Fenwick goes to survey

Fenwick Island’s controversial proposal to control home size with a floor-area ratio (FAR) netted calls for a referendum at this month’s second public hearing.

With a crowd of those strongly opposed to FAR supplementing a previously divided response, and formal statements being nearly evenly split, members of the town’s Charter and Ordinance Committee (COC) met within the week, on May 12, to consider amendments and how the town might best proceed.

The consensus of committee members was clear: While council can technically hold a second reading of the ordinance as it stands (or without significant changes) when it meets May 19 — and even vote to adopt it — the committee will instead recommend one significant change and a survey of all property owners to see how they feel about a revised ordinance.

It’s not quite a referendum, but it could satisfy many of the critics of the ordinance and the process that developed it.

The fall’s discussion of ongoing complaints over the size of new homes in the town resulted in a workshop with public input allowed in December 2005, and COC developed a draft ordinance, with two committee members (both council members) absent. A first reading was held in January, passed on a 5-2 council vote (those same council members opposed), with an amendment made in February.

The council set two public hearings (one more than required), for April and May, hoping more property owners would be able to attend in the spring than over the winter. Both hearings filled the town hall meeting room, with attendees at the April hearing roughly split on the proposed ordinance, while those at the May hearing (with few exceptions) were vociferously opposed.

COC Chairman and Councilman Harry Haon’s tally of formal stances raised some eyebrows and ire at that May hearing, when he cited a slight tipping of the balance in favor of FAR. Haon reiterated that tally May 12, noting he was counting only named speakers and letter writers who had voiced their opinion — and not those who had merely applauded or otherwise indicated their support for those speakers.

The town had received letters or formal, in-person comments at the two hearings from 48 people, Haon said. Of them, 26 favored FAR and 22 opposed it, he said.

“That’s pretty much 50/50,” he said May 12.

In addition to not accounting for more informal showing of opinion, that official tally also marks a limited response from the town’s property owners, as Haon has noted several times. Councilwoman and COC member Audrey Serio was in agreement on that.

“A 50/50 split on a small sample is just too narrow a margin,” she declared.

Referring to a previous survey conducted on a proposed ordinance regarding boat docks and lifts in the town’s canals, Haon said he felt such an opinion-collecting method did a better job than the standard notice the town mailed in March on FAR and the two hearings.

“The survey brought people out of the woodwork,” he said.

Moreover, Councilwoman and COC member Martha Keller said, “People thought it was fair.”

The format of the survey would be similar to the previous one, designed with space for comments to, as Haon said, give townsfolk “another crack” at voicing their opinions and making suggestions for changes. It would not be binding, Haon noted, in contrast to the formal referendum that had been called for at the May hearing.

“Suppose the results are overwhelmingly against FAR,” Haon said, noting they could also support the measure. “The council should weigh that in, but make a decision based on what they think is best for the town.”

COC member Ron Rayne agreed.

“The council can’t abdicate its responsibility,” he said, noting that a flat referendum on the issue wouldn’t account for the shades of gray that were already being expressed in opinions on the issue. “It’s not a yes or no question,” he emphasized.

Indeed, along with the lack of accounting for those who informally expressed opposition or support for FAR at the two hearings, Haon’s tally also divided formal responses into just two categories: for FAR or opposing it.

But some opinions have notably straddled the proverbial fence on the issue — favoring FAR in theory but desiring significant changes to be made, or opposing it in principle but desiring some kind of additional limits on home size in the town. While a yes/no referendum would be an easy answer for those opposing it in principle or in complete agreement with the ordinance as proposed, it would fail to deal with what could be the true majority opinion — somewhere in between the two extremes.

Sky’s the limit?

That stance was the source of the one amendment the committee agreed to recommend to the council. It was based on pointed arguments from resident Tim Collins, who said he didn’t oppose FAR as a concept but was deeply troubled by the hard size cap of 5,500 square feet in addition to the 70 percent limit proposed.

Collins owns one of the small minority of lots in the town that are considered “double lots,” roughly twice the size of a standard lot, though they also vary in size. Collins had said he’d purchased his lot with an eye toward eventually building a large enough house to accommodate his extended family. He was unhappy that the town might now limit the size of that house to a flat 5,500 square feet, without accounting for the scale of house to lot on the larger lots.

Indeed, Collins had noted he could subdivide the lot and built two 3,500-square-foot homes — well above the 5,500 square feet of lot coverage that was being proposed. He said the cap, in that case, would serve to push property owners to do just that — contrary to one intended purpose of FAR, to limit lot coverage.

The committee members were divided on the issue. Serio said she opposed any cap.

“I don’t think we should have a cap on square footage,” she said. “The existing setbacks serve their purpose.”

She also favored a simpler approach in principle, and for fairness. “We’re supposed to be accomplishing our goal with the percentage. Whether their lot is large or small, they should be able to build the same percentage.”

Keller agreed on that score. “It has a feeling of unfairness,” she said.

“It points a finger at people with large lots,” Serio added. “I have a little [lot], and I don’t think it’s fair.”

Haon, on the other hand, noted how few of the town’s lots would be impacted by a cap, saying 98 percent of the town’s existing homes meet FAR as proposed, with the cap. But, he emphasized, with a 7,200-square-foot home as the town’s current size champ, a lack of cap would mean 20 lots upon which homes could be built at twice that size. Indeed, some of those double lots could accommodate homes up to 15,000 square feet.

“I don’t think we can come out with FAR and say it will allow houses twice as big as the biggest house we have now,” Haon said. He emphasized concerns for future development, even if no property owner was currently planning such a palatial building project.

Rayne was also concerned. “We’ll end up getting a hotel masquerading as a house, with three or four families in it,” he said. “It’s not good for the town or people living nearby to have 20 people and 10 cars, and all that that brings.”

Serio noted rules that already limit how many can occupy a residence and control parking. But the impact on the changing population of the town would needed to be accounted for, she said.

Changing town, changing rules

“I don’t have a big house where all the family can come,” she said. “We’re not just a summer place anymore. I could also buy the lot in front of me and build a bigger house. And we already have limits on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. I should be able to do what I want to do — within a percentage that applies to everybody.”

In the end, it was compromise for the group. They tossed out the 5,500-square-foot cap. But, taking into account that potential for two 3,500-square-foot homes on a divided double lot, they exchanged it for a 7,500-square-foot cap.

That will be the single recommended change to the council on Friday, and if council agrees, the alteration for the FAR ordinance that will be the subject of the proposed survey.

The council is unlikely to take action on FAR until those results are back in, Haon said. “It’s not likely we’ll have a second reading in May. We’ll need time to do the survey.” He said a council vote at their June meeting was possible, though.

Other amendments rejected completely

Two other issues were rejected by the committee on May 12 as requiring changes to the proposed ordinance.

First, Haon noted some discussion of also including accessory buildings (sheds and detached garages) in the FAR calculation, particularly at the first public hearing, where there had been considerable support for FAR. That might also include ground-level areas of the home, which are not currently included since they are uninsurable by virtue of being in the flood plain and prohibited for some living-area uses by the town.

Building Official Patricia Schuchman noted inquiries with neighboring South Bethany (which already has its own FAR ordinance) had yielded the opinion that enforcing the ground-level element was the most problematic part of the ordinance in that town. Property owners routinely argued over the classification of the ground levels as living space versus storage, she was told.

Additionally, separate sheds are rare in the town, as are detached garages, due to setback requirements for the structures and demands for house size. The committee rejected the notion of including the areas in the ratio.

Finally, Haon said the question of grandfathering existing homes for rebuilding after damage from fire, storm or other such circumstances was simply moot.

While the issue was raised at the second public hearing on FAR, the town had clarified in the last few years its allowances for such rebuilding, to allow the reconstruction of all non-conforming structures destroyed or severely damaged under those types of circumstances, regardless of the scope of destruction. (The only exception to the allowance is for multiple dwellings on a single lot, which is no longer permitted at all.)

Property owners demolishing homes voluntarily, at 50 percent or more of the home’s structure, will be required to meet town code at the time of rebuilding, though — including FAR, if it is passed into law. (Schuchman noted some creative demolitions had allowed a wide range of projects in the past.)

The clarification meant committee members also rejected any notion of grandfathering existing homes not meeting the proposed FAR regulations. The increased size cap of 7,500 square feet will stand as the single new element recommended to the council on Friday, when they may choose to add it to the ordinance and survey the townsfolk for a wider sampling of opinions on the issue.