Work is under way on Bethany Beach’s proposed new architectural guidelines for its commercial district. The Architectural Guideline Development Committee for C-1 and C-2 Zoning Districts (AGDC) met April 13 – the first gathering of the group since they met with architect Jeff Schoellkopf in March, in anticipation of the town hiring him to consult on the project.
Their homework from that March 17 meeting was to absorb the topics Schoellkopf had advised them to consider in drafting a set of architectural guidelines and to make decisions as to what they felt the guidelines should encourage, accept and prohibit, in preparation for an April 25 meeting with Schoellkopf to go over initial draft ideas.
Along with those instructions, the committee members had in hand copies of the Ocean City Downtown Design Guidelines – developed, in part, by Schoellkopf – and the list of considerations he had advised them to consider. Schoellkopf plans to use the Ocean City plan as a basic framework, making changes and additions based on how the committee members – and the town as a whole – feel about those elements and their potential impact on the character of the town.
The Ocean City plan focuses on three levels of response to each element – recommend/encourage, permit and prohibit. And each element featured in Schoellkopf’s considerations for the town officials to mull over as they work on their draft.
Topping that list for the AGDC was an already controversial topic in the town – building height. The recent efforts by the Bethany Beach Planning Commission and its Zoning Ad Hoc Committee (ZAC) to encourage steeper roof pitches (above 7:12) by allowing an increased height of up to 35 feet were met with mixed reviews and went back to the commissioners for some revisions. (They’ll be up for another public hearing before the April 21 council meeting.)
Discussions of height in the commercial district have already resulted in a variety of opinions. Some favor lower heights, favoring keeping intact what is – in some cases – a single or two-story tradition. Others – including Schoellkopf and developer Jack Burbage, who sits on the committee – have championed higher limits that might enable more design flexibility.
Indeed, Burbage was among the first proponents of such a height increase to speak April 13, saying, “I would encourage you to allow additional non-habitable elements above the maximum height.” Comparing two similar buildings with and without an added height allowance, he said, “You’d be surprised at the aesthetic differences between the two.”
Town Manager Cliff Graviet also voiced support for considering some leeway on height, saying height ought to be considered as an element of design. Graviet said concerns over the visual impact on neighboring residences would be minimal, since most have large back yards that minimize that perception.
Council Member Lew Killmer also favored the consideration of height in aesthetics, opining that the town should look to encourage spires and other such elements while discouraging flat roofs. He did note that an increased allowance should be considered in light of neighboring buildings, which initially might be smaller than those renovated or built under a revised code. The new buildings should blend in, he said.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink agreed on that front, but Vice Mayor Carol Olmstead – who chairs the AGDC – pointed out that, over time, the trend would be toward the new guidelines, making the district cohesive in the long run.
Building Inspector John Eckrich further emphasized the ability of the owners of large commercial lots to break buildings into smaller groupings of facades, rather than trying to fit a larger building under a single roofline. He suggested the committee be specific in what non-habitable structures would be allowed in the additional height proposed: spires, chimneys, cupolas – lest someone come along and try to push the envelope with something the town wouldn’t favor in that space.
Killmer noted that other elements the suggested height allowance would encourage would be things such as hip roofs and gable ends – elements that give more visual interest than a box-style façade, he said. While the box-style structure might be the cheapest to build, he added, more complex designs look better and would better meet the aesthetic desired in the town.
The discussion of roof pitch related to residential structures reappeared, with the consensus of committee members favoring a similar allowance – up to 36 feet in maximum height for those using a 7:12 or higher pitch over the bulk of the structure, with those non-habitable elements, compared to 31 feet.
“If you want to allow them to put a nice roof on that building, obviously, creating that extra few feet to do that would be a good thing,” Graviet advised. With a solid consensus this time, they agreed to favor such a set of height rules.
There was also solid support for continued mixed use in the commercial district. The town has a little-known history of placing residential space for business owners or employees above commercial space in the downtown area, and committee members agreed it was a trend that should not be discouraged – especially considering the cost of residential property and rent.
The major concern there was in how to ensure adequate parking would be provided. Eckrich confirmed that, for zoning purposes, a residential space over commercial would be considered an apartment – requiring a single off-street parking space be supplied, as opposed to the two currently required of standalone residences.
It was a neat transition into the third item on Schoellkopf’s list – porches. The consensus, led by Killmer, was that porches should be allowed or encouraged – so long as they remain within the footprint of the building. Other elements, such as awnings, might be allowed to extend out, though.
That raised the issue varying ground-floor heights for the buildings and how they might achieve handicapped access under tighter regulations than when many were built. The impact of that issue reaches beyond the access itself and into how the property owners want to handle flood protection, Eckrich noted, referencing the downtown area’s elevation averaging just 8 feet above sea level.
The building inspector said the decision would be between raising the buildings’ ground level – as most residences in the town have – or floodproofing a ground floor that was essentially on the ground. With the former, there would be ramps or elevators required for access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). With the latter, it’s an expensive prospect that may not be as practical as it might sound, Echrich said.
“Can you really floodproof a building?” he asked somewhat rhetorically, explaining to the committee that floodproofing requires not only impact-resistant windows and doors on that lower floor but also someone to manually install a flood gasket when flooding is anticipated and to pump the gasket up into the operational position. Neither would be 100 percent protection. And the insurance costs of the choice might also be higher.
Killmer was clear on that choice. “We shouldn’t force people to floodproof,” he said. The committee members agreed, deciding to encourage commercial-property owners to use raised ground floors while not restricting them from choosing floodproofing instead.
Schoellkopf’s list of considerations also included recommendations or prohibitions in terms of the forms and materials of construction, as well as other aesthetic and practical elements. Committee members decided to:
•Forms – Encourage a variety of styles among those in keeping with the town’s coastal resort tradition. Cottage-style structures are not required, but the ultra-modern, industrial style involving steel and glass was targeted as one the town would seek to prohibit. Schoellkopf was to be asked to better define the committee’s desires.
•Materials – Permit or encourage the more traditional shingle and clapboard exterior materials but prohibit aluminum and vinyl siding, as well as exposed concrete block. Porches will have 6-by-6-inch or larger posts.
•Signage – The topic was tabled to be handled as a separate issue, especially in light of the expedited timetable for a draft of the proposed guidelines, by the end of May.
•Design quality – Require a professional to create the proposed design.
•Color – Discourage dark and contrasting colors, and instead encourage commercial-property owners to build with the inspiration of some suggested color “concepts” the town offer but not mandate.
•Administration – Put the principal decision-making into the hands of the building inspector, who will decide which projects fall under the new guidelines and, likely with a contracted architect (perhaps Schoellkopf) and perhaps a member of the town council, review the pertinent applications for compliance and make suggestions to meet the ideals.
•Parking – Keep the bulk of existing requirements in place, with suggestions to put as much off-street parking as possible behind the commercial structures and off alleyways, if possible, with as much screening as possible.
The incentives for complying with the “encouraged” standards were another item the AGDC elected to put off. That element of the ZAC proposals has proven to be among the trickiest, and committee members again emphasized that they are “under the gun” to produce draft guidelines as soon as possible, with the details to enforce them coming later.
Technical difficulties prevented the committee from bringing Schoellkopf in from his Vermont headquarters with a conference call, but the committee’s thoughts on his list of considerations were to go to him in time for a new draft of the plan before their planned April 25 in-person meeting.
From there, the committee will continue to work on the plan until presenting a final draft to the public in May. The guidelines – with their zoning enforcement elements – are due to be in place by the end of the summer, in time for projects that are currently on hold to move forward under the new guidelines.