Flagship redevelopment concept opposed

A conceptual plan to allow commercial properties within Fenwick Island to redevelop closer to Route 1, to create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape, met opposition from town residents and business owners last week.

Town comprehensive plan consultants introduced the concept last Thursday to business owners and at a Saturday comprehensive plan workshop with town residents in attendance.

Such redevelopment — by all accounts a long-term conceptual plan — could be implemented with an optional overlay ordinance along Route 1 and come with incentives for business owners, consultants said last week. Businesses could enter into shared-parking agreements, for instance, which might ease what some now call strict off-street parking requirements for Fenwick Island businesses.

Parking areas, though, would be moved from the front of the property to areas behind the structures — an idea not well-received by town residents.

“Moving parking around back leaves no buffer (between the parking and residential properties),” said Mark Beam, who lives behind the Royal Farms on Route 1. “If you bring parking lots up to residential lines, noise will cause a problem. Noise (containment) … is the biggest factor in keeping the town’s family-type atmosphere.”

The redevelopment concept — which would require changes in town code — received the most attention last week as Bluegreen consultants unveiled their 39-page rough, and first, draft of the town’s inaugural comprehensive plan.

“Several residents commented that they would like to see commercial development with better ‘curb appeal,’” a passage from the redevelopment section of the draft reads.

Along with promised Delaware Department of Transportation improvements, which include a continuous sidewalk through the town, the conceptual plan would naturally slow drivers down and make the commercial corridor now “dominated by the vehicle,” more pedestrian friendly, consultants said.

The plan also relieves safety concerns, they added, by closing Route 1 entrances into parking lots, allowing walkers to dominate the sidewalks without interference. And walkers would be more apt to stop in stores than their counterparts in cars, consultants noted.

Supporters of the plan also mentioned secondary benefits for business owners, whose properties would not be overshadowed by large residential structures along Route 1, prevalent in recent years with investors seeking to maximize profit by capitalizing on a once-strong market.

Residential development is not subject to strict parking ordinances, allowing the structure to naturally sit closer to the highway – in some cases blocking commercial property as viewed from the road. (Stricter ordinances prohibiting or limiting residential development along Route 1 – the town’s sole commercial district — were not mentioned last week but have been discussed.)

Former Town Councilwoman Vicki Carmean supported the concept, and change in general.

“If you always do what you always did,” Carmean said, “you get the same results. We need to change and I think this is a great tool.”

Unfortunately for Carmean, hers was a lonely stance.

Steve Vickers, owner of Seaside Country Store, argued that landscaped medians and sidewalks would create more foot traffic and sidewalks, leading to further safety concerns along the busy highway where traffic would not slow down despite change. He also noted that, despite the appearance of a more walkable streetscape, the idea would not be practically implemented among the town’s ever-aging year-round, retiree-dominated, population.

“The town is getting older by the minute,” Vickers said. “The concept of sidewalk is a beautiful idea but it won’t make people walk.”

Vickers called for more immediate solutions, such as more police intervention to direct traffic along Route 1 during the busy summer season and removing barriers that sit before the turn lane onto Route 54 to allow for a smoother transition between roads.

Resident Richard Griffin seemed to sum up the discussion with an analogy involving a dog and some not-so-tasty, but maybe healthy, food.

“I see very little wisdom in coming up with suggestions that the dogs will not eat,” Griffin said. “You guys are making a lot of money; there needs to be more coordination.”

Other discussions

Establishing an “area of concern” could give the town more say in development outside of town limits and was recommended by consultants last week, as well. Establishing such areas would give town officials an opportunity to comment on development there without actually annexing those lands, another controversial issue in the town.

Thousands of homes are planned for Route 54 just outside of town and will undoubtedly impact its services. Fenwick Island Mayor Audrey Serio said it is time the town had some say on booming development just beyond its borders.

“For us to say this is not one of the most important things, we are hiding our heads in the sand,” Serio said. “The day has come. It affects our lives every day.”

Intergovernmental agreements to have some say on development outside of town limits in certain areas — such as that around the Fenwick Island Lighthouse — were also discussed.

Other recommendations in the 39-page first draft — to be expanded upon next month — included touting the preservation of historic properties within town and protection of the neighboring environment.

Developing a comprehensive signage ordinance to promote parking ideas and a “small-scale” commercial area was also recommended.

Another recommendation included working with other government officials to establish “attainable” — labeled as such only because affordable has become a dirty word, insinuating government-subsidized — housing. One notion for that has been to encourage mixed-use development with apartments over commercial structures that might be used by teachers or police officers needing local residences.

But Fenwick Island resident and quazi-watchdog Buzz Hennifin rebutted the idea.

We don’t want it,” he said of providing affordable housing. “You can’t get it here.”