Bethany moves on architecture guidelines

Working against a 180-day clock that started Feb. 10, Bethany Beach officials have plunged directly into the work needed to establish guidelines for commercial architecture before their moratorium on such construction elapses on Wednesday, Aug. 9.

Even before Architectural Guideline Development Committee (AGDC) membership was officially approved, members met — first on March 14 and again on March 17 — discussing plans to hire a consultant to help guide them through the process of creating the architectural guidelines for the town’s C1 and C2 zoning districts and meeting with the top candidate in a preliminary meeting.

That consultant is architect and designer Jeff Schoellkopf of Jeff Schoellkopf Designs (JSD), an Eastern Shore native and the design mind behind recent renovations at Bethany Station and the Holiday House, among numerous other projects in the area. Schoellkopf was also the main man behind the downtown design guidelines put into place in Ocean City, Md., in recent years.

Vice-Mayor and AGDC Chairwoman Carol Olmstead, Town Council Member Lew Killmer, Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink, Building Inspector John Eckrich and Town Manager Cliff Graviet, entrepreneur Dick Heidenberger and developer Jack Burbage had unanimously approved Schoellkopf’s credentials at their March 14 meeting, with a recommendation to the town council to accept his $19,500 proposal for work with the town.

That contract was officially accepted by the council at their March 17 meeting, again on a unanimous vote, but not before the committee met for the second time, doing some groundwork with Schoellkopf to get the process off to a running start.

The daytime AGDC meeting on March 17 yielded a series of key points Schoellkopf and the committee members said they felt needed to be addressed in any set of guidelines:

(1) Building height, with an eye toward possibly limiting structures to two or three floors;

(2) Use limits — does the town want to restrict residential or mixed commercial-residential use in the commercial district, and does it want to limit uses in favor of high-end businesses (versus souvenirs and T-shirts) or allow the market to determine use?;

(3) Flood elevation requirements, particularly as relates to flood resistance, sidewalk access to storefronts and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance requirements;

(4) Restrictions on building forms, i.e.: prohibitions against flat roofs, etc.;

(5) Restrictions on materials, i.e.: raw concrete, visible cinderblock; diagonal, vinyl or aluminum siding; stucco etc.;

(6) Allowing, encouraging or restricting porches versus direct streetfront entrances;

(7) Signage ordinances — sure to be among the most controversial of issues in the future guidelines, if the experience in Ocean City proves to be the rule;

(8) Design quality — what it is and how to ensure it will be maintained without creating a subjective standard;

(9) Administration of the guidelines — what incentives will be provided to create structures with preferred elements and how will restrictions be enforced?;

(10) Affects of maintenance and management of the structures;

(11) Color — Schoellkopf noted Ocean City’s move to specifically ban black as a body color on buildings in direct response to a skateboard shop that was painted black with colorful graffiti designs, but also an apparent inclination in Bethany Beach toward “a more restrained palate” that could potentially be codified without enforcing blandness;

(12) Shapes — potentially pushing against ultra-modern angularity; and

(13) Fire and other safety issues — specifically emphasized by Town Council Member Wayne Fuller (a member of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company and fire policeman) who said cinderblock foundations and wider setbacks between buildings could enhance safety.

It may seem an overwhelming task to complete within 180 days, especially with an interim deadline of providing the public with a draft set of guidelines by the end of May, but committee members have already agreed to regular meetings in the intervening time, as well as conference calls when Schoellkopf can’t make the trip from his current base in Vermont.

They’ve also got an advantage in that they’re not starting truly from scratch. Schoellkopf told AGDC members that he’d already secured permission from the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) to use the Ocean City downtown guidelines as a template for Bethany Beach’s document.

Further, he said, OCDC officials had offered to provide expertise on their experience over the last few years with the new guidelines and to review Bethany’s guidelines during the development process to help head off any unforeseen issues.

Schoellkopf said the Ocean City guidelines were in the middle range of the types of systems that can be put into place. He referred to the super-strict guidelines and design examples of Nantucket and the just-so feel of a designed “Disney village” while also noting municipalities where code is looser and open for more creativity among property owners and designers while still providing some guidance.

Ocean City’s moderate guidelines provide for three sets of standards: (1) elements that are encouraged; (2) those that are required; and, lastly, (3) those that are prohibited. The city has a review committee to help builders know when they’re running afoul of the guidelines. Schoellkopf said Bethany could similarly opt to have the town’s Planning Commission or a separate review board assess commercial construction plans for compliance and make suggestions.

Killmer noted that the Ocean City plan had been among his inspirations during the initial work the town did with a proposed architectural review board (ARB) geared to prevent excessive change in the town’s appearance. That later shifted to across-the-board residential design standards that were developed through the Planning Commission’s Zoning Ad Hoc Committee. But Killmer has continued to return to the Ocean City downtown guidelines as a model for steering architecture in the town.

With the ongoing discussion of height limits in Bethany’s residential districts, the height of commercial structures was sure to be an issue of key import for the committee. Property owner Tracy Mulligan encouraged the committee to ensure they gave a thorough look to height limits, regardless of whether they were to raise, lower or keep the existing 31-foot height limit.

Noting that most commercial structures are currently below that limit, Mulligan said he did fear that the Garfield Parkway area could become canyon-like if the height limit was increased, even if just as an enticement for more complex and aesthetically pleasing rooflines. Just such an option had been proposed for the town’s residential districts and was, in fact, recommended by the Planning Commission the following day, March 18, in modified form.

Burbage, though absent from the March 17 meeting, had specifically championed a higher limit at the March 14 meeting, noting the flexibility it could provide architects to add cupolas and other decorative elements while not necessarily adding usable space, if the guidelines were developed with that in mind.

Schoellkopf said the existing height limit had proved a problem in designing Bethany Station, resulting in some changes to his original concept to keep the roof level down. If the structure were built today, he said, it would have been a little higher and a little more complex. He noted that with a lack of parking to offer commercial property owners, added height could prove a major incentive for desired elements to be used.

Graviet added in the fact that some of Bethany’s original buildings were 2.5 stories tall — not quite three but more than two — and offered mixed commercial and residential use, with living space above stores. Schoellkopf suggested a 2.5-story standard might be used, with an option to add a non-livable dormer section at the top.

While discussion on the issue did begin to head into the details of the coming design guidelines, the bulk of discourse at the March 17 meeting with the architect focused on basic themes: Is the town’s core look a cottage style, or is it more flexible than that? Was there support for a true themed town, as former Mayor Joseph McHugh suggested with a lighthouse theme? Killmer said he wouldn’t support such a structured theme, while Olmstead said she also favored a broader concept.

Killmer latched on to Schoellkopf’s term of “creative recreation” of the town’s historical structures, while McHugh noted the need to preserve some traditional businesses that might not fit the historical mold as far as architecture — the downtown supermarket, 5-and-10 and hardware store. Others were tagged as standouts — models for the guidelines: Bethany Station and the Holiday House, of course, but also the converted former hotel that now houses a gift shop, book store and surf shop.

In closing the meeting, Schoellkopf offered the committee members some homework reading: general information on the development of architectural guidelines; and examples of a range of guidelines — from themed Nantucket, historic but burgeoning Leesburg, Va., and a Florida town where sample illustrations were labeled simply “Yes” and “No.”

The architect planned to immediately begin work on developing guidelines for the town based on the discussions thus far and the template of the Ocean City guidelines, with plenty of input yet to come from the town and the AGDC. His timeline would provide for a draft by the end of May and a finished package by the end of July — in time for the end of the commercial construction moratorium.