While Bethany Beach officials have been supportive of plans to redevelop the landmark oceanfront Blue Surf Motel as a mixed condominium-retail area, the McCabe family and builder Coleman Bunting struck out on two of four requests made to the town regarding the project at the town council’s July 20 meeting.
The first request, discussed briefly at a July 13 meeting of the town’s Design Review Committee, involved a request to place a needed electrical transformer on town property. As many as six possible locations had been considered for the transformer, but none of the ones on town property met with council’s approval last Friday.
The initial proposal had involved what is currently a lifeguard parking space on Atlantic Avenue, but water mains below the area led to it being ruled out for safety reasons.
Four of the other proposed locations centered around the town’s changing station/lifeguard building at the end of Garfield Parkway, but concerns about the 5-by-7-by-7-foot transformer and its clearance requirements for safe operation left council members unwilling to approve any of those sites.
With 12 feet of clearance required at the front side of the transformer for safe access for electrical workers doing maintenance and repair, the large transformer size was only the tip of the iceberg.
“That would take up a lot of space,” Mayor Carol Olmstead commented during the presentation of the Blue Surf request.
Council members questioned why the Blue Surf couldn’t accommodate the transformer on the McCabes’ property, with focus on a sixth location — inside a planned loading area off Atlantic Avenue. Bunting said that location would cause issues with loading and trash container access, but it was not a convincing argument for the council.
“I think that’s the most ideal location,” Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny said.
“I don’t find any compelling reason to place the transformer on town property,” added Council Member Tracy Mulligan. “There’s no compelling reason why it can’t be done on private property.
Council Member Jerry Dorfman said he was concerned about the impact of the transformer at several of the requested locations, as it could create hazards for users of nearby handicapped-access parking spaces.
“I concerned about the aesthetics of it,” Olmstead put in. “I think a transformer just doesn’t belong on town property.”
Council members voted unanimously to deny the request to place the transformer on town property, leaving the McCabes and their building team to find another location.
Fire lane, parking realignment approved
The McCabes had better luck with a second request to the town, which came as a result of a request from the state fire marshal’s office. Council members voted unanimously to allow the designation of the existing town trolley loading area near the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Garfield Parkway as a fire lane.
Bunting said the fire marshal had told him that the town would be free to continue to use the area for loading and unloading of the trolley, since it would only be off limits to other uses, such as parking, and would generally be open should a fire lane be needed.
Council members were also uniformly willing to allow the realignment of handicapped parking spaces at the south-side street end of Garfield Parkway, so that a handicapped access ramp will line up with the planned stair tower access to the redeveloped Blue Surf, again at the request of the state fire marshal’s office.
The change is designed to facilitate the entrance and egress of stretchers into the stair tower from Garfield Parkway, should an emergency befall any of the structure’s occupants.
The shift would only move the existing handicapped-access parking within the current designated parking area, with no loss of parking spaces. Re-striping and reworking of the curb for the ramp will be the only alterations required for the change, and Bunting said the McCabes would pay for those changes.
Request for wider street denied
Council members struggled last Friday with the fourth request from the fire marshal, asking for a widening of the south side of Garfield Parkway at the street end, from 15 feet, 9 inches, to at least 17 feet, 9 inches, which is the current width of the north side of that U-shaped street end.
The fire marshal was seeking at least 20 feet of width on that south side of Garfield Parkway’s street end, to accommodate some of the area’s larger firefighting apparatus, Bunting explained. Ideally, a fire lane would be at least 24 feet wide, he noted.
To gain the extra width, Bunting proposed narrowing the adjacent sidewalk by between 2 and 5 feet, which he pointed out would more closely approximate the width of the boardwalk ramp the sidewalk leads to. (Bunting formally requested 3 feet, but said council could make its own call and they would bring any decision back to the fire marshal.)
In exchange, he said, the McCabes would relocate that area’s electrical wiring from above-ground poles to underground — something the town has been looking to do in the downtown area.
However, widening the road there would most likely necessitate the removal of benches, landscaping and a newspaper distribution location, in addition to the loss of width in the sidewalk overall. And council members were loathe to approve that kind of change when discussions of the need for wider, clearer sidewalks have abounded in the town for years.
“I would not approve of this. I don’t want to see the sidewalks shorter in Bethany,” McClenny declared.
Olmstead also wondered why the request from the fire marshal was coming now, when it has never been an issue raised with the town before. If it was a vital safety issue for the town, why had no one pointed out the 15-foot, 9-inch road width as a hazard previously?
Building Inspector John Eckrich later suggested that the change in the fire marshal’s position was linked primarily, if not solely, to the plans for the new Blue Surf, which call for the elimination of an open parking area near the street corner and for the building’s exterior to move much closer to the public sidewalk and roadway, as well as for larger overall size and capacity.
Eckrich said that, ideally, such a structure would have fire lanes and open egress areas on all sides of the building. That simply can’t happen at the Blue Surf, since it is fronted by the boardwalk and by other structures on its south side.
He said those kinds of restrictions naturally lead to enhanced fire safety requests for a project, such as sprinklers, non-combustible building materials or reduced height.
In this case, the tradeoff for the building the McCabes are planning appears to be a request for a wider street on the adjacent section of Garfield Parkway.
But council members were patently opposed paying the price for that tradeoff in a narrower sidewalk.
“There’s already going to be a solid wall there instead of an open parking lot,” Council Member Lew Killmer pointed out, echoing concerns about the building that he had expressed at the DRC meeting on July 13. “It will give the impression of being even narrower. It will seem like a cattle chute.”
Patricia McCabe said she was concerned that the council was missing the point of their requests.
“We’re trying to build the most efficient and safest building,” she told the council. “We have not skimped on anything. We are not trying to cause any problems,” she added. “If there was a fire downtown, it would be very, very unsafe. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
Some council members were willing to entertain some compromise on the issue, with Mulligan asking if the fire Marshal would accept a 17-foot, 9-inch, road on the south side to match that on the north. “I’m more comfortable with 2 feet,” he said.
Town Manager Cliff Graviet noted that there was a possibility the town might be able to find some additional space by redesigning the layout of the street-end parking, shifting the concrete parking stops in the center parking area to even out the two lanes’ widths or even shortening any spaces that were unnecessarily long.
“It may not be as bad as it seems,” he said of the roughly measured parking area on Bunting’s map. “The fire marshal has not asked or required us to come into compliance with anything,” he emphasized.
But with 3 feet of space requested by Bunting and the McCabes, council members found little support for the idea on July 20. In a 5-2 vote, with Mulligan and Council Member (and fire policeman) Wayne Fuller opposed, the council voted not to approve of the street widening.
More consideration of the issue could come in the future, however, as Bunting and the town consult with the state fire marshal’s office and see if there is a solution that will satisfy everyone. Construction of the new Blue Surf is planned to begin after Labor Day.