With less than a dozen large undeveloped parcels left in the town but potential redevelopment looming on the distant horizon, Bethany Beach planning commissioners in a Monday special meeting began the process of better defining the town’s requirements for planned residential developments (PRDs) and residential subdivisions.
Working from a draft list of requirements proposed by returning commission Chairman Lew Killmer and outgoing commissioner Lonnie Moore, commissioners aimed at setting a bar that would encourage developments that would beautify the town and give developers a better idea what the town would like to see proposed in its future.
As proposed, the requirements were patterned on the commercial architectural design guidelines that the town incorporated in its C-1 and C-2 districts’ zoning codes this past year, with some aspects taking on the air of suggestions while others could be codified as flat requirements.
Commissioner Fulton Loppatto said he felt that if the considerations were to become a list of guidelines, the town should have a committee that would be in charge of reviewing plans and ascertaining whether a given project meets those guidelines, much as the Design Review Committee has reviewed commercial projects in recent months.
Killmer cautioned that he wanted to avoid the town becoming a flat-out arbiter of what a residential property should look like.
“The Coopers and the Addys could sell each of their lots individually with 18 separate builders,” Killmer said of the recent application of the two families for an 18-home subdivision off Kent Avenue. “I don’t think it’s right to tell them what they have to build.”
However, Killmer said, “I don’t want some of the things that have been done outside of the town, where each house is the same and there’s no eye for architectural design. But I also don’t want us to become a town where all the rules are in place.”
Killmer said he was hoping to find a more viable way of the town working together with property owners and builders for the benefit of all.
Vice-Mayor and commission liaison Tony McClenny said he felt some of the requirements should have real teeth. “We need to make sure people understand that we’re serious about this,” he said.
Building Inspector John Eckrich said much of the requirements could simply be rolled into existing subdivision code, which applies to PRDs and to major and minor subdivisions, and could be part of the town’s list for builders to certify that they had met all town requirements.
Though not directly related to the issue at hand, McClenny also recommended that commissioners again look at the issue of prohibitions on townhomes in the town, which had previously been raised in past years.
Among the list of requirements commissioners considered for PRDs and subdivisions:
• Provision of an elevation drawing or computer print-out depicting structures, for all PRDs, with a requirement for a mix of styles, sizes, facades, color and roof pitches.
• Flexibility in design to take advantage of natural landscapes, existing community character and layout, trees and other native vegetation and unique features.
• Enhancing the visual character of the town and use of architectural styles that reflect the town’s tradition as a beach community.
• Planning for pedestrian, bike and motor vehicle use.
• Minimization of runoff, erosion, sedimentation and maximization of groundwater recharge.
• Provision of open space not less than 15 percent of the gross area of a PRD but desired also in subdivisions, and ideally to be contiguous with neighboring open space areas and accessible to residents within the development.
• Protection of existing mature trees where possible, as currently required for PRDs.
• Street trees provided where possible, landscaped buffers from nearby roadways and replacement of dead trees and shrubs.
• Alleys encouraged to allow vehicular access and parking on the side and rear of residential lots.
• Adequate parking provided, ideally to the rear or side of units and screened from view, with on-street parking clearly defined and using traffic calming measures.
• Streetlights throughout and signage consistent throughout the development and meeting town requirements.
Commissioners differed on the question of requiring sidewalks. Killmer said he felt sidewalks would provide enhanced pedestrian safety, but Commissioner Don Doyle countered, “I would like to preserve the natural look of the town without importing too much of a ‘civilized’ way of living.” He said he felt the changes could introduce too much of urban living to the small-town atmosphere of Bethany Beach.
McClenny said he felt few pedestrians in the town would use a sidewalk if it were there, instead having become accustomed to walking on the crown of the street, with cars following behind until they clear the way.
“People have come to recognize that’s the way Bethany is, and we adapt,” McClenny said.
Consensus was behind not pushing sidewalks as a requirement for development.
With those changes in place on the draft list, commissioners voted unanimously on Nov. 5 to begin drafting related ordinances for their future review. A finalized draft would go to the town solicitor before being presented to the town council for possible action.
Updates planned for code on non-conformities
Commissioners on Monday also addressed updates to the town code regarding non-conforming uses, structures and lots.
Eckrich reported that he and Killmer had been working on a new system for certificates of occupancy that would require a new COO to be issued prior to settlement in the sale of an existing home in the town. A home inspection for non-conformities and other problems would be conducted prior to the issuance of the new COO. Killmer said the procedure was typical in many municipalities.
The change could help the town track and enforce corrective action on non-conformities, which Eckrich said were not currently being tracked except through granted variances from the town’s Board of Adjustments and known grandfathered circumstances.
The focuses of the updates to the town code are upon eliminating as many non-conformities as possible and to avoid creating any new ones. The code sets rules for the Board of Adjustments on how to deal with existing and potential non-conformities, including a new list that details ways in which a new use could be deemed to be less desirable than an existing non-conforming use, such as traffic, noise, lighting, water use, flooding and appearance.
Major revisions to the code regarding replacement of non-conforming structures was discussed Monday, referencing heavily the potential of catastrophic damage from a major storm, as commissioners tried to decide how long someone should have to begin and complete rebuilding of a non-conforming structure in such a case.
Commissioners decided to allow property owners up to 365 days to obtain a building permit after the involuntary destruction of their non-conforming structure. They would then have 18 months from that point to complete the construction of the replacement structure. Substantial work would have to be completed within six months of the issuance of the permit, as is standard for all building permits in the town.
Property owners dealing with protracted legal battles, over insurance payments, for instance, could request an extension of those time periods on a case-by-case basis from the town’s Board of Adjustments. In the case of widespread disaster, Eckrich said, the town council could issue a blanket exception to allow for extreme circumstances.
Commissioners said they were also inclined to remove an exception granted property owners of non-conforming structures in the R-1A district in the late 1980s, in exchange for conversion of the area from commercial zoning, where there are no setbacks and where exists other beneficial features for land use.
But Eckrich cautioned care because the exemption had been granted in exchange for the rezoning.
However, Killmer noted that the original non-conformity had been the presence of the residential structures in that commercial zone, negating the need for the exemption in the now-residential zone. Eckrich said he would investigate the status of the issue with the town solicitor.
Commissioners plan to further discuss both the PRD/subdivision requirements and the update of code regarding non-conformities at their regular November meeting, set for Saturday, Nov. 17, at 9 a.m.