Fenwick Island residents split on FAR

Fenwick Island residents appear to be divided on the issue of floor-area ratio (FAR). The proposed control on overall home size has been instituted in other coastal towns, such as neighboring South Bethany and Rehoboth Beach. But it is inevitably controversial, since it could substantially limit property owners’ ability to build homes on the higher end of the size scale.

Fenwick Islanders were granted their first opportunity to make public comment on the proposed 70 percent FAR limit and 5,500-square-foot cap on April 1 — and there was no joking at this April Fool’s Day hearing. Things were decidedly serious as those on both sides of the debate voiced their opinions on the merits and problems of the proposed ordinance.

On the negative side — nearly all agreed that they were reluctant to limit property owners’ rights to build on their property. But there was also the question of how much freedom could be allowed and not result in that freedom causing imposition to one’s neighbors.

“The exercise of your rights can take away from the neighbor’s rights,” said resident Charlie Farmer.

Indeed, resident Dave Reifschneider said he’d been severely impacted by the building of a new home next to his own Fenwick Island residence. He referred to the large structure as a “monstrosity.” And though he allowed that the property owners had built the home in compliance with existing town ordinances, the negative impact on his family had been extreme, he said.

“We lost all our morning sun. … We lost our ocean view,” he said, noting that they’d previously been able to at least spy a sliver of ocean at an angle. Additionally, he said, with another house built at the rear of his home, they’d totally lost any access to a breeze, forcing the family to use air conditioning and close up their windows instead of sometimes enjoying the fresh air as they previously had.

With the air conditioning, Reifschneider said, came noise — from as many as four units all placed on the same side of a shared alleyway. And the parking woes of the small town were only increased, he said, by a minimal two off-street parking spaces for some very large homes that often hosted multiple generations of a family. Furthermore, he said town ordinances had allowed his neighbors to build an upper-story fireplace whose external features jut into the existing setbacks.

Reifschneider noted that he’d heard that some members of the town council were opposed to instituting greater controls on such building and questioned the assembled council (Theo Brans absent) as to why they might be opposed.

Noting the focus on public input at the April 1, hearing, council members declined to answer — some emphasizing they were waiting for public input before making up their minds on the issue. Input they would get.

Reifschneider was not alone in his tales of woe from large homes built by neighbors.

Resident Nick Valenti stated, “I’m about to become a victim. I’m about to lose my bay view and sunsets.” He noted that the neighboring property had spent only three weeks on the market — despite being an older, smaller cottage without air conditioning. The $670,000 price tag, he emphasized, was for the land, not the home, which would soon be torn down. He recommended not just the FAR ordinance but a stricter 60 percent cap on structure size.

“I feel like I’m living in downtown Baltimore,” Valenti added, noting that he estimated such larger homes in the town were generally unoccupied some 75 percent of the year.

Resident Art Libby said he also supported the FAR measures — especially if they would keep away the “McMansions,” as the larger homes have come to derogatively be known. He said the trend toward such homes had proven destructive in other communities.

That term was the source of some objection, though. Council Member Vicki Carmean said she wished people would stop using it. “There are some very nice larger homes around here,” she emphasized.

Also part of the charged conversation was the word “culprits,” which was rejected and abandoned during the hearing, only to continually resurface in use on both sides.

Some asked who the culprits were — those who built such huge houses that infringed on their neighbors’ light, air and views — saying they weren’t seeing a great threat to the town that required stricter controls. Others pointed to specific houses in the town and to neighboring Ocean City as a whole, where large homes and high-rises have become the rule under looser zoning restrictions.

Resident and business owner Tim Collins said he was concerned about being identified as one such in the future. Owning an expansive “double lot,” Collins said he would be severely negatively impacted by the proposed regulations.

Collins allowed that he wasn’t opposed to the basic idea of FAR but said that he was concerned about the formula used to calculate the maximum size. Some 4 percent of homes in the town weren’t accounted for in the town’s description of lot sizes that accompanied information sent out about FAR, he noted.

Among them, his large plot of land — 18,000 square feet — bought decades ago.

“I bought it that way in the ’80s,” Collins emphasized, saying he’d built a home on the land with the hopes to one day build a home large enough for his children and grandchildren to share it with him. “This seriously damages the value of my property,” he told council members.

Collins said he felt they should take a hard look at their formula and work to make allowances for extra-large properties. “We get to a point where not everybody fits into the mold. … And there, people will get hurt.”

Collins said he’d already been hurt by the town’s previous enactment of a limit on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms a single home could have. “I would be very, very upset if I’m limited to what’s presented here,” he said.

Indeed, there were negative aspects to the lack of allowance for a double lot, Collins said — he could potentially subdivide his property into two lots and build two homes, of 5,500 and 5,200 square feet. “That would mean more house, more density and a greater impact,” he emphasized. “Why should you be penalized for holding a large lot?” he asked.

Council Member Harry Haon agreed that some 4 percent of homes in the town had been left out of the figures presented. He said 2 percent were on lots less than 5,000 square feet in area, while another 2 percent — Collins’ included — were on lots larger than 10,000 square feet, generally double lots.

Collins wasn’t alone in opposing some elements of the proposed strictures. Former Council Member Buzz Henifin noted that he’d opposed the bedroom and bath limits while on council. He said he believed setback and height limits were sufficient to control the size of homes in the town. “They will let us retain what we want in the town of Fenwick Island,” Henifin stated, favoring property owners’ freedoms and to strong applause from many of those in attendance at the hearing.

Indeed, freedom was a recurring message of FAR’s opponents. Veteran and resident Forest Poacher said, “The old Soviet Union told you how much living space you could have. Christ, I’m having flashbacks.”

Moreover, he said, “If you keep restricting things, the value of the lots will go down.” And in his particular case, he said, he needed to build a larger home to accommodate a wheelchair (expected for his future, he said) and elevator access. In fact, he noted, the current trend in “golf-course homes” is toward minimal setbacks, with larger homes on smaller lots.

Property owner Dave Robinson noted he was additionally concerned about the impact of FAR regulations on top of existing impacts to his property of Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) beach-use regulations. Robinson’s home is the northernmost beachfront property in the town and one of a handful identified as being significantly impacted by a relocated building line in proposed regulation changes from DNREC.

Robinson said, as things stand with DNREC, “I can’t touch my decks. They won’t let me put them back if I do.” And if the house were destroyed, the house he’d be allowed to build back would be about 12 feet wide, he said. But he also wants to add an elevator for his parents to better use the home, even though he’s restricted to only 3,200 feet of living space as it stands. “It’s not fair,” he said.

Resident Linda Bunting said she was also worried about her oceanfront home, which had already needed to be lifted higher above the flood plain in recent years – causing problems with the town’s height limit. “Tall people don’t want to enter my home,” she explained.” She suggested some more flexibility in height restrictions might be needed. “I don’t want to block the view,” she said, “but a couple more feet would help.”

Indeed, the suggestion struck a cord with many who opposed FAR, and some others. They cited higher height limits in South Bethany and other towns where FAR was in place — suggesting the impact in Fenwick Island would be significantly stronger, simply due to the height-limit variation.

And others present at the hearing had different problems with the proposed ordinance, if not the concept. That included Council Member Martha Keller, who with her husband, Ken, said she felt the ordinance was too restrictive in some cases and not restrictive enough in others. She said council members needed to focus on the desired goal of the change.

Keller proposed dropping the flat 70 percent FAR cap and 5,500 square foot maximum size in favor of a curved cap that would gradually flatten out to essentially cap home size on larger lots but allow more flexibility on the lower end of the scale and in between. The Kellers also favored including all non-permeable, roofed structures in the calculation of FAR — accessory buildings, attached and unattached garages, covered decks. (As currently drafted, rooftop decks are exempted and uncovered decks are included at 50 percent of their size.)

Overall, the Kellers said, the plan needed to be reanalyzed and some significant changes made from the initial proposal.

Those responses covered the spectrum presented at the hearing — firm support, staunch opposition and loose agreement with the plan, if changes are made.

Concluding the hearing, Mayor Peter Frederick said he felt that meant the council could move forward with a second public hearing — set for May 6 — and possibly on to an eventual second reading for the ordinance. But his statement on how much the public had generally agreed with the notion of FAR was cause for objection from the public.

Resident Bobbie Lednum said she firmly opposed the change and emphasized that others who had spoken had opposed it as well. “I don’t think you’re hearing us,” she said. Frederick disputed that, saying that the council had heard their input and had not yet made up their minds. He emphasized that some of his comment on the public input had referred to his own opinions on the FAR concept.

But those opposing FAR on principle expressed agreement that perhaps they were not being heard clearly. Meanwhile, Keller noted that letters favoring FAR as a concept had been received and asked they be read into the record. The council opted to simply enter those letters into the record of the hearing, without reading them aloud, for reasons of time.

The individual council members were quick to thank those who had attended and commented, as well as those who had sent letters. They emphasized that there would be a second opportunity to speak at the May 6 hearing, and if no more-restrictive amendments to FAR were proposed, the process could continue to move forward.