Commercial guidelines well on track for Bethany

Time is ticking on Bethany Beach’s commercial construction moratorium, which is set to expire Aug. 9. Members of the town’s Architectural Guideline Development Committee for the C-1 and C-2 Zoning Districts (AGDC) are keeping that in mind as they finish up their job of envisioning the commercial districts’ desired appearance going into the future.

Meeting on May 22, they began to bring to a close the guideline development portion of their work, with what may be the next-to-last revisions on those elements of the new architectural system. Left to do: final fine-tuning before turning the document over to the planning commission, town council and public, and establishment of draft zoning amendments that will put the system into place — if the council adopts it.

Guidelines on July/August timeline

Consulting architect Jeff Schoellkopf said he expected to get the most recent revision of the guidelines to the committee in the second week of June, in time for them to meet again and confirm the document was as desired, before handing it over to the planners and council members.

“We’re 80 to 90 percent of the way there,” Schoellkopf said.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet told them he expected the planning commission to be able to review the document, approve it if they choose (likely at a special meeting) and pass it on to the town council, in time for a public hearing and council vote — possibly in late July or early August. (Graviet himself was due to give a progress report to the council and public at their May 26 meeting.)

Schoellkopf mildly noted the possibility of some changes being generated at the public hearing on the guidelines, but AGDC members are relatively confident in the document since the entire development process has been open to public comment and based on the experience that created architectural guidelines for downtown Ocean City, Md.

Indeed, the stakeholders with perhaps the most interest in the process — the McCabe family, which owns the Blue Surf Motel — have been in attendance at every meeting on the issue, asking questions and even garnering some response to their own tentative plans to convert the boardwalk landmark into a mixed-use commercial and condominium project.

As committee members set about finalizing some of the illustrations and photographs that will be included in the guideline document, some elements of the initial Blue Surf renovation design were clearly present. And Schoellkopf confirmed that the boardwalk-side porch ensured the upper-level residential units were set back at least the 8 feet the committee has suggested be required on floors above 24 feet, to reduce the sense of building mass on potential three-story structures.

Guidelines strong, but not rigid

Committee member and developer Jack Burbage admitted some second thoughts about the proposal for that upper-story setback requirement on May 22, saying he was concerned property owners would leave the district rather than give up 8 feet of potential commercial space for tenants.

A compromise solution: committee members agreed the setback would be a potential selling point (creating automatic upper-story porches) for residential units. So they eliminated the setback requirement for structures that are commercial-only, making it a recommendation there. And even for mixed-use structures (with commercial use now required on the ground floor), there will be the ability to get approval for other designs by special exception.

Committee members cemented that ability for all elements of their guidelines on May 22 as well. Setting up a process by which those special exceptions could be reviewed and potentially granted, they divided the guidelines into formal zoning elements and more subjective guidelines.

For zoning issues, appeals for special exceptions will go to the Board of Adjustments, as usual. Meanwhile, appeals to the guideline elements will likely end up before the town council itself.

The whole process is designed, as Burbage suggested, to allow for designs and uses that don’t specifically fit the guidelines but which might still be deemed good and acceptable as part of the future commercial districts. Even the requirement to have commercial uses on ground floors could potentially be exempted for a unique application.

That was another one of Burbage’s concerns — that the town not close the door to any possibility, including residential use on the first floor, provided the design had merit and fit with their vision of the district. But opening up that use again wasn’t something committee members were willing to do as a blanket change in their plan.

Goal: preserve commercial use

“That’s how Dewey got in trouble,” Vice Mayor and AGDC Chairwoman Carol Olmstead said to the group, referring to the neighboring town’s ongoing battle over the conversion of commercial properties to residential use.

Dewey had moved in recent weeks to a moratorium on the shift, while owners of the Ruddertowne complex staked their claim to the change of use by applying to convert the entire complex to residential use. And Fenwick Island has also had ongoing discussions of the problem of commercial-to-residential conversions, as well as the future of their dwindling commercial district.

AGDC members hope that requiring commercial use only on the ground floor in Bethany Beach will be a solution everyone finds acceptable. It would potentially preserve the commercial district while allowing for some high-value residential use.

Loose ends and landscaping

The committee also reviewed Schoellkopf’s drawings for alleyway improvements on May 22, pointing to landscaping and screening as key in improving their appearance. The town will consult its public works department as to how to make such aesthetic improvements without impinging upon access to Dumpsters and such.

Dealing with one potential loose end in the guidelines, committee members recommended a permit be required even to paint a commercial structure. Without that permit process, the committee realized, the town would have no way to check whether the property owners were conforming to new guidelines requiring “muted” colors on the bodies of buildings.

Schoellkopf noted it would add some work for the property owners and the town, since they will likely have to submit and have reviewed a sketch of their building, along with paint color samples. But committee members did not want to leave the guideline without enforcement ability.

Committee members were less satisfied with the options available to mesh finished-façade requirements with fire safety issues. With buildings required to be “finished” on all visible sides (no plain concrete block, for example), the possibility of an upper story left unfinished until the neighboring owner built up to that level loomed over the committee. But adding flammable façade materials to what might one day be built over was also troubling.

In the end, they targeted non-flammable finish materials, such as brick and cement shingles, as the option to solve the situation. The cement block prohibition stood, but property owners will be able to find solutions for finishing those side facades until their neighbors build to the same height.

While overall sign ordinance changes remain on the back burner for future consideration, the committee agreed that some forms of permanent awnings will be allowed. Committee members were also leaning toward allowing “blade” signs, but awaited Schoellkopf’s recommendations on styles and ordinance elements, as well as a legal opinion on whether they can be allowed and where.

C-2 district not quite ignored

Finally, Schoellkopf specifically addressed the C-2 district, on the western side of the town. Council and Committee member Lew Killmer admitted the district had not been a real focus for the committee, which had primarily looked at the C-1 district. Focusing on pedestrian-friendly solution in an area that most people would never walk to had never been suggested — until now.

Schoellkopf initially referred to possible work on a landscaped median for Route 26, but that was shot down with the realization that the Delaware Department of Transportation would need to be involved. Building Inspector John Eckrich noted the idea had previously been floated to the agency. “That’s more a project for 2015,” Graviet said with a laugh.

But Schoellkopf had other ideas for C-2, primarily involving moving parking to the rear of buildings while moving the buildings forward, creating a more customer- and pedestrian-friendly façade from the street. Burbage suggested connected parking lots and what would essentially be a service street connecting them.

Committee members noted the difficulty of getting the entire stretch of property owners to shift in that direction and make a cohesive project, but Schoellkopf said he was confident the project could be done in segments and still be successful. He said he would draw up a sketch for the town’s reference.

The bulk of the work yet to be done on the guidelines will be in drafting and reviewing the zoning ordinances that will put them in place and ensure required and prohibited elements are adhered to in the future. That will involve review by Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork, as well as the usual zoning process — including that eventual public hearing and council vote.

But committee members are hopeful they can keep on the timeline to have the guideline document (some 40 to 50 pages, will illustrations) complete and zoning elements adopted by the time the commercial construction moratorium expires in August.