Concern over Fenwick Island FAR continues

Opposition to proposed floor-area ratio restrictions in Fenwick Island continued to be voiced this month, at the town council’s June 10 workshop-without-agenda.

Resident Diane Tingle said she was particularly concerned with how the proposed change had been drafted. She said she had requested minutes of the December Charter and Ordinance Committee meeting that had brought the proposal to the town council but had been told that no one at town hall was able to find them. And the FAR issue had only appeared on a single agenda for the committee, she said.

“There’s a problem when two town council members say they didn’t know about a meeting and then there are no minutes,” Tingle said, referring to the absences from that meeting of COC and council members Audrey Serio and Martha Keller, who had both previously said they were unaware of the meeting and had been out of town at the time.

“When a council member tells me there are minutes and there aren’t, it makes me angry,” Tingle said.

COC Chairman and Town Council Member Harry Haon was absent from the June 10 WWA and couldn’t directly answer her questions. But he said Tuesday that he had since sent her copies of the meeting record, which he said had originally been e-mailed to all meeting attendees and council members, and to town administrative staff, within three days of the December meeting.

“I’m not sure why they didn’t have them on file here,” Haon said, referring to town hall.

In response to Tingle’s inquiries, Mayor Peter Frederick clarified at the June 10 WWA that town policy requires a written record of every committee and council meeting. He said that could come in the form of a report, memo, letter or other such record, and might not be in the form of formal minutes, as such.

Council Member Vicki Carmean commented that minutes for most meetings were being uploaded to the town’s recently revamped Web site very quickly of late. But Tingle noted that the COC minutes in question weren’t on the site. (In fact, no committee meeting records are currently offered on the Web site, only those for council meetings.)

Serio said committee meeting minutes were sometimes lacking in the town overall, due to the fact that most often it’s the committee chairperson who is responsible for taking minutes. There, she said, the hiring of a town manager who could organize such tasks could only bring better results for the town.

Resident Bonnie Lednum supported Tingle’s objection to the missing minutes, saying that the COC’s records were particularly important since the committee originates new laws for the town.

For Tingle, the problem of the meeting records was typical of the management of the FAR issue. “Some oppose FAR because they feel it was badly handled. It’s illegal, almost, because of how the meetings were handled this winter,” she declared. Lednum again agreed.

Serio noted that nearby Rehoboth Beach, which has already enacted its own FAR, has been reassessing the control system of late. Even though Rehoboth had hired a planning company to consult on the issue, Serio said, they felt they hadn’t delved as deeply into the issues as they should have before enacting it. As a result, she said, they were getting houses that they didn’t like, with property owners leaving off porches in favor of more interior space.

“To do this too quickly is a mistake,” Serio declared.

Council Member Vicki Carmean again said she felt the 70 percent FAR ratio in the draft had been “pulled out of the sky.” She said she would like to see the town consider its overall development and planning issues with a comprehensive plan, instead of just drafting a FAR amendment. She noted the town is already two years past the official state deadline for its comprehensive plan.

“We’re pulling this ordinance in and that ordinance in, and it doesn’t mesh,” Carmean said.

Council Member Chris Clark has championed the town developing its comprehensive plan with the guidance of the Institute for Public Administration at the University of Delaware, but the council voted in May to instead look at doing the work independently, citing both cost-cutting efforts and an IPA backlog of projects.

Clark said he felt the town particularly needed to look at bonuses for keeping trees, porches and other desirable elements, if FAR was to be enacted.

And Council Member Theo Brans cited the obvious dischord between Fenwick Island’s citizens over the issue. “The town is divided. That concerns me,” he said.

Serio said she felt that if the town council could better state its reasoning for seeking a FAR ordinance, more citizens would understand why it was needed, even if they didn’t agree with it in its entirety. “We don’t have anybody who really knows what they’re talking about,” in regards to the facts behind FAR, she said.

On that count, Tingle agreed, saying she felt the cover letter introducing FAR to the townsfolk had been slanted and lacking in real facts. “There should have been more facts in it,” she said.

“The town should have given pros and cons,” Brans added.

Tingle and Lednum said they’d both received additional letters from other property owners who were very concerned about the impact of FAR. “Their property values are concerned,” Brans empathized.

Clark said he’d recently seen information suggesting FAR, when enacted as a single entity as has been proposed in Fenwick Island, could negatively impact property values. If it was instituted as part of an overall plan, such as a comprehensive plan, he said, the impact on property values was often positive.

Frederick said the town couldn’t go without some controls on property development. The question was what those controls should be. He said friends in Austin, Texas, liked that city’s 40 percent FAR.

Despite the assurances of success in other municipalities, other council members indicated they were far from ready to put FAR into place in Fenwick Island.

“It seems like there was little thought behind this, except the concept,” Serio said. “There needs to be plenty more study done on it. Are there other options?”

Clark agreed, saying that while house size had been one concern mentioned at the town’s visioning workshops, “Other areas have not been addressed yet.”

“This should be all hand in hand,” Serio added.

Opponents of FAR have expressed concern that with the measure having had the required public hearing (plus one more), council members could technically vote it into law at their next council meeting. Carmean said mere possibility made her nervous.

But Frederick said he was unable to understand the intense emotional divides between the two sides. “It’s sad to see it,” he said. “It’s not necessary.” The process was proceeding as required, he said; it was legal, with no rush to pass anything unless the council members were ready to do so with a majority. And council members could say they wanted more information or to go back to the drawing board with the idea.

“We probably won’t have a vote (in July),” Frederick said.

The usually taciturn Bud Tingle broke his silence to reply, “‘Probably not’ is what worries us.”