Fenwick still split on comp plan

Fenwick Island officials remain split on how to pursue some kind of town comprehensive plan, judging by commentary at a Sept. 9 workshop-without-agenda (WWA).

Former Mayor Peter Frederick raised the issue at the WWA, saying council members first needed to decide exactly what the town really needed from a plan: Were they looking to potentially annex lands outside the town? Did they envision any other substantial changes in the town heading 50 years into the future, such as water or sewer infrastructure?

While the most common answer to those questions historically has been a negative one, Frederick encouraged them to make that decision before deciding how to proceed with the planning process and who — if anyone — to hire to help them.

“If you think that 50 years from now we’ll annex up to Route 54,” Frederick said, “we need a comprehensive plan.”

Otherwise, he said, the town was looking at a $30,000 commitment to the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration (IPA) for consulting on a full state-mandated comprehensive plan when perhaps what the town needed was just its own, simpler, town plan. And even grants toward that financial commitment were never guaranteed until they were received, Frederick emphasized.

Frederick said he wasn’t sure the town needed a full comprehensive plan. He labeled the state mandate for a comprehensive plan as “not a serious law,” noting there are no penalties in place for violations, no concrete deadline and no penalties yet enacted on municipalities who don’t comply.

The town does need a plan, he said, but perhaps a more modest one than would otherwise be done, complete with ordinance changes to put the legally-binding comprehensive plan’s goals into action. “We should focus on planning for the town,” he said.

Clark favors IPA

Council Member Chris Clark — the first member appointed to the town’s now-forming Planning Commission — disagreed. Clark said the town couldn’t rule out eventual annexation of surrounding lands, no matter the current objection to the idea from some citizens and those owning the property bordering the town.

Clark instead cited the estimated 30 to 40 percent of the town’s police calls that are made outside the town limits. He said that as the town improves its internal functions and works to better areas such as commercial development and ordinances, it would become more likely that outsiders would seek annexation or that the town would find it advantageous.

Areas to the north, east and south were primed for annexation should circumstances change, he noted. And the town was already seeing concerning developments related to its environment coming from outside the town boundaries, Clark said.

Agreeing with Clark about the needed scope of a plan, Mayor Audrey Serio emphasized that the town could not count out the potentially different decisions of its children and grandchildren as the town ages.

Clark also emphasized the neutral stance of consultants such as the IPA, saying that while there was value in the “visioning” process instituted by former Council Member Harry Haon, he didn’t believe Haon had been a neutral party in conducting the workshops and had gotten off track in keeping commercial and residential stakeholders separate during the process.

Further, Clark said, the town might soon run into opportunities that would require a formal comprehensive plan, such as Main Street USA grants. “We need more than a town plan,” Clark emphasized, citing the learning opportunity provided by the process of developing a full comprehensive plan and the need to lead by example in following state statues that require one, despite the lack of a deadline or formal sanctions looming.

Serio again agreed, saying “There’s a reason it is mandated. We may not need a plan as complicated as Millville,” she noted, referencing the inland town’s impending growth from small town to large, “but to hide our heads in the sand is ridiculous.”

“Shorter, simpler is good,” Serio continued. “But to look forward only 50 years is selfish. We should make the town as good as it can be, because our children and grandchildren will be here.”

Frederick allowed that the town might want to look to issues such as annexation and therefore need a full plan, but he encouraged caution if a simpler plan could guide the town into the future with less cost.

Addressing the issue of whether IPA can sufficiently tailor a plan for the small town and its current lack of plans for infrastructure and annexation, Clark said he and interested citizens were set to have a conference call with IPA representatives on Sept. 13 to talk about just such areas.

Specifically regarding annexation, Frederick and Clark both pointed to the “enclave rule,” in which a town can annex neighboring lands without those property owners’ support if it surrounds the unincorporated enclave.

Frederick was dubious as to whether that was a possibility for Fenwick Island, but Clark said he felt the eastern Route 54 corridor was nearly surrounded by the town, if one took into consideration the waters of the Assawoman Bay and the Maryland border. Therefore, he said, such an annexation might become an eventuality.

Council Member Diane Tingle agreed, pointing to a conceivable move by the state some day in the future to push the town to take in the unincorporated beach to its south and perhaps to the north.

Council members agreed such a circumstance might turn to the town’s advantage, allowing them to manage access to an area most recently being used as a drop-off point for new, large inland communities. And Serio said she thought the town might even want a larger tax base someday, confirming that not even annexation can be ruled out in the town’s long-term future.

“There may be a time when it is an advantage to us to have more property,” she said, emphasizing that things change. Some of the past problems in the town, Serio said, had to do with minds being closed. Officials, she thereby implied, should keep their minds open to the possibilities in looking 50 years or more into the future.

Other council members were less eager to move forward on the full comprehensive plan. “I’m of two minds,” Bill Weistling Jr. said, favoring having the new planning commission examine the town’s needs and make a recommendation to the council before proceeding. Gardner Bunting agreed.

But Clark still favored moving forward with IPA, saying the group could not only help with the comprehensive plan but guide the town through the creation of the planning commission — a body most towns already have when first tackling a comprehensive plan. Clark also cited the potential for costs of consultation to go up if the town doesn’t move soon.

Further, Clark said he wasn’t sure he or other interested citizens would have the time to develop the plan themselves. With IPA’s help, the process is estimated at some 12 to 18 months to complete, he said.

Still divided on the issue, council members considered the various aspects of planning, eventually recognizing that both a long-term vision and a detailed planning document will be needed — something Clark said would be right up IPA’s alley. But Martha Keller said she felt the town really just needed to address things such as “curb appeal,” and could do that without IPA.

Council members tabled the issue of an IPA contract in August and could vote on it at their September meeting.

Also at the Sept. 9 WWA:

• Council members reiterated a loose Sept. 10 deadline for the return of committee interest forms, with plans to begin forming committees in the near future.

• Deputy Mayor Theo Brans asked Serio to authorize the participation of town staff at committee meetings, to take minutes, citing the difficulty of committee chairpersons doing so while running their meetings. Serio said she would work out a procedure to request the service.

• Weistling agreed to pursue possible changes to some of the town’s pedestrian crosswalks across Route 1, noting complaints from citizens particularly about the Bayard Street crossing, on the south side of the intersection, that they said tied up traffic and left pedestrians stranded.

• Council members re-examined the WWA itself, questioning whether the workshops were still necessary and eventually deciding that perhaps a less-frequent schedule might be useful. They also noted potential concerns about reducing citizen input and were generally in favor of continuing the meetings, if on a less-frequent basis. Council members further expressed interest in allowing citizens to put topics on the meetings’ spontaneous agendas via e-mail to town hall, to enable out-of-town citizens to better participate.