations to continue to allow flat roofs were also controversial for the commissioners.

While many would prefer to eliminate the relatively modern design element from those allowed in Bethany Beach, the AGDC had come to the point of view early on in their deliberation process that the flat roof could not be prohibited entirely in the commercial zones.

Between safety and design/use issues specific to commercial use, it simply had to remain an option for commercial property owners, Building Inspector John Eckrick had repeatedly opined, with the support of Schoellkopf and eventual acceptance of the committee members.

The AGDC had tempered the allowance of the undesired option by prohibiting “plain, flat roofs” — those without architectural features to dress them up. Instead, the AGDC guidelines require elements such as cornices to be built on front facades to disguise a flat roof, as well as prohibiting structures such as handrails to be built above 35 feet.

Planning commissioners were grudgingly willing to accept that opinion, but they — Trodden particularly — were extremely concerned about how the allowance for 35 feet of height would be interpreted by those choosing to have a nominally flat roof.

The prohibition on habitable area above 31 feet should, on its face, have been enough to prevent “cathedral ceilings” under a flat roof. But commissioners were concerned that a determined property owner or builder would take advantage of the roof and architectural allowance to build a flat roof up to 35 feet, or to inset mechanical elements in an otherwise flat roof at that level.

Trodden said he favored clearly prohibiting flat roofs above 31 feet, if not altogether.

Lew Killmer — who is the town council representative on the commission, as well as a member of the AGDC — was firm in his insistence that the 31-foot limit on habitable space should be enough. And he reiterated, with the support of Vice-Mayor and AGDC Chairwoman Carol Olmstead, the established need to allow commercial property owners to choose a flat roof form, with limitations.

But there was agreement that flat roofs above 31 feet were among the elements the town should prohibit, and the commissioners added that to their recommendations. “While the design guidelines do limit structures to a maximum of three stories, without the proposed 31 feet flat roof limit, an unattractive structure could be built and still meet the guidelines,” Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink wrote in their recommendations.

That would notably not include a prohibition on buildings constructed partially with flat roofs. Indeed, Bethany Beach Town Hall itself has a portion of flat roof. It is one of the models for such a design, with the steep pitched roof and dormers that give the impression of a traditional Bethany residence from the front, while the rear of the building holds additional usable space under a flat roof.

A new setback

While flat roofs were a chief concern of the commissioners on July 7, they admitted some lessened concern with a new setback requirement recommended by the AGDC.

Currently, properties in the C-1 commercial district have no building setbacks. Structures can be built right up to the property line, in a “zero lot-line” configuration, Eckrich said.

That will change, somewhat, if the draft guidelines are adopted.

The AGDC has recommended an 8-foot setback be added to requirements – but not at the ground level. At ground level, the existing no-setback rule will remain in place. But when builders start building structure above 24 feet, they will have to dip back 8 feet into the lot, recessing any structural elements above that level and thus reducing the sense of mass from the street, it is hoped.

The proposed setback requirement would not only lessen the stark appearance of an otherwise boxy structure under a flat roof, when the structure goes above 24 feet, but would lend itself well to providing porches or decks on a third-story residential use, the AGDC concluded.

Preserving commercial district with mixed use

Indeed, the AGDC has recommended – and the commissioners supported — a prohibition on first-floor residential use in the C-1 district. The limitation has been targeted at preventing wholesale conversion of commercial properties to condominiums and other residential use, as has been an increasing cause for concern in nearby Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island.

The AGDC members were concerned with ensuring the future presence of the town’s small downtown commercial district and made the move on that basis, furthering a little-known but long existing tradition in Bethany Beach of residential space above ground-floor commercial space — generally inhabited by store managers or owners.

With the new setback requirement for area above 24 feet, the commissioners were also of the opinion that property owners wanting only commercial space might give mixed use another look, so as not to lose potential third-story commercial space to the setback. Or, perhaps they would consider remaining at two stories, instead of going up to three.

Onward and upward

Commissioner Dave Evans was joined by Trodden and property owner Tracy Mulligan in expressing concern that the increased height limit was sending the town on an irretrievable trend toward three-story structures in the downtown area.

Mulligan had previously voiced his concerns about the residential height limit increase on the same grounds, encouraging deep scrutiny of the impact. But the number of existing single-story or nominally two-story commercial buildings could mean the 35-foot height limit would create, over time, an even more significant change in the overall look of the district.

Killmer had led the charge in the AGDC against a proposed 44-foot height limit for those non-habitable roof areas and architectural elements, on just that basis, saying the allowance would alter the skyline of the town.

But opposition to the increase in total building height to 35 feet frustrated Killmer and Olmstead, who reiterated that the entire intent of forming the AGDC to develop guidelines had been to create allowances that would permit commercial property owners to build more aesthetically pleasing and architecturally interesting structures, without asking them to sacrifice the valuable interior space.

If the town tried to add the new guidelines without a height increase, Killmer said, they could expect at best little or no compliance with desired features, or, at worst, a full-fledged revolt by the property owners. If improvements were to be encouraged or mandated, he opined, there would have to be some allowances made.

There was general agreement on that point, though Evans in particular continued to seem reluctant to make the change.

Measure by measure

In addition to the basic height cap increase, commissioners discussed the impact of how height is measured.

Most in the commercial district already use the more recent measurement option of going from base flood level — as established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in consideration of flooding issues. But measurement from surrounding grade is also allowed.

That issue also came up in discussion of the residential height allowance, which was, in the end, offered only when measuring from surrounding grade.

Technically, measurement from base flood could allow up to 4 feet of additional height in the commercial district, Eckrich explained. But in many cases, he said, it was just a foot or two of difference, and some property owners would actually lose height if measuring from base flood instead of surrounding grade under the new allowance.

Eckrich said it was important to use base flood because most of the businesses in C-1 were at risk of flooding in a severe storm and the town wanted to encourage raising structures from the ground level, not discourage it by penalizing property owners with reduced height.

He said floodproofing had proven extremely expensive and not entirely reliable, when it was done, and the town felt businesses were better protected when raised instead. Measuring from base flood would better allow that. Commissioners accepted the point.

Fine-tuning the draft

Commissioners made a number of other recommendations on July 7 for changes to the most recent draft of the guidelines:

• Eliminating reference to economic support and incentives the town might provide for compliance with encouraged elements, in recognition that no such incentives are currently proposed, even if they might someday be.

• Encouraging ground-level porches, but prohibiting them from being built with opaque materials above 2 feet from the floor, so as to maintain the appearance of a porch, with recommended square or round posts larger than 6 inches in diameter.

• Requiring awnings to be shed-style and of commercial grade, while encouraging decorative brackets and supports, discouraging multi-colored or brightly colored awnings and awnings more than 5 feet above street-front windows, and prohibiting backlit awnings and signage on awnings.

• Establishing the basic membership and function of the proposed Design Review Committee that will review commercial construction/renovation plans and make recommendations and/or give approval. (The building inspector would review all applications for building permits to see which applications require review by the DRC.)

The current plan calls for a five-member committee including the town council representative on the Planning Commission (currently Killmer), the town building inspector (currently Eckrich), a consulting architect, a member of the business community and possibly one other planning commission member. The committee would schedule monthly meetings but meet only if needed.

Appeals on zoning issues would go to the Board of Adjustments, while appeals on other, more subjective, aesthetic issues would go to the Town Council. The DRC would issue a written report of any recommendations/objections within 30 working days, at which time the applicant could appeal if denied approval.

Timetable for guidelines

As it currently stands, the Planning Commission has set one more special meeting for July 21, at 2 p.m., to review the changes submitted from their July 7 meeting and ensure they support that final draft.

The town plans a public workshop on the guidelines for 6:30 p.m. that same Friday. A formal public hearing on the guidelines has been set for Monday, Aug. 7, at 1 p.m., to be followed by a special Town Council meeting at which the guidelines could be adopted.

That would put the town on track to meet the deadline of Aug. 9, when the 180-day commercial construction moratorium instituted in February would expire. There are at least two projects lined up to proceed after the moratorium, including the mixed-use commercial/condominium conversion of the landmark Blue Surf Motel on the Bethany Beach boardwalk.