Amid continued concern from citizens about the potential impact of floor-area ratio on their properties and the division the issue has caused in the town, members of the Fenwick Island Town Council on May 19 voted unanimously (Theo Brans absent) to take the proposed FAR ordinance to a town-wide survey, while also adjusting the ordinance’s cap upward to 7,500 square feet from the original 5,500 square feet.
Two council members — Vicki Carmean and Audrey Serio — abstained from the vote to raise the cap, Serio citing the minimal impact of the change (only affecting 25 lots of the town’s 700) and Carmean declaring she found the numbers to be arbitrary, as well as her concern that the town continued to add regulation to regulation on property use.
“Where do we go from here?” Carmean asked her fellow council members. “Do we keep going with the rules? I think we have enough rules.”
Carmean also commented on the division the proposed ordinance has created in the town, particularly in the wake of improved unity in the last few years after a recent history of discord over other issues in town government.
“This is dividing the citizens,” she said. “We had united them by working together.”
And while the town’s “visioning” workshops and desires expressed therein to preserve the town’s character have often been referred to as the basis of developing FAR, Carmean disputed whether home size was the real focus of such comments.
“This did not come out of the vision workshops,” she declared. “Preserving the character of the town has been translated by someone into meaning small houses.”
“FAR never came up,” Council Member Harry Haon allowed, “but there was a sense that it was needed.”
“At the vision workshops, there was a general sense that people wanted to preserve the look and feel of the town,” Council Member Chris Clark emphasized.
“People commented that they wanted to try to keep Fenwick Island as it is,” Mayor Peter Frederick added. “They varied on the specifics. For some people, that means small houses.”
Public comment on May 19 supported Carmean’s view however, with resident Linda Bunting declaring, “The vision workshops were a waste of time.”
Bunting said she had attended the workshops but had found she was a minority in the small working group she was assigned to and that her opinions were ignored and never presented to the larger group. Individual groups dealt with different issues, limiting the ability of those other voices to be expressed to town officials, Bunting stated. She said the issue had been blown out of proportion by that format.
“The council should represent its constituents. They should listen to what the majority wants,” she advised.
And, with only 25 properties given more leeway under the council-approved change that night, FAR opponent Bonnie Ledanum asked, “What about the rest of us?”
Carmean said she felt that the 70 percent FAR proposed was enough of a limit on home size, without any cap, and she was unpersuaded that there was any logical basis on the numbers that had been selected for that cap.
Haon explained the new 7,500-square-foot cap came in the wake of concerns expressed about the impact of the original 5,500-square-foot cap specifically on large or “double” lots.
He said the figure was the result of a compromise between two proposals (for 7,000 or 8,000 as the cap) and also similar to the size of the town’s largest existing home. He cited the ability of a property owner to potentially build a 15,000-square-foot home on a double lot as a future concern and reason enough for a cap.
But siding with Carmean on the issue, Serio also has said that the town’s setbacks and height limits, along with that percentage limit, should be sufficient controls.
Other residents supported existing regulations as sufficient and noted the divide the issue has raised between townsfolk.
“FAR is wrecking the town,” Forrest Boettcher declared. “And it’s not needed.”
Boettcher said citizens were far more concerned about the town’s height limits than imposing FAR. He said many houses could stand to be raised 2 feet, to get them out of the flood plain.
Clark agreed there might also be room for future changes on that end of things.
“FAR is one of many different ways the town is addressing these issues. Height could well be next,” he said. “Is FAR a magic bullet? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see in the survey.”
As for the need to pursue FAR, Clark said, “We’re trying to create a sense of order. We’re trying to do what’s best for the town.”
With the reminder to concerned citizens that the individual council members would be able to analyze the survey results and recommend changes or even decide to vote against it entirely, Frederick declared FAR to be far from a done deal.
But Boettcher was unconvinced, saying he felt, “Most of the council members are for it.”
The objections were a neat segue for Frederick to June 21’s filing deadline for three council seats. The mayor said, “I would encourage those who have opinions on FAR to file.” Frederick, Haon and Carmean are all up for possible re-election.
As it stands, council members expected to get the survey ready within a week or so. It will be sent to all property owners, and should be returned by mid-June. (Town staff noted that those who don’t receive it need to ensure their current addresses are updated with the town and Sussex County, which provides those addresses to Fenwick Island. Parking passes also recently went out with the town newsletter — a $10 fee is assessed for replacement tags.)
From there, the results will be tabulated by town staff, with expectations of a report to council in late June or early July. Council members split on whether to go ahead and schedule another public hearing on any aspect of FAR, opting instead to wait for the survey results.
Also on May 19:
• On a pair of unanimous votes (6-0), council members adopted legislation incorporating the National Incident Management System in the town’s emergency preparedness plans. Town staff and several council members were trained on the system in recent weeks, and it is required for the town to receive federal grants and assistance.
The change also eliminated the old system of block captains to monitor emergency response and evacuation, in favor of police and town staff trained in those areas.
• Council members also voted unanimously to pay the $5-per-person membership fee for town employees to join a blood bank group, citing the potential savings to them for blood products as members of a group, versus individual membership. The cost to the town was estimated at $85.
• The council found a potential $9,600 tab more difficult to swallow, electing to only stick their toes in the water for the proposed banner project that would display decorative, seasonal banners on utility poles on Coastal Highway inside town limits. They favored purchasing the hardware needed and a single set of the flags, instead of the proposed three seasonal sets, authorizing the use of some $3,600 in unspent funds from the current budget.
• Surf’s Edge restaurant received another unanimous vote, in favor of allowing it to display throughout the summer seaon a 6-by-3-foot banner honoring its recent win as Delaware Today magazine’s Best Deli in Downstate Delaware.
• Council members gave limited support to Councilwoman Martha Keller’s “Operation Fish Tank,” which aims to bring 35 additional oyster farmers into the Center for the Inland Bays project targeted at cleaning the bays. The council voted unanimously to grant half of the requested $1,400 for materials to construct oyster “float frames.” The $700 grant will be taken from unspent monies in the town’s general fund.
• Building Official Patricia Schuchman noted plans to archive and destroy records dating from 1952 that have been stored at town hall. D-date for the files: July 21, with time left for citizens to request copies of those records. Schuchman also reported that property appraisals were under way in the town, with new tax bills to go out for those being appraised this time out.
• Beach Patrol Captain Tim Ferry reported weekend lifeguard coverage would be provided through June 4, with full-time coverage set to start June 10. A few spots on the squad remained open, with tryouts set for May 28. Some 25 lifeguards were expected to return this year, averaging three years of experience. Some $57,000 in state funds has been received by the town in exchange for guards on the state park beach bordering the town, while the county has sent along another $10,000.
• The town again recorded not a single real estate transfer in the previous month, April. The situation continues to raise concern for the town’s financial future, since transfer taxes have become a substantial portion of its revenue each budget year.
• Mayor Peter Frederick noted the appearance of a new resident who apparently enjoys the replenished beach and dunes. He said a gray fox had been sighted running south on the beach. “Just gorgeous,” he declared it.