Bethany fine-tunes commercial guidelines

As Bethany Beach nears the midway point in its 180-day commercial building moratorium and a mandated public report on progress toward new commercial architecture guidelines, the draft plan is reaching the fine-tuning stages.

Members of Bethany Beach’s Architectural Guideline Development Committee for the C-1 and C-2 Zoning Districts (AGDC) met May 11 to review the most recent draft copy of the guidelines and make needed changes to transform the document from its initial appearance as Ocean City, Md.’s downtown architecture guide to something more appropriate for the city’s smaller, quieter, northern neighbor.

Though they spent more than two hours going through the document page by page, committee members noted they had only received the document the prior afternoon, with limited time to read it in detail. They agreed to ask for future drafts with more lead time on scheduled and advertised meetings of the committee.

That snafu aside, AGDC Chairwoman and Vice Mayor Carol Olmstead agreed with committee member and developer Jack Burbage that the draft was, overall, “great stuff.”

In fine-tuning the document, though, they noted a number of clarifications of the town’s stance on architectural issues under the draft:

• There will be no formal system of incentives to preserve “special” or historical structures in the commercial district. Committee members were in agreement that no existing structures particularly stood out as needing preservation.

• While walkway width is an element of the town’s Streetscape plan, it will not be a specific element involving the commercial property owners, but rather as part of the “big picture” in an effort involving all downtown stakeholders.

• The guidelines will encourage, but not require, generous porches with large-scale columns.

• Requirements in the commercial zone will include underlying zoning requirements and both will be included in the guideline document, to make the process easier on property owners and developers.

• Residential use will be prohibited on the ground level of all structures in the district, in favor of commercial use only and permitted mixed use, with residential above commercial.

• With that in mind, as well as general issues of building mass, the town will encourage — but not mandate — an additional 8-foot setback on stories above 24 feet. The setback would allow for an overlooking porch on residential units above ground-level commercial use, it was noted.

• The town will also encourage, but not require, neighboring structures to be of similar height. That would recognize both the slow nature of future change and a desire for similarity of finished structures in a future downtown commercial district. Multiple stories (versus single stories) will also be encouraged but not required.

• The town will prohibit Mansard roofs specifically, identifying the style as inconsistent with the designs in the area. (Mansard roofs have two segments: steeply pitched or near-vertical, rising to a low-sloped or flat roof at the center.)

• Transparent glass will be encouraged on storefronts, versus translucent glass block or false windows, to encourage interaction between the street and interiors of commercial structures.

• As part of that interactive aspect, the town will continue to allow outside café seating (currently permitted where space allows) but will reconsider the issue of outside display of merchandise and sidewalk sales.

Currently, the town permits businesses to display merchandise outside on portions of walkways the businesses control. But committee members agreed such displays were “too ticky tacky” and decided to put ordinance change issues forward to the town’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee, perhaps to allow temporary displays for sidewalk sales, by permit.

Committee members were vexed by the subject of perhaps requiring front façade materials to wrap around to the side, particularly in the case of units where future construction on neighboring units would later hide that side façade.

Building Inspector John Eckrich was concerned about the fire safety of using added, potentially flammable materials instead of a plain concrete or cinderblock wall, which the committee has sought to prohibit as an exterior surface on aesthetic grounds. The committee wanted to consult with architectural consultant Jeff Schoellkopf on the issue, with Echrich saying he’d like to see where Schoellkopf’s recommendation was coming from.

“I don’t want to see a 30-foot-high block wall either,” he added.

Eckrich was also to compile a more comprehensive list of allowable exterior finishes, and committee members specifically moved to allow some kinds of vinyl siding — namely the Cedar Impressions type of vinyl siding that give the impression (literally) of cedar shingles, which are a preferred exterior material for the group.

Finishing out their list, the committee members dealt with issues of color. Noting some aesthetically pleasing structures that didn’t fall into draft requirements for a “light and muted” tone, they moved to require only “muted” tones, leaving bright colors as the only prohibitions.

Questions of subjectivity were even more pointed in the discussion of wall paintings and murals. The “public art” section of the guidelines includes murals, sculptures, fountains and other such features as items that could be included in a design plan. But the committee members were loathe to take on themselves or impose on town officials the job of art critic.

In particular, Eckrich noted he was leery about making any such decisions.

As it stands, some town officials — Eckrich included — will be making some subjective decisions as part of the review process connected to the guidelines. Under Councilman Lew Kilmer’s suggested procedures, over which the committee had little disagreement, plans for commercial building or renovations will go through a series of steps for approval.

(1) Plans will first go to Eckrich, who will determine if they require a full review under the architectural guidelines (for all construction, major repairs or major renovations to the exterior) or are not subject to them (as in the case of minor repairs or other small renovations). That decision could be disputed, with an appeal to the town council if property owners feel they are not subject.

(2) Plans determined to be subject to the guidelines will be submitted to a review board comprising a consulting architect, the town’s building inspector (currently Eckrich) and a representative of the town council (likely the council’s representative on the Planning Commission — currently Killmer).

(3) If plans are found to be acceptable under the guidelines, according to the review board, Eckrich would issue a permit for the project.

If found to be not acceptable, the property owners and their representatives would be asked to make any recommended changes to bring the design into alignment with the guidelines. They could appeal such a decision to the Board of Adjustments (for zoning-specific issues only) or to the town council (for general issues with the guidelines).

The consensus on the review process for committee members: It will reward developers who comply with the guidelines by smoothing their way through the process. Provide a complying plan (or, better yet, an exemplary one) and the process goes quickly. Submit a plan that doesn’t meet the board’s approval, and required revisions will cost time — and time equals money for developers, committee members agreed.

As for murals and other public art — comfortable with the job of art critic or not, the review board members will be tasked with making decisions on the murals and such, after being provided with a required photo or drawing as part of the process.

The fine-tuning on the guidelines brings the committee to another draft, with a May 23 meeting already scheduled (10 a.m. at the town hall). The town council and public will receive the mandated update on the project at the council’s May 26 meeting, with draft copies of the guidelines available to them to study.

With that move, the focus of the committee shifts to the application of the guidelines through any needed zoning code changes. Town Manager Cliff Graviet said a working copy of the changes would be going to Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork, with Eckrich’s input on which rose to the level of zoning issues and would have the force of law.

The emphasis on the zoning is targeted at keeping the town on its timetable to have the new code in place before the moratorium expires on Aug. 9.