Floor-area ratio (FAR) limits proposed in Fenwick Island stirred controversy from the start, and that had not changed by the time the town council passed them into law on June 23 in a 3-2 vote.
The council’s survey of citizens proved yet another case where the proposed ordinance yielded he-said/she-said perceptions of citizen opinion, with Council Member Harry Haon describing the results of the survey as showing a slight edge for those favoring FAR, while Council Member Vicki Carmean said the actual tally showed significant opposition.
“That is not correct, Mr. Haon,” Carmean chided her fellow council member upon his first pronouncement of the survey results at the Friday afternoon meeting.
Haon offered up a letter he had authored and which Carmean had signed, indicating 20 percent of property owners (168) in favor of FAR and 20 percent (157) opposing it. The remaining 484 property owners had given no response, Haon’s letter says, “indicating a neutral position.”
But the letter went on to delineate responses from individual property owners, as opposed to the collective ownership of each property, stating a total of 259 individuals favoring FAR and 246 against.
The letter notes that nine properties for which comments were submitted in writing but surveys not returned had been included in the tally. Also, included, it says, were 28 properties where the owners responded for more than one property.
But regardless of how it was calculated, none of those numbers agreed with the official tally Carmean said she’d obtained from Building Official Patricia Schuchman. That tally, she said, measured 197 favoring FAR and 245 against. (Carmean said she didn’t know how many of those respondents were multiple owners of single properties.)
Haon at that point in the meeting said he didn’t have a copy of the tally. “I’d like to have a copy of that,” he told Carmean.
Carmean further objected to Haon saying she’d co-authored the letter regarding the survey results. She said she’d signed the letter Haon had written before receiving the official tally, believing the numbers therein to be correct. She’d since received the tally, she said.
“This has been the biggest waste of time, effort and money,” Carmean declared. “The people who have to make a vote have made up their minds already,” she said.
On that count she received agreement from Mayor Peter Frederick, who acknowledged persistent reiteration of arguments on both sides of the issue from the five council members present and what he said were known positions from Council Members Audrey Serio and Martha Keller, who were both absent.
In opposing Carmean’s suggestion to table voting on FAR until July, when they might be present, Frederick said he expected a split vote from the two absent council members — something that he said wouldn’t change the outcome of the vote from that of the five members present.
“If there’s a chance you’ll chance your mind,” Frederick said to his fellow council members, “we should table this.” There were no takers on that basis.
Frederick himself reiterated the position that government regulation of land use was necessary, contrary to the opinions expressed by some citizens who objected to FAR on the basis that their land-use rights shouldn’t be regulated.
Regulation was something government was allowed to do and the question, Frederick said again, was how to regulate such use. He said those opposing FAR had expressed opposition to the entire notion with no real alternative solutions to the problem suggested. Some had even used the survey to suggest height caps be increased instead.
Haon reiterated his support for FAR based on comments from the town’s 2004 visioning workshops but allowed that it might not be a perfect solution. “Is what we have now perfect? No. Can it be repaired? Yes. Is it a good starting point? I think so,” Haon said, supporting the ordinance drafted this winter by the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee that he headed.
Haon referenced the initial enactment of FAR in Rehoboth Beach, at the same 70 percent
proposed in Fenwick Island. That town had since reduced the cap to 60 percent and was now considering 50 percent as they worked to fine-tune the ordinance. The same kind of fine-tuning could be done later in Fenwick Island, he said, but after 10 meetings dealing with the subject, “It’s time to get this on the books.”
Council Member Theo Brans volunteered his own tally of support and opposition, saying 65 percent of letters he’d read favored FAR and that he believed those not responding to the survey were generally in favor of FAR. “We know where we are,” he said, referencing that stance and the ongoing controversy over such tallies. (Indeed, many of those present at the meeting begged to differ on his count.)
But, regardless of the count, Brans said those favoring FAR had cited the same kinds of reasons he himself had noted on a recent bicycle ride.
“I want our children to be able to plan in the streets without fear of being hit by cars,” he said, adding, “I think this is about greed. People want to cover the whole space. I’m for FAR. I’m going to stick with it.” But Brans allowed for change in the future with changes in council makeup or experience with the ordinance. “This is subject to change,” he said. “The next council, if they like, can change this.”
Council Member Chris Clark, on the positive side, noted the potential impact the ordinance could have on making room for trees, permeable surface and air flow.
Clark, however, objected to FAR in the absence of the two-years-overdue comprehensive plan for the town. “I would like to say I could support this,” he said. “I could have if it were packaged with a comprehensive plan in a professional manner. I’d hoped to discuss the comprehensive plan before FAR today,” Clark emphasized, expressing dismay with the order of the agenda.
As with the town’s commercial district, Clark said, the residential district was now experiencing the problem of “ordinance on top of ordinance without cleaning up what we’ve done in the past. We need to look at everything in the town. This all has to be part of a comprehensive plan.”
Indeed, Clark’s view was a centrist one, favoring FAR but not as a lone ordinance change, and after the meeting expressing a desire to bring the town’s citizens back together after the heated division created by the debate over FAR.
For her part, Carmean reiterated her statement that the entire process had been a waste.
“If I thought for one minute this would change the town for the better, I would vote for it,” she said. “FAR would not impact that at all,” she said, referencing complaints of small homes surrounded by larger ones that block their views.
She said FAR, as drafted, wouldn’t even prevent property owners from covering nearly their entire lots with structure and thus wouldn’t contribute to better air flow either. “FAR will not change anything in this town,” she said.
Carmean, too, championed the need for a comprehensive plan that would address the town’s overall development and vision for the future. But she seemed to know she was fighting a losing battle, with the suggestion to table the vote rejected by the four other council members present.
Carmean and Clark joined to vote against enacting the measure, though Clark emphasized his overall support for the measure if not its exact form on June 22. Brans, Haon and Frederick voted in favor.
In concluding the vote, the outgoing mayor emphasized the value of the concept of FAR, saying “Something needs to be done,” but allowing that the vote was “not an easy decision.”
Frederick said he didn’t believe the issue should be decided on the basis of opposition to the process that created the ordinance. He again encouraged citizens who had problems with the process to run for his open council seat — and those of Haon and Carmean, who also elected not to run for re-election — and to make changes to the process once elected.