Bethany Beach’s Planning Commission had on its agenda for Jan. 20 some early preparation for an annual update of the town’s comprehensive plan. However, much of the discussion at the Saturday-morning meeting focused not just on the town’s future plans but also on concerns about the potential impact of county-level planning decisions on Bethany and its environs.
Town Council Member Steve Wode, who is the point-man on county issues for Bethany’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, kicked off discussion of the town council’s input on the town comp plan with a reminder that Sussex County’s five-year comprehensive plan update is now beginning with hearings to collect public input.
“Kent County has imposed a moratorium on development,” Wode told commissioners. “But Sussex County is still a free-for-all.”
While it may have seemed off-topic for discussion of the town’s own comp plan, Wode emphasized that the town had previously included outside concerns in drafting its plan – specifically noting a concern about increasing traffic problems on Route 26 that impact all who travel to and from Bethany Beach.
“Intergovernmental Affairs is on top of it,” he told them of the county process, suggesting that council members and other town officials should be prepared to speak as citizens during the public input phase of the county planning.
But, more formally, Wode recommended the council be prepared to speak as “a single voice” and to include new language in its comp plan update that would address ongoing concerns about the impact of county-wide development on the town.
“We are a critical stage,” Wode said of the upcoming public hearings set for various sites around the county in the coming weeks, as the first stage of drafting the county comp plan update. He said he hoped to attend all the events and compare the opinions expressed by those from all areas of the county, where concern about growth has largely been focused in the seaside eastern side.
“The major issue is that development is not being supported by infrastructure,” he said. “There are no real infrastructure or road requirements. Kent County instituted their moratorium for that very reason.”
Wode also pointed out the routine rejection of Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission decisions by the Sussex County Council. “The necessary ordinances are not in place,” he said regarding the advisory-only commission’s ability to require adherence to the ideas behind the existing county planning documents.
“Is there something the Planning Commission wants to say regarding the county comprehensive planning?” he asked of Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink.
The outlook from town resident, Bethany Beach Landowners Association officer and preservationist Dan Costello was a bit rosier but no less active.
“The consulting firm hired by the county has expertise in drafting ordinances to go along with a plan,” Costello said, suggesting that much of the coastal county was already at a consensus regarding what changes in county development policies are needed.
“This time, Sussex County may not be able to escape drafting ordinances to support the comprehensive plan,” he added. “That could be a change if that works the way some believe it will.”
Town council members at the Jan. 20 planning meeting didn’t commit to taking a formal position on county planning in time for the upcoming public hearings, one of which will be held at the town hall. Commissioners were also inclined to remain open to citizens and officials alike acting in their individual capacities at this stage.
But the commission did agree that drafting an opinion paper from their membership to be delivered to the county during the early public input stage of the process would be advisable. Mink asked Commissioner Don Doyle to draft a one-page paper for the commissioners to review and possibly sign off on at their February meeting.
Interest was also expressed at possibly attending a planned Jan. 25 event at the Center for the Inland Bays wherein interest groups have been invited to discuss the county land-use plan and how it relates to the state Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP).
Planning update a springboard for new issues
Discussion of the town’s own comprehensive plan was comparatively limited on Jan. 20. The commission had received only a single set of input from council members this early in the planning process.
While the town is due for an annual update of its plan, the submission is not state-mandated but rather a part of an ongoing schedule of review devised by its planning advisors. Mink said she felt there were a number of issues not on the planning “template” that the town would need to address in the near future and that the commission could use the planning update as a springboard to deal with those issues.
With that said, she led a review of Council Member and Commissioner Lew Killmer’s list of topics on Saturday, seeking to weed out issues the other commissioners felt weren’t pertinent and to begin to prioritize them as far as importance and items that could be completed quickly and in the immediate future.
Killmer was able to strike consideration of townwide curbside recycling from his list, saying that the town was already moving on the issue with discussions with the Delaware Solid Waste Authority as to how to tailor a curbside recycling program to the town’s needs.
Among other issues: improving communication between the commission and the community; improving standards for planned residential developments (PRDs) so as to better ensure they become “small communities within the community; and developing an overall vision for the future of the town, as well as public safety issues.
Commissioners were generally of one voice on what is typically a hot-button issue for comprehensive planning: annexation. They agreed that the town has little or no interest in annexing any additional areas outside its current boundaries, but they were not entirely of one mind as to how much to say on the issue.
“It’s really not much of an issue. There’s not much area to go into,” Killmer said. “And to go to the south would be dangerous,” he added without elaborating.
Doyle said he felt it important that the town not stay silent on the issue, however, perhaps instead stating that it had no desire to annex additional areas. And Mink said she felt it important to define such a stance in terms of the town’s long-term plans, so as not to unintentionally suggest that not considering annexation in the “immediate future” would mean it would never, ever be considered.
Dewey Beach commercial concerns loom over plan
Killmer also suggested that the commission needed to help develop a vision for the town’s business community. “What’s happening in Dewey Beach is a wake-up call for us,” he said. “When you have landmark businesses being reconsidered for redevelopment…” He let obvious concern about the future of the town’s commercial center finish the thought.
The council member said he felt it particularly important to have input from the town’s business community and to develop a closer relationship with that group. As it stands, contention between Dewey Beach planners and commercial property owners has ratcheted up the tension over the proposed redevelopment plans for the Ruddertowne complex. It’s a situation Killmer hopes to avoid in all respects while still keeping the town’s commercial areas viable.
A subject of contention within Bethany also came up on the commission’s list of possible planning concerns: residential structure design in the R-1 district.
While the commission’s last attempt at establishing some aesthetic standards was a mixed bag of a failed roof-pitch incentive and other less controversial measures, concerns over the overall impact of recent building trends on the street-front aesthetics of the town remain.
Commissioners were generally loathe to again take up the issue of the controversial roof-pitch measure, some months after the associated height allowance led it to be repealed under the weight of a referendum. “The town is obviously split on it,” Doyle said. “Maybe we should look at other issues first.”
But Killmer noted that they had been specifically tasked by the council in the wake of that decision to reconsider the issue and the original intent of their work.
From the audience, Wode was quick to draw a line between the original objective of the measure and its controversial incentive. “Roof pitch is still desirable,” he said, suggesting that another go at the problem may be in the commissioners’ near future.
Also on Jan. 20:
Commissioners moved forward on changes to the town’s Table of Dimensional Requirements, which sets down a number of building standards and has been undergoing an update under the new aesthetics rules. The project was handed over to Building Inspector John Eckrich for the usual next steps toward implementation as part of town code.
The commission agreed that they were ready to sign off on the town’s new draft zoning map, which incorporates the change to a new municipal zone, as well as a new R1-B zone for Sea Villas.
Killmer noted that the second draft of new signage ordinances had been approved by the town’s architectural committee and forwarded to the commissioners for their approval. He warned that he had no plans to vote on the ordinances at any level, having been part of the group that drafted them. The ordinances include the eventual removal of all “pole signs” within the town, with a 10-year compliance period. Commissioners will have a chance to comment on the ordinances before they are codified and reviewed by the town solicitor and then move to public hearings leading into council action.