Bethany Beach looks at Sea Villas zoning

A legal opinion from Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork has rendered moot any notion of major changes in the building allowances at Sea Villas.

Members of the Bethany Beach Planning Commission on May 27 had discussed with property owners the idea of changes to the community’s unique covenants that would put them more in line with town code.

But Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink reported that Jaywork has said he’d since discovered that changes to the community’s covenants would require 100 percent approval from the property owners, without a single objection by any party in a hearing before the state’s Chancery Court.

Since commissioners already knew the previous target of a 2/3 majority of approving property owners (required for other types of changes) would be difficult to get, they ruled out the prospect of covenant changes entirely at their June 17 meeting, acknowledging it would never happen.

Instead, the commissioners agreed to simply pursue a new R-1B zoning district that would address a 1992 blanket variance granted by the town’s Board of Adjustments for Sea Villas. That variance was intended to legalize in town code the unique pre-existing easements in the community that grant permission for neighbors to build decks up to and across their neighbor’s property line on one side, up to the setback line.

But the 1992 variance had an unintended consequence, allowing expansion of the easements to permit any structure to be thus built. That could mean the deck, the house, a shed or any other structure. And the town currently has no way to prohibit such a plan from going forward, if it is presented. Property owners in Sea Villas have thus been at the mercy of their neighbors’ good will.

The commission is set to fix that problem, with the R-1B zoning district. It would correct the variance back to the original intent, permitting only the decks to cross the property line. (The new district is the only way to effectively roll back the variance, Jaywork told the commission.)

The deck easement is an odd discrepancy from normal building and easement practice that some of the community’s property owners have come to loathe, while others are still very attached to it. That’s a literal attachment in some cases, since the easement allows property owners to build their decks up to and even attached to that one neighbor’s home.

But as the homes have continued to age, teardowns have become more common, changing the face of the community and causing complications in the unique interaction between the homes and decks, and their owners.

Mink said commissioners had explained to the property owners some very important things during their May 27 home owner’s association meeting. Perhaps the most important was that the town had no plans to require property owners to tear down existing decks to bring them into compliance with current town code.

She said that had been a rampant rumor that had rallied some opposition among the Sea Villas property owners. But it simply had never been the case, she assured them.

The other important thing they heard was likely less welcome: the town will make no exceptions to the 40 percent maximum lot coverage allowed in the town, and those encroaching neighbors’ decks are included in the lot coverage.

That, she explained, also means that anyone who tears down their home or has an encroaching neighbor who does so needs to be very careful about those decks.

If they grant permission for their deck to be torn down on their neighbor’s property to make way for a rebuilt home, and if the new home itself covers 40 percent of the lot, they will not be permitted to rebuild their deck on the neighbor’s property. And those considering rebuilding their homes will need to consider how much of their lot their neighbors’ deck covers when planning how large a footprint they will have.

Sea Villas property owners had requested some leeway on the issue, citing the oddities in their covenants and deeds, but the town officials held firm to the 40 percent lot coverage maximum that applies throughout the town.

Commissioners on June 17 again considered whether to mandate compliance in Sea Villas to the town’s 20-foot maximum driveway width under the proposed R-1B zoning, at the times when homes in that new district would be rebuilt or substantially renovated.

But Mink cited opposition from Town Manager Cliff Graviet, who had previously looked into the issue when it was considered by the commission and recommended against it. Graviet told commissioners it would actually reduce available parking spaces on the streets. Commissioners were inclined to agree.

Council Member Jerry Dorfman offered kudos to the commission for their work on the Sea Villas issues, particularly to Commissioner Steve Trodden, who did much of the background research involved before the commissioners met with property owners.

The proposed R-1B zoning district would require a public hearing before moving forward to a town council vote. That hearing and vote could come as early as July 21, before the regular town council meeting.

Corner setback allowance moves forward

Also tentatively slated for that July 21 public hearing is a new setback encroachment allowance for houses on corner lots. The proposed change received a 5-0 recommendation from the commissioners at the June 17 meeting. It mirrors a similar allowance approved by the town council earlier this year that applied only to front setbacks.

The allowance would permit open stairways up to 42 inches in width to encroach on either or both setbacks on the sides of property fronting on streets. As with the previous allowance, the goal is to create a front approach from the street to an obvious entrance into the home.

The front setback allowance required a straight shot of stairs to the front of the home, while the proposed allowance for corner lots would allow turns in the staircase, so long as the entrance was visible. Neither allowance was to permit the stairs to come closer than 10 feet from the property line.

Commercial guidelines closer as deadline nears

Council Member Lew Killmer asked his fellow commissioners to review draft copies of the proposed architectural guidelines for the C-1 and C-2 commercial district, as part of the process of completing a final draft. The committee developing the guidelines was set to meet again on June 22, to finalize that draft, with the commission to review (and, hopefully, approve) the draft by mid-July.

That would keep the town on a timetable for a public hearing and possible approval of the guidelines by the town council before the Aug. 9 expiration of the 180-day commercial construction moratorium.

Commissioners said they would schedule a special meeting at 10 a.m. on Friday, July 7, and an additional special meeting on Friday, July 21, at 2 p.m., to consider and possibly vote on whether to recommend the final guidelines and related zoning code.

The public hearing on the guidelines, as well as the corner lot allowance and R-1B zoning district, is tentatively expected to take place on July 21, prior to the regular town council meeting that night.

Future issues noted

Mink asked the commissioners to work on reviewing the town’s comprehensive plan in preparation for its annual update. The commissioners targeted September as the time to get together and consider any proposed changes, which could include the addition of the commercial architectural guidelines.

On that subject, Mayor Jack Walsh said he thought the commission should look into possibly using the new guidelines as a model for the town’s residential district, citing substantial approval for the architectural review board concept in the townwide survey of 2004.

Killmer, who originally spearheaded the effort to consider an ARB, said he expected residential owners would be unwilling to accept the kind of review process that the commercial property owners will be subjected to. Even though they’d voiced support, many were unaware exactly what an ARB entailed, he said.

Killmer himself noted for the commission that Walsh had requested they consider additional requirements that might be imposed on new planned residential developments (PRDs), including requirements for open space or internal neighborhoods.

The new requirements would not apply to existing, grandfathered PRDs, including those of less than 50,000 square feet. Building Inspector John Eckrich said there were at least two to four properties in the town where PRDs might be built in the future, as well as other properties that could easily be combined to create an eligible property.

Mink said she would also like to look into addressing any requirements that might be placed on property owners when moving homes from one lot to another within the town.