Fenwick's commercial future a concern

With the open format of Fenwick Island’s workshops-without-agenda (WWAs), nearly anything can come up for informal discussion and often does. At the town council’s April 8 WWA, the topics focused around the town’s commercial district and how it and the town as a whole will look in the future.

Kicking off the meeting, Councilman Chris Clark said he’d found an inequity in how the town was handling its parking regulations for commercial properties. While the town has strictly enforced regulations on restaurants, retail shops and other businesses, he said, little scrutiny had been put on St. Matthews-by-the-Sea church, which is classified as a commercial property and entity by the town.

Clark noted that in 2005 proposed changes to at least one business in the town — Mancini’s restaurant — had been shot down by the town council on the grounds that the property did not allow sufficient on-site parking to even potentially add a little customer seating in a waiting area.

In contrast, he noted, St. Matthews regularly has parishioners’ parked vehicles overflowing from its parking lot and onto the town’s streets.

“I don’t think it’s fair that others are capped while the church grows,” he said. “Something has to be done to make it fair for all the other businesses in the commercial district.”

Clark pointed out that other businesses – for example Jimmy’s Grille, Councilwoman Martha Keller provided — were capped by the town as to how much seating they could provide, based on parking availability.

However, Councilman Theo Brans — a member of St. Matthews — said he didn’t think the analogy was a fair one. “You can’t compare the church to a commercial property,” he said, even if there was some parking overflow. “It’s there four hours a week, on Sunday.”

But Councilwoman Audrey Serio said she’d also noticed problems on Tuesday nights, and Clark said there were other nights he’d seen overflow from the church onto the neighboring streets. Even though the church has an agreement with neighboring businesses to allow church parking during some hours, Clark noted that a similar sharing agreement for Mancini’s hadn’t impacted the council’s decision on the proposed expansion.

“We need to even the playing field,” Clark said. He emphasized that just as a retail store or restaurant owner’s mission is to expand his clientele, “It’s the reverend’s job to increase his congregation.” And the town could expect ongoing problems with parking at the church. (Brans did allow that with a new church planned on Route 54, it was possible that St. Matthews’ congregation might not grow as fast as it had in recent years.)

Mayor Peter Frederick said that perhaps the town could address some of the problem by changing hours in which permits were required to park on the street, but he noted that unless the church applied to the town for a permit to expand — such as to add more pews — the council couldn’t really do much under current legislation.

There, Serio provided the impetus to move ahead, saying she and Clark would get together and work to address the situation by drafting changes that would ensure other commercial properties and the businesses located on them would have the same kinds of opportunities to maximize growth and parking as the church.

Commercial district threatened

As a side note, Clark expressed ongoing apprehension about the future of the town’s commercial district, which has long been fraught with parking issues that many logically feel deter customers and keep commercial profit potential down in comparison to property values for residential development.

He noted the planned development of the former Libby’s property as two residential lots and a single commercial lot now for lease. And, he said, the venerable Dairy Queen was expected not to even open this summer — or perhaps ever again. Speculation, he said, was that the next time a Dairy Queen served an ice cream in the area, it would be from a as-yet-unbuilt Route 54 location.

But that’s not the only commercial property on Coastal Highway that might prove more valuable for residential development in the next few years, Clark emphasized.

“My shopping center will be bulldozed in a year or two,” Clark predicted, referring to his own business location on the east side of Coastal Highway, between Maryland and Delaware avenues, just outside the incorporated town. The site’s fate, he said, will undoubtedly be in residential development – as has been the case with many once-commercial lots on the highway in recent years.

Clark has worked with his Commercial Liaison Committee to see what the town can do to help accommodate business owners and encourage them to band together to keep the commercial district thriving. But the most recent news and rumors on that front left him less than optimistic.

Ensuring more parking options for the business community might help stem the tide a bit, he hopes.

Frederick and other council members were quick to emphasize that rumors of the Dairy Queen’s demise are just that — so far. The business has yet to file for its town business license for the coming summer season, but they noted that it was far from alone in that.

Additionally, they noted there are already several properties sale — with and without homes — on the highway, and it would seem a likely notion that those would need to sell before much more commercial property is targeted for redevelopment as residential property.

Signage, sidewalks and CDP — oh my!

On another aspect of the business front, Keller noted that the town does not have any ordinance or processes through which it can officially encourage business owners to make their signage attractive. They can control its size and location, but not other elements of its appearance.

Clark said that — in addition to a now-defunct signage committee — he had worked with Building Official Patricia Schuchman on the topic more recently. But they had given it up as a situation in which it was just easier to do nothing. There were already too many signs grandfathered under current allowances to make further regulation feasible, he said.

Further, Clark agreed with Frederick that the current mood of the town’s business owners toward the town made it a bad time to try to create additional regulation.

But Clark said a move toward such beautification would fall nicely under a Main Street USA program or similar effort, which would itself likely require the town complete its comprehensive development plan (CDP) before making such an undertaking.

Clark proposed (in absentia) at the last formal council meeting that the town request a proposal from the University of Delaware’s Institute of Public Administration (IPA) to help develop the CDP, and that has moved forward. Once the lengthy CDP process is done, the town can more easily pursue grants and programs such as Main Street USA, making larger issues of the town’s appearance a topic for later discussion.

Indeed, Frederick said that while the town had considered working on a sidewalks project, that notion had been put on the back burner while the town awaited action from the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), which normally controls (and largely pays for) such projects. He said the town couldn’t justify paying for such an expense on its own, when it normally is paid for by the state.

While all those projects may remain on the back burner until the CDP is completed, Frederick noted the CDP process would also require the town to potentially chart some 200 open well heads, in lieu of charting the town water system Fenwick Island does not have — a necessary process, but lengthy.

And the town also has a time factor to deal with, he said. With some 200 “teardowns” — small, older homes that are likely candidates for being torn down to build larger homes — the town, he said, needs a plan to try to preserve them. That kind of plan also comes under the CDP process, which the town will likely begin tackling later this year, with help from the IPA.