Signs of flexibility in Fenwick Island

Fenwick Island Town Council members made an adjustment to the town’s signage ordinance at their April 28 meeting, permitting business owners to share their allotted square-footage of signage between as many as three separate signs.

The businesses are still limited to as much signage in square feet as they have linear feet of frontage, a 1:1 ratio. So there is no net increase in the amount of signage permitted in the town. But they will now be allowed to use that allotted amount through multiple signs over multiple entrances or units.

The amendment, originally proposed by Council Member and Commercial Liaison Committee Chairman Chris Clark, came out of several existing situations where business owners have expanded into neighboring commercial space but the former occupants’ signs went unused and came into disrepair, since the newly expanded businesses were only allowed to use their original, single sign.

“This is more or less a maintenance issue,” Clark explained to his fellow council members. He said Building Official Patricia Schuchman had received requests to use and update the signs from some of the commercial tenants in those cases but had been unable to grant the requests due to the existing restriction to a single sign. The resulting vacant and unmaintained signs were often pointed to as an eyesore.

“Hopefully, this will make them more presentable,” Clark suggested.

The ordinance change also served a second purpose, as explained by Council Member Harry Haon in introducing the measure. He noted some businesses — particularly those in the Village of Fenwick – have multiple entrances used by customers. The allowance for multiple signs allows them to place their signage above as many as three entrances, or two entrances and a display window, for instance.

Both councilmen emphasized that there was no increase in total signage space as a result of the ordinance, with the payoffs of greater flexibility for business owners and better maintenance for the town’s appearance.

But the benefits eluded Councilwoman Martha Keller, who concluded a series of clarifying questions with, “I’m trying to envision the enhancement” provided by the change.

Continuing her stated opposition to the increase in number of signs, if no more square footage, Keller cast the lone dissenting vote on the issue, which passed on the 5-1 split (Council Member Theo Brans absent).

Keller was on the defensive with her presentation to the council regarding the body’s commissioner positions. She said she’d been challenged by Mayor Peter Frederick to define how her position as commissioner on environmental matters served the townsfolk of Fenwick Island.

In response, she pointed to elements of the town’s visioning workshop, in which she said citizens had said they wanted cleaner bays, and efforts by the town’s environmental committee to work on issues such as shellfish repopulation. She also mentioned efforts to encourage bicycle riding within the town and thereby reduce traffic and pollution. And, she said, “Air pollution respects no boundaries,” making the issue of concern to all.

Keller also cited planned work to restore nearby Seal Island, which had stirred Frederick’s original inquiry on the subject. She noted that the island is part of the town’s view on the bay side and a roosting spot for native birds, and also a spot at which some townsfolk moor their boats from time to time. But, she emphasized, work restoring the island was to be paid for by a grant, not with town tax dollars.

Frederick said he’d asked for the commissioner position to be defined as benefiting the town’s citizens to ensure no tax dollars would be spent for any projects outside the town without full council approval.

Haon, meanwhile, praised the work of Keller and her committee on the environmental front, particularly with keeping the townsfolk informed and involved.

A recent snag in the town administration also played out April 28, with Council Member Vicki Carmean asking for a clearer policy on use of the town hall by local groups. The most recent policy set by the council had asked for a $50 fee for events held in town hall — $40 as a refundable amount, with a $10 non-refundable cleaning fee. (Frederick noted the amount was meant to mirror the $50 fee for bonfires.)

But Carmean said there had been some confusion as to what groups and events were required to pay the fee. She noted that some groups paid a smaller annual fee to the town for use of the building, while other groups were not being charged for some types of meetings but were charged for events involving food.

The policy was unclear, she said, and caused confusion for staff members and group representatives, and some considerably consternation, when it came time to reserve the space. She asked council to clarify the policy for action at the end of May, toward the end that all groups were being treated the same and all staff members could easily make a reservation without any confusion on either end.

Also at the April 28 meeting, Council Member Audrey Serio asked for, and received, council’s unanimous agreement for an emergency expenditure to replace one of the town’s police cars. The car in question was scheduled for replacement in the coming fiscal year, but it had recently died, she explained.

Under a lease-purchase agreement through the state, the car would cost approximately $28,000, with $8,000 paid this year (under the emergency expenditure) and two additional payments in coming years. She warned that additional expenses might be entailed in equipping the vehicle.

Council members were in agreement with the basic idea, since it was merely an earlier replacement, but Carmean said she would prefer the police department consider fuel economy in the future and perhaps choose lighter vehicles for police cars.

Serio noted that the current, heavier type of car is standard and required to perform the job safely. But the council members also agreed that the police department’s current overage on gas expenses was only likely to get worse.

Also on the financial front, the council was told the town’s real estate transfers continue to be slow, with only a single transfer in the month of March. Additionally, the anticipated amount of building permit fees is also falling short, by some $100,000 as of April 1. They were estimated to be some $80,000 short for the fiscal year ending in June.

In other action at the April 28 meeting:

Carmean proposed and received agreement to allow town employees to form a blood-bank group, but discussion of having the town pay the $5-per-person fee for the employees to join the blood bank was tabled until May, so it could be properly advertised as up for council action.
Mailing of the FIN Letter was anticipated on May 1, with hurricane and flood information included in the publication, as well as residential parking permits being mailed in conjunction with it. Any citizen not receiving the mailing was asked to call town hall and ensure Sussex County was notified of their current (and possibly new) mailing address.
Frederick noted that the median strip project had come in well under original estimates ($334,000 total, with $26,000 cost to the town) at $177,000, plus $19,000 in plant material costs. Of that cost, only $7,000 was to be paid for by the town — amounting to just $500, plus the time Public Works Supervisor Neil Hanrahan put in on the project.

Hanrahan noted that DelDOT officials were eager to bring the project to a close and turn it over to the town. A one-year guarantee on plants, with $14,000 of fees still held for replacement costs, will help ensure the project is a complete success. A normal, 5 percent loss was noted thus far.
Clark said the long-planned Aqualathon event had been canceled for this year, due to the lack of a benefiting organization. The proposed donation to the Friends of the (Fenwick Island) Lighthouse had been refused, he noted.
With regret, Frederick noted the resignation of Town Administrator Helen Torres, who elected not to return to her duties after a recent illness. Torres served in the position for five years.

The town’s initial research into a possible town manager has been concluded, with a report due to the council in the near future and expected to then result in a search for someone to fill such a position.
Officials promised to look into an apparent downswing in the adherence of dog owners to dog waste ordinances in the town. The recent beach cleanup netted universal complaints from volunteers as to how much dog waste they encountered, on and off the beach.

While some fingers pointed to out-of-town visitors as the culprits, the problem was universally identified as a serious health and beach-use issue. Possible requirements for dog-walkers to carry bags were mentioned.