Mixed-use project gets shot down in Fenwick

The Fenwick Island Board of Adjustments spent a substantial amount of time on Tuesday deliberating the proposed development of the lot located at the corner of Dagsboro Street and Coastal Highway, the site of the former Libby’s family restaurant.

Representatives of the Lenape Tribe LLC and Nichols Development presented their requests for five variances from the town code that would have allowed mixed commercial and residential development at the location, including a proposed Starbuck’s with drive-through capabilities, but to no avail.

After a five-hour hearing, and with numerous testimonies from townspeople, the board voted to deny of all requests, citing concerns about issues including public safety, traffic congestion and deviation from the town’s recently approved comprehensive plan.

Board Chairman John Rymer, accompanied by members Tim Collins, Phil Craig and Jesse Shepard heard the requests. Tempe Steen, the town attorney for Fenwick Island since 1989, supplemented input at the hearing, as well.

Fred Nichols with Nichols Development, one of the partners of the Lenape Tribe LLC, approached the Board with the following variance requests:

(1) To reduce required front setback from 25 feet to 11 feet.

(2) To allow more than one resident apartment in a commercial building with an attempt to condominiumize one or more resident apartments.

(3) To provide one or more workforce-occupied rental units, which would be considered for construction over the condominium units.

(4) To exceed the maximum roof height of 30 feet, going up to 34 feet.

(5) To allow the construction of a drive-through associated with an eatery.

The variances would have allowed allow for development of First Fenwick at Fenwick Island, a plaza at the aforementioned location that would comprise mixed-use buildings with six proposed condominiums over two retail stores and the free-standing coffee shop with a third level, for a total of two workforce units, surpassing the height restriction for both buildings.

Nichols’ design was brought forward with ambition to “contribute to the vision for Fenwick Island to be a quiet, family-oriented and walkable community that protects its natural beach and bay environment while including a desirable and sustainable primary residential area as well as a mixed residential and commercial use area per zoning,” according to their opening statements and presentation to the Board.

Since the time that the property was purchased, development of townhouses was considered — although, due to the comprehensive plan’s allowances, condominiums were considered for more practical and convenient purposes. Nichols mentioned that the idea of restaurants and banks with drive-through capabilities were also considered before settling on the idea of a coffee shop.

The coffee shop, which would sit directly at the corner of Dagsboro Street and Coastal Highway, would include a side entrance off Dagsboro Street and four parking spaces directly across from St. Matthews by the Sea United Methodist Church. Nichols had mentioned a comprehensive shared parking strategy, as well, fluctuating from the code’s requirement of 45 spaces for the given area of development.

The setback variance planned to bring the coffee shop closer to the highway, rather than set it at the back of a parking lot, although positioning beside an already high-traffic intersection was undesirable according to most property owners who spoke at the hearing.

“A lot of people were wondering why we’re standing before you in the winter,” said Nichols. “The comprehensive plan was approved in November and we were here in December. We were told that our plan was not complete because there were other variances that needed to be addressed. We’re here today with a complete plan.”

In approaching the Board of Adjustments rather than the town council or the charter and ordinance committee, Nichols said that he felt that, given the nature of such a lengthy process, it was the way to go and that a judiciary decision from the BoA would help administer a speedy pace for developing, if approved.

“The biggest concern,” said Fenwick Island resident Buzz Henifin, “is the safety of that intersection. People are constantly coming and going to the beach in the summertime. There are 109 households that will impacted by this decision.”

Former board member Marsha Frederick addressed the validity of the developers’ request.

“It’s pertinent,” she said, “that the variances from the ordinance maintain mutual property values and create a level playing field for everyone. You need to examine whether there is a hardship of your own making involved or if it is actually against your control.”

Her husband and former mayor of Fenwick Island, Peter Frederick, stressed the importance of the possible effects on those impacted.

“The decision needs to keep in mind the welfare of the public,” he said, adding that it is not the council’s or board’s responsibility to change with financial trends. “There’s no need for adjustment,” he added, “because there is no difficulty resulting in this project generated by the code.”

Richard Robinson, a resident who was once denied variance for certain developments of his own, also opposed the requests.

“I valued the rules of the game over personal preference,” he said. “It’s important to preserve Fenwick Island. New development should be designed to meet the comprehensive plan.”

Several successful businesses, including Warren’s Station restaurant and the Seaside Country Store, Collins noted, were grandfathered in and would not pass current building standards set by the town’s code and comprehensive plan. “There are plenty others that have been built,” he added, “that have been successful, too.”

Long-time resident Mary Pat Kyle spoke out about development in the town, too.

“It seems odd,” she state, “that people are so attracted to Fenwick Island, and immediately want to change it.” Ten letters from landowners within the town limits were also read, voicing objections to the requested variances.

After hearing the public’s comments and the applicant’s rebuttals, the board voted on each of the variance proposals individually.

First, the board voted unanimously against the proposal of a drive-through within the town limits.

“There are strong arguments from the people here and the letters,” said Collins, in regard to the coffee shop, “and safety is a great concern. I can’t say that I’m in support of a drive-thru eatery here in Fenwick. I can understand some of the difficulty [without approval of variances], but what I’d take into consideration, very strongly, is if I could have been shown that, financially, the drive-through was the only practical use for that facility, and that there was no alternative, but we really don’t have anything to go on in that particular instance.”

“I have to agree,” Shepard added. “It would be a hazardous traffic nightmare to have a drive-through right there, with people turning right off of Route 1 then left into the center. The intersection gets congested as it is, and it will end up getting blocked.”

The board continued voting with a 2-2 tie vote that denied the allowance of the setback variance. In response to the number of residence units, a motion made by Collins to defer action until more research was submitted from Fenwick’s Charter and Ordinance Committee was denied, resulting in the rejection (one in favor, two opposed, Collins abstained) of the variance altogether.

Unanimous rejection of the workforce housing and variance to the height restriction also followed. The height restriction, Rymer noted, was easily one of the most controversial issues in the entire town and, had other variances been awarded, would still be unlikely to pass.

With the rejection of the proposal on all fronts, Fenwick Islanders will have to wait a little longer for further development of the property. Developers did not immediately provide a contingency plan for its development.

Stay tuned to the Coastal Point for continuing coverage of this issue.