Bethany creates new residential height option

It’s been two months since Bethany Beach’s town council sent a proposed height allowance back to the town’s planning commission for further review, concerned about how the enticement designed to encourage a higher, 7/12 or greater roof pitch would truly impact residences and the town’s overall aesthetic.

Planning commissioners finally hammered out a compromise on the idea at their March 18 meeting, having spent several hours rehashing it since it was returned to them in January and nearly abandoning the whole notion on several occasions. Council and commission member Lew Killmer had expressed frustration over the lack of support for the idea during the renewed discussion phase, contrasting the substantial support it had seen from the commission before it was presented to the council on Jan. 20.

But that frustration was finally resolved with the unanimous decision to cap the final height of structures using the allowance at 35 feet above the surrounding grade level.

Commissioners Steve Wode and David Evans were skeptical about how much impact a shift to 7/12 roof pitches from the current minimum of 5/12 would have on the town’s residential aesthetic, and commissioners had been stymied by varying calculations on how much added height a standard 26-foot-wide home (in the town’s R1 residential zone) would need to use a 7/12 pitch on the roof versus the minimum 5/12 pitch.

The confusion on that issue turned out to be a matter of interpretation — some calculating the difference were getting numbers around 2.5 feet, while architects on the Zoning Ad Hoc Committee and Building Inspector John Eckrich calculated the finished height at nearly 4 feet higher.

At the end of the marathon February commission meeting, the difference was determined to be in how sill heights (the height of upper-story walls at which the roof structure begins) were being measured. With a full 9-foot allowance for that topmost story to have 8-foot walls and another foot for roof/ceiling base structure, Eckrich explained, there was an added 3.465 feet needed — nearly 35 feet total when added to the current 31-foot height cap.

But a standard option designed to keep homes under the current 31-foot cap had shrunk that upper story to less than 8 feet high at the roof edges, with open ceilings or dormers providing for living space. That yielded another measure that had been thrown into the mix: more along the lines of 33.5 or 34 feet. And commissioners were reluctant to allow any more additional height than strictly required for the roof pitch increase.

Moreover, Wode argued, he wasn’t sure the resulting impact of the higher pitch on the overall aesthetic of homes was enough to offset the overall height increase. Resident Jeri Walsh — wife of Mayor Jack Walsh — was inclined to agree. She pointed to the town survey that overwhelmingly favored retaining existing character and height, emphasizing that bigger structures weren’t what the townsfolk wanted, even if it came by way of enhancing other aesthetic elements.

Additionally, Wode was very alarmed by the potential result of the higher allowance when the commissioners factored in how buildings are measured in Bethany Beach.

With so many homes in the flood plain, the town some years ago converted its measuring system to measure height from the flood plain to the roof peak rather than from the high point of the fronting street, as had once been done. Surrounding grade was eliminated as a factor, to enable property owners living in the flood plain to build foundation or other non-habitable space at the ground level without being penalized in final, livable height or have to worry about flooded living rooms and mechanical areas.

Eckrich told commissioners that the average property in the town was about 3 feet from the maximum flood plain level. With the current measuring system, that means such a home could be built at 34 feet above grade — the 31 foot building cap, plus the 3 feet. But by the time the extremes of grade level were incorporated, there was theoretically the potential for homes taking advantage of the proposed roof pitch and associated height allowance to peak at more than 38 feet above grade level.

It was a stark contrast to the idealized 31-foot height, and commissioners and citizens alike have expressed deep concern about the possible resulting shift in the town’s residential building aesthetic.

But Town Council Secretary-Treasurer Tony McClenny had a suggestion: compromise between the potential 38-foot-above-grade limit for those most extreme properties and the current limit of 31 feet above flood plain, providing both an option for many property owners to shift to a 7/12 pitch and a preventative cap to keep heights from booming out of control. He suggested a flat cap based on the surrounding grade, since that aspect was such a strong measure for Wode and other opponents.

With little more wrangling over the topic, commissioners finally all got on board with the notion, voting 4-0 (Commissioner Steve Trodden absent) to allow an increased height limit for homes in the town’s R1 zone — but only in cases where the roof pitch on the home is at least 7/12 over 60 percent of its area. There would also be that maximum height cap of 35 feet above surrounding grade, making it a better option for those with less of an existing flood plain consideration but still realistic for most.

Just to rule out unforeseen consequences, commissioners also recommended a prohibition of fourth-floor living spaces. Thus, dormers could be used to provide light on upper floors but not to create added living space.

The revised allowance package is to go to the next public hearing the commission holds, likely in the next month or two, before being voted upon by council members.

Also at the March 18 meeting, commissioners approved combining of two adjacent lots on Garfield Parkway, outside Bethany West, for Helen Loftus. The move came in the wake of the town council’s vote to allow the combining of contiguous properties that were individually grandfathered to allow planned residential developments (PRDs) under the lesser size requirement that existed prior to an October 2004 council vote.

Under the original 2004 ordinance change, only lots of record at that time were permitted to retain their grandfathered status — combined lots were kept to the newer, higher size requirement. But recent clarification of the approval process for those grandfathered lots yielded the question of whether they should be eligible for combining without losing that status.

Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork suggested they should. Eckrich’s research revealed only three such cases, and that none of them would create added density if allowed. Commissioners and council members favored the idea on that basis, clearing the way last month for the Loftus request.

With that request granted, commissioners also heard the sketch plan for the proposed PRD on the site — to include five units: a single-family dwelling and two duplexes. That was reduced from the original six units proposed for the site. Under the revised plan, the single unit will be dedicated for the Contractors for a Cause charity, to provide a respite home for families affected by cancer.

There will need to be another revision to the plan — to provide the required 28-foot separation between units instead of the 20 feet presented this month, but designers said they would be able to make the adjustment.

Neighbors also expressed concern about the stormwater impact but were told the situation would be improved by the project rather than adversely affected. And landscaping requirements could help with an ongoing problem of pedestrian traffic through the lots toward the nearby WaWa. Those issues will be dealt with later in the process, though.

At the sketch-plan stage, commissioners provided feedback but took no vote on the project.

Other action at the March 18 planning commission meeting:

• Commissioners formally shifted the issue of permeable surfaces to the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) after completing some research on their own and asking for the involvement of the Flood and Drainage Committee.

They tabled discussion of increased off-street parking requirements (from two spots per home to four, as proposed) until the permeable surfaces issue is dealt with and can provide a clear definition of a parking space.

• The commissioners added both street-facing sides of corner properties to a previous allowance for setback encroachment, in cases where an obvious entrance is provided on that side of the home. The encroachment, as before, would be to no closer than 10 feet from the street-facing property lines and would allow only open stairs up to 42 inches in width leading to such an entrance.

• Discussion continued on changes to time limits for the permitting process, to eliminate both the current unenforced 90-day process limit and last month’s happenstance of a three-year period, due to extended permitting times from non-town agencies.

Eckrich reported permitting time from those agencies ranging from two or three week for the fire marshal, 25 days for county sewer and 30 days for soil conservation to as much as 60 or 90 days for the Delaware Department of Transportation and 30 days to nine months for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Killmer suggested a 365-day cap on the permitting process, from preliminary to final approval by the commission, with a single 90-day extension allowed if granted by commission. The change is now to go to Jaywork for codification.

• Killmer’s proposal to change the town’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) district to Municipal, Educational, Recreation and Community (MERC) was shifted to make the new designation MORE (Municipal, Open-space, Recreational and Education). The focus of the change is to include town-owned properties and other currently undesignated property in a district on the official town map before revisions to that map are made later this year.

The town council is to consider the merit of the idea. If they approve additional work, it will go to Jaywork for codification before a public hearing and a final council vote.

• Finally, the commissioners agreed to hold additional meetings to gain progress on the often-tabled review of Chapter 200 of the town zoning code. Those meetings were tentatively set for Fridays prior to the commission’s regular monthly meetings, at 11:30 a.m. They will likely continue until the commission has completed its review of that section of code and others scheduled for review.