Gas station supporters demand to be heard

Dozens of Ocean View residents turned up at the April 17 meeting of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, hoping to speak their minds about a proposed retail, office and gas station project planned off Route 26 near the Savannah’s Landing community. The meeting turned ugly, however, as commissioners corrected an error on the agenda that listed the item as up for further public hearing when the record on the application had actually been closed in February.

P&Z Chairman Dick Logue corrected the agenda at the start of last Thursday’s meeting, setting off a firestorm from supporters of the project who had wanted to be heard.

“We have an error on the agenda,” Logue said. “This is not a public hearing. The public hearing was held last time, and the decision was tabled due to missing documents from the developer. It was tabled only for the commission’s vote, once the documents had been received.”

Logue emphasized that the tabling of the issue of an application for conditional use by Bret A. Martine on behalf of developers Norino Properties LLC at 21-23 Atlantic Avenue at the February P&Z meeting had been after the close of the advertised public hearing on the issue that night. Most of the public input at that hearing had been in opposition to the project, with concerns stated over potential environmental and traffic impacts.

As was reported in the Feb. 29 issue of the Coastal Point, citing no clear evidence of any conceptual approvals for the project by other entities, Logue — with recommended wording from Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader — had stated that little could be voted on by the commission at their Feb. 21 meeting. As a result, he made the motion that Martine return to the commission in March, after submitting required, necessary approvals from other entities involved — including a letter of no objection from DelDOT.

Martine did obtain that letter of no objection from state transportation officials just prior to the April 17 P&Z meeting, and had supplied other requested documentation, but it was not enough to sway the commission on April 17, as Logue and Commissioner (and, now, Councilman-Elect) Perry Mitchell both voted in opposition to the granting of a conditional use for the project.

Commissioners Carol Goodhand and Eugene Brendel abstained from voting last week, with Brendel noting that he had been absent for the initial presentation by the developer in February. Commissioner Joe Evans was again absent due to health issues.

With the lack of a required majority vote one way or the other on the application, the commission was unable to make a formal recommendation to the town council, which is expected to take up the issue at a future meeting.

Logue cited requirements for conditional uses in stating his opposition. “They are traditionally of public or semi-public character. They have to be … for the general welfare of the community and fit in with the comprehensive plan.”

The P&Z chairman said he felt the project would have a negative impact on neighboring properties and did not fit in with the town’s comprehensive plan, which makes no mention of a gas station as a desired element in the town.

Logue said the plan calls for businesses that provide neighborhood services and retail to serve Ocean View residents — arguably only a small segment of those who would use the proposed gas station. And, he said, likely users of the station from Ocean View would be far from the full 1,100 full-time residents of the town.

He said he also feared a negative impact on the already heavy traffic on Route 26, which he rated as “F” and a failure, noting also anticipated additional traffic from the Millville By the Sea community in the coming years.

“Is there anyone here who can say it would not increase traffic on Route 26?” Logue asked in a remark he quickly emphasized had been rhetorical.

But at least one person in the packed town hall meeting room wanted to answer that question. “I can,” he said, rising with papers in hand.

Developer John Zorzit of Norino Properties had already been silenced multiple times by Logue during the discussion of the gas station project. And he was silenced again, and told to return to his seat and remain there. Logue threatened to have Zorzit removed from the room if he did not remain silent and seated.

The conflict between the two spurred outbursts among members of the public in attendance, many of whom had arrived in groups after attending a dinner earlier in the evening where the subject had been support for the Norino project. Outgoing Town Councilman Norman Amendt vocally supported allowing the public to speak on the issue again on April 17.

Logue asked them all to be silent, emphasizing again that the public hearing had been advertised as required in February and closed before the tabling of the commission’s vote. (Schraeder later concurred that the public hearing could not legally be re-opened.) Logue said that if the room was not returned to order, he would call police and have it cleared.

“I was ready to go to jail,” resident Sue Dick announced after supporters had adjourned to outside town hall once the commissioners’ votes were cast. Mayor-Elect Gordon Wood arrived at town hall in the midst of the post-vote assembly, unaware of what had transpired and was immediately challenged by his neighbors about what had happened.

“A lot of them didn’t realize,” said Zorzit of his supporters. “They had no idea back in February that that was the public hearing.”

Zorzit acknowledged that many of those who had spoken in February had been opposed to the project. He said those learning about it now had largely supported it.

“I’m not used to seeing a good project turned down,” Zorzit explained of his heated exchanges with Logue during the April 17 meeting.

“Now, 60 days later, word is just reaching enough people to have them come out and say they want cheap gas,” he said.

Zorzit said he was suspicious of the last-minute correction of the published agenda for the P&Z meeting on April 17.

“We brought 60 people, and they changed the public hearing to a vote. The chairman did what he wanted to do and the citizens paid a dear price,” said Zorzit.

With the failed vote on a recommendation from P&Z, the project now returns to the Ocean View Town Council for action. The public will have a chance to make themselves heard at another public hearing scheduled for the town council’s consideration of issues related to the project at their May meeting.

Zorzit, meanwhile, plans to make the most of the time between April 17’s failed attempt to have his supporters heard and whenever the town might take further action in regards to the project.

“Keep rounding up the people. We will get it done. Keep rounding them up,” he told supporters as they filed away from last Thursday’s meeting.

P&Z votes to approve Morin subdivision

Also on April 17, commissioners voted 4-0 to approve a requested combining and subdivision for the Morin family of 1.76 acres from three parcels to two parcels, with plans to enlarge an existing business and create a new business on the second parcel at Route 26 and Town Road, currently the home to CSI and four other businesses, including Kitchen Cabinet Center and Paula’s Decorating Café.

The request was a follow-up to a 2005 application approved by the town to redistribute the property, with the request by the town to move to a single lot. The 2005 approval had come despite a non-conformity on the lot wherein a more than 100-year-old building sits on the property line of state-owned lands by the Assawoman Canal. But completing the change had hinged on a number of approvals from agencies that could not be completed without intermediate steps.

On April 17, Administrative Official Charles McMullen stated his concerns about approval of the re-division of the property, owing to that non-conformity and plans to expand one of the businesses. But Schraeder opined that the changes planned do not constitute an expansion of that non-conformity, or at least that they do not do so any more than the changes approved in 2005. A license for use of the property-line area has since been granted to the Morins.

McMullen also noted problems with non-conforming lighted signs for the businesses existing on the property, but Schraeder said the signage issue was not on the table for discussion at the hearing and vote by the commissioners on April 17.

Commissioners did vote to require a note on the property’s plan that the town is reserving a 10-foot easement for utilities, as requested by the town recently and recommended by McMullen. Goodhand also made and was granted her standard request for adequate handicapped parking.

Zoning ordinance to preserve commercial use recommended

Finally, commissioners on April voted 3-1 to recommend to the town council adoption of a proposed ordinance amendment to the zoning code that would restrict residential structures in the town’s designated commercial district along Route 26.

As proposed by McMullen, the ordinance requires that structures in the commercial district be either commercial or multi-use in nature, with residential use only being permitted when in combination with commercial use. McMullen has said he fears that, without the change, the town’s commercial district could disappear entirely in favor of residences as the value of residential property remains high.

Commissioners voted to support one change in the proposed ordinance, to allow properties that do not have entrances on Route 26 to be built with residential uses, if desired, since a lack of entrance on Route 26 could be problematic for a business. One such case is property located at Tyler Drive (Savannah’s Landing) and Route 26. By the commissioners’ recommendations, single-family homes could be built on such a lot.

Mitchell cast the lone opposing vote on the ordinance.