Bethany approves height allowance

Members of the Bethany Beach Town Council approved on April 21 a revised version of the controversial residential height allowance proposed by the town’s Planning Commission and Zoning Ad Hoc Committee (ZAC), with a 5-1 vote.

The change allows the option for homes in the town’s R-1 zoning district to be built to a maximum of 35 feet above the surrounding grade, provided at least 60 percent of the roof is constructed at a 7:12 or higher pitch. The compromise measure eliminated the possibility of building to 35 feet above base flood elevation and prohibits a fourth floor of livable space.

That brings to three the number of height cap options for homes in that district. For other homes (and those in the R-2 district) property owners continue to have a choice of measuring systems — either measuring from base flood elevation or the height of the fronting street, to allow for variations in properties’ elevation and raising the home to help prevent flood damage and reduce insurance rates. The cap for either of those options is 31 feet.

The new measure was designed to encourage property owners to build homes on which the roofs have a steeper pitch – often considered to be more aesthetically pleasing and to lessen the sense of “massing” as larger homes are built in the town. It was specifically emphasized as an option, allowing a greater variety of home designs to be created and greater flexibility for architects and home designers, without penalizing the resulting project for livable space under a higher roof.

Opponents of the measure — including Mayor Jack Walsh, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the council — cited concern over any additional height being allowed in a town where property owners have routinely complained about the so-called “McMansions” increasingly being constructed in place of smaller, traditional beach cottages.

“I concluded the curb appeal value was not worth the increased size of the house,” Walsh said in explaining his vote. “I feel larger home designs are in conflict with the values of the survey,” he added, referencing the town’s 2004 community questionnaire, in which most respondents opposed high-density development and significant changes in the existing housing makeup. (Larger single-family homes were not specifically addressed in the survey, but multi-family dwellings were roundly discouraged.)

Former Mayor Joseph McHugh continued to voice his opposition to the measure at the public hearing prior to the vote, particularly noting that it applied only to the R-1 zone and not the R-2 zone (where lots are wider, theoretically allowing more building options already), and questioning whether the trend would soon expand into the R-2 or even C-1 or C-2 commercial zones.

As in the past, McHugh said he felt the town’s homes were sufficiently varied and could be built in an aesthetically pleasing way under the existing 31-foot height cap.

“The only ones I see benefiting from this are builders and architects. It’s useless space,” McHugh said. “There’s no benefit, except to bigger McMansions, which all the towns around here are trying to control.”

Former Council Member Jane Fowler also agreed on the aesthetics potential of the smaller homes, causing an interesting exchange between herself and residential designer Greg Hastings, who favored the measure.

Hastings designed Fowler’s home. She praised his work and how he had created a unique and appealing structure that allowed plenty of space for herself and her extended family, all under 31 feet. But Hastings argued that he could have created an even more appealing home with the additional 5 feet of roof allowance with which to work.

Property owner Tracy Mulligan said he believed the increased height was consistently opposed by citizens and favored by architects and builders. Despite the latter groups’ arguments that home design would benefit, “I’m still not persuaded,” he declared. “I guess I have more faith in your ability to design for the 31-foot limit than you do,” he told Hastings.

Indeed, the consistent message from the town’s builders and architects has been that they want — if not need — the extra design freedom granted with the height allowance. And they’re more than willing to comply with the pitch requirement to get it. Many of them have noted they already try to use a steeper pitch in their designs.

Architect John Hendrickson and builder Mike Cummings, who served as advisors to ZAC on this and other issues, both lined up in favor of the allowance. Cummings noted the trend against small homes in the town and said the town was going to have to get used to the idea of larger homes — and do their best to make sure they were aesthetically pleasing despite their size.

“Nobody is going to go back to building 1,500-square-foot cottages,” he said. The sentiment was echoed by resident Faith Denault, who said, “Like it or not, change is coming to this town.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of an attractive resort town in Bethany Beach. “Our only competition for character is in Lewes,” Cummings opined, referencing the building boom in neighboring South Bethany that has firmly been in the mode of the “big boxes” the committee and townsfolk have adamantly opposed.

In contrast, Hendrickson cited the charm of the town’s older cottages in the complex, pitched rooflines that they often sported.

Resident Lauren Alberti said she believed the steeper roof pitches amount to better aesthetics, and she championed the expertise and motives of the builders, designers and architects who were advising the town on the issue. “I doubt sincerely they will make $5 more money on a house, but they know what makes a house look more appealing,” she said.

Council Secretary/Treasurer Tony McClenny recused himself from the vote that Friday night, citing a conflict of interest in the ongoing construction for his redesigned home in the town’s Sea Villas community. McClenny noted that he had originally expected that such a zoning change would not be in place until after his home was completed later this year but that the timetable had proceeded much more quickly. As a result, plans for the home had been revised to comply with the proposed regulations.

But with construction under way, he had recently received notice that the home was not in compliance with current town codes, he said. He was given 90 days to correct the issue, he noted. As a result of the ongoing problem with his own home, he said he could not in conscience vote on the ordinance change.

Without additional comment, the other five council members voted in favor of the change, passing the measure on a 5-1 vote and completing what Walsh had described as a two- to three-year process involving the town council, planning commission and citizens in efforts to improve and preserve the town’s residential aesthetics.