Ocean View considers mandating mixed use

Ocean View Town Council members plan to introduce at their March meeting an ordinance that would refine permitted uses in the town’s small commercial district. The ordinance, developed by Administrative Official Charles McMullen, is a response to concerns that the value of property for residential use might one day lead to the demise of all of the town’s commercial businesses.

“This was suggested during the Route 26 design standards meetings,” McMullen explained to the council at their Feb. 19 workshop.

The ordinance, as proposed, would restrict residential use in the commercial district along Route 26 to no more than 50 percent of the square footage or foot print of a commercially zoned lot. Residential uses in the zone would be targeted for either a separate single-family home on a minority portion of the property or the upper level of a mixed-use structure.

A development such as Ocean’s Mist, which features numerous townhomes on property just west of the Assawoman Canal on Route 26, would no longer be possible under the ordinance, McMullen noted.

McMullen said Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Dick Logue, as well as Town Solicitor Dennis Schraeder, had expressed concerns about the ordinance. Logue, he said, preferred the town wait on any such use restrictions until it begins work on its 2009 comprehensive plan review. Schraeder, he said, had some legal questions about it.

Concerns about the conversion of commercial property to residential uses have popped up throughout the area, with Bethany Beach officials taking the step in 2007 to prohibit first-floor residential uses in its downtown commercial district.

Fenwick Island officials have also expressed concern about the ongoing trend of converting commercial properties to residential use as the value of property for residences has skyrocketed. That town, as with Ocean View, has only a small stretch of highway upon which the bulk of its businesses are based, and attrition of commercial use has led them to consider taking steps to support mixed use.

Redevelopment plans for landmark commercial property in nearby Dewey Beach set off a storm of controversy there, and that town has also been looking at ways to ensure commercial uses will continue to exist into the future.

Councilman Bill Wichmann said Tuesday that he considered the input of the Planning & Zoning Commission to be very important, and the council agreed to send the proposed ordinance to the commissioners for comment after its introduction in March.

Commissioners could recommend the ordinance as drafted, recommend changes or defer making a recommendation before sending the ordinance back to council for first and second readings and possible adoption.

Wichmann still on public works building committee

Also on Feb. 19, council members considered how to deal with battling proposals for a new public works building and whether the current limitations on funding for the project in the town’s draft budget would push Wichmann to resign from his chairmanship of the committee that has been handling the issue.

Wichmann had at the January council workshop announced that he “would have no part in” building a $300,000 public works building, which is the amount currently allotted in this year’s draft budget for the project. His committee had previously garnered a $1.4 million estimate for the public works building they recommended, and Wichmann has maintained that such a building is what the town needs.

Councilman Roy Thomas, who has battled with Wichmann since joining the council, formally requested Wichmann’s resignation from the committee be discussed at Tuesday’s workshop, and Wichmann confirmed that his statement had been intended as a suggestion he would resign.

“Without a doubt, I did mean it,” Wichmann confirmed.

Wichmann said the $1.4 million design had been created to ensure the building could stand up to stormy weather, high winds and flooding, so that it would be suitable to house equipment and personnel even though an emergency.

“I’ve never had any success building the cheapest possible building,” Wichmann argued. “I don’t want anything to do with anything less that what I feel is the right thing for this town.”

Wichmann, who has two years left on his current council term, promised that he would vote no “on anything less than the right building.”

However, Wichmann stopped short Tuesday of formally resigning as chairman of the committee, saying he preferred to wait to decide until after the town finishes its budget discussions in the coming weeks.

“We can’t have it both ways,” Thomas argued. “We can’t have a budget with $300,000 and then say we didn’t really mean $300,000.”

“We can put in $1.4 million, but we have to find a way to get $1.4 million,” he added. “We had to scramble last week to find $300,000 for a program we had voted on,” he noted of the police vehicle take-home policy the council voted unanimously to continue into the future.

Wichmann again pointed to funds the town has set aside for projects such as drainage.

“We need to begin to discuss these things,” he said, suggesting the council sit down at length and set priorities for various projects, which he said might include setting a public works building ahead of some other projects and behind ones the council feels are desperately needed, such as drainage improvements on West Avenue.

“No one objected” to a presentation by engineers on drainage projects and their costs, Thomas pointed out, saying that the town has been dealing with road and drainage problems for at least 85 years of recorded town council meetings. “They still exist because every town council has taken money away from roads and drainage,” he added.

Town Manager Conway Gregory noted that the original price tag for recommended drainage projects had been $1.8 million, but that the town had since narrowed that list down to just half that cost.

“You can decide to put the money back on the table,” he said. “You can abandon public safety, drainage and roads, and give $1.4 million to the public works building. Just tell me what you want.”

Councilman Richard Nippes and Thomas championed doing a full needs-analysis of the public works and administrative spaces, but Thomas also focused on the $300,000 already in the draft budget, saying he didn’t foresee that number being changed during the budget process.

“I wouldn’t recommend we go in on a drainage project with a certain number of dollars and say, ‘Make it work,’” Wichmann countered to Thomas’ reminders of the $300,000 amount.

Mayor Gary Meredith said he felt the important thing was that the town had found $300,000 in the budget for the public works building. To Wichmann, he said, “The money shouldn’t be the reason you resign from the committee. The committee needs your expertise on building. It might cost somewhere between $300,000 and $1.4 million,” he added.

But Thomas said he favored Wichmann’s resignation.

“The project can’t move forward if the chairman is not behind it,” he said.

“I’m behind it if it’s done right,” Wichmann replied.

“That’s your definition of ‘correctly,’” Thomas responded, suggesting the town not pursue the construction of the new building while a preconception of needs under the $1.4 million design was still in play and anything less was considered insufficient.

“We can’t have a preconceived notion it’s a $300,000 building,” Wichmann countered.

“I’m not after Mr. Wichmann’s resignation,” Thomas added. “I’m just for moving forward.”

Meredith noted that the town could also decide to move forward with construction of a building in phases, to reduce the initial costs. Pressed for an answer on his resignation from the committee, Wichmann said he would wait to see what happens with the coming year’s budget.

Along those lines, the council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to direct Gregory to conduct a needs assessment for administrative functions as space at town hall grows beyond tight. Thomas, who proposed the idea, said he wanted a 20-year projection on the town’s needs that would lead to a conceptual design, estimated costs and a timeline.

Wichmann, who had originally suggested moving McMullen’s public works and administrative offices to the town-owned Lampe house, said he would first like to see the town examine possibly redistributing space at town hall.

“This is not a short-term plan. This is a 20-year plan,” Thomas replied.

Nippes supported the recommendation for the study, noting Gregory’s expertise at such.

But Wichmann said he was opposed because the outcome, he said, of the study might lead to the town locking away funding from citizens for years to offset future capital needs, at a time when some are struggling with everyday finances. Councilman Norman Amendt joined Wichmann in opposing the study, but the motion passed on a 3-2 vote.

Transfer taxes still lean

Finance Director Lee Brubaker reported Tuesday that the town had received just $9,900 in property transfer tax revenue in January, on two properties that were sold.

“We’re behind the ball,” he said, with the town down $38,000 for the month from planned revenue levels. That would put the town at $457,000 in revenue for the year, compared to $659,800 in the budget. “We might catch up. We might not,” Brubaker added. “With three more months like this, we could end up under $100,000 for the year.”

Brubaker said budget numbers were on track overall, with only the real estate transfer taxes throwing things off.

Gregory also announced plans for the town to join the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce’s third electricity cooperative, with an anticipated savings of about $2,000 per year on related accounts.

He also reported the availability of a new form to allow citizens to request documents discussed at town meetings that will now not be made available by default under a new paper and staff cost-saving policy. Requests are to be processed in about two days.

Also reported Tuesday was the mailing of letters to property owners on Feb. 13 with the procedures and costs associated with the mandatory connection of properties to the town’s new central water system. Connections can begin as soon as March 1 but must be completed by Feb. 28, 2009, unless property owners are willing to pay added fees.

Sgt. Heath Hall reported to the council that applicants for the vacant officer position with the OVPD had been narrowed down from 10 to two. “It’s going to be a hard decision,” he said.

Finally, council members were divided on whether or not to plan to continue monthly council workshops or whether they should be scheduled as needed. Amendt and Meredith, who will reach the end of their terms in April, favored scheduling as needed.

Wichmann and Nippes said they preferred having both the regular meeting and workshop each month, while Thomas said he was divided on the issue between the extra work created for staff and the difficulty of planning workshops if they aren’t pre-arranged. It is expected that the new council will make a decision on the issue after they convene in April.