Bethany planning proposals get off track

Recent Planning Commission action on several items the commission has voted to recommend to the town council has exasperated Lew Killmer.

The Bethany Beach town council and planning commission member showed obvious frustration with his fellow commissioners at their Feb. 18 meeting, as he failed to receive continued support for two previous planning recommendations — regarding roof-pitch/building-height allowance and a requirement for four off-street parking spaces per new residence.

The latter recommendation had been sent on to Town Solicitor Terrence Jaywork in recent weeks, on a strong recommendation from four of the five planning commissioners. Steve Trodden had always objected to the notion, saying it was meaningless unless the commissioners defined parking areas in some way that would not allow property owners to simply point to grassy front yards and say their four spaces were right there.

The commissioners had discussed such a definition in the context of trying to limit the amount of impervious surface being added to the town, sparking a move toward work on that topic as a separate entity. Meanwhile, the parking requirement seemed to have gotten off track.

Former commission chairman Phil Boesch resigned in recent weeks, and the appointment of new commissioner David Evans in his place reshuffled the commission. For his part, Evans said he felt most new homes were already being built with four off-street spaces already, without any requirement for it, and he didn’t see the need to codify what people appeared to want.

Killmer agreed that the trend did exist, but he still favored making it a requirement, emphasizing that codifying it was a way to clarify that it was a trend the commissioners liked and wanted to encourage — and to avoid future backsliding toward the current requirement for two spaces per dwelling.

Commissioner Steve Wode said his fear was that the requirement would have an undesired consequence: encouraging people to lay down concrete and asphalt as they sought to meet the new requirement, versus looking to some of the permeable surface treatments the commission was researching.

Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink was largely silent on the issue but expressed concerns that Wode might be right about the unforeseen results. She advocated tabling the requirement until the surface issues had been further dealt with. But Killmer wanted a vote on the basic idea. He didn’t get one, with no one willing to second the motion.

Beyond his endorsement of the requirement in principle, Killmer’s frustration was focused on the fact that the commission had spent a good bit of time discussing the recommendation and had then spent town funds having Jaywork review it and polish the language.

With his motion to approve the final language of the requirement and forward it to the council dead for lack of a second, he encouraged the commissioners to be very certain they endorsed future proposals wholeheartedly before they went so far as to send them to Jaywork or get the council involved.

The second source of frustration for Killmer on Feb. 18 was the commission’s revisitation of its previous recommendation to the council for an increased building-height allowance as an incentive for builders to use a higher, 7/12 roof pitch.

A few possible loopholes in the recommendation were unearthed at the Feb. 10 public hearing on the issue, leaving Mink ready to admit that it needed some fine-tuning before being brought back to the council.

Extensive discussion on the issue at the Feb. 18 meeting left the commissioners divided. Some favored adding a simple limit of three floors of living space, to avoid adding living space in the dormer areas of the new higher-pitched roofs. That, despite assurances from architects’ and Building Inspector John Eckrich that there was no way to have a livable fourth floor inside the maximum height with the new allowance of 35 feet.

That raised a lingering question of how exactly the building height was to be measured, and had been measured in the past. Commissioners recognized that properties differed as to how dwellings were measured – either from the base flood elevation where the property was in the floodplain, or from the surrounding grade level where building living space on the ground was possible. Some were built under an even older standard that kept even homes in the floodplain lower to the ground.

But it was revealed that the town’s existing 31-foot height limit, while often augmented by the difference on individual lots between the grade and flood elevation, had been designed with a model using a lower sill plate on the first floor than subsequent models made for the proposed 35-foot allowance for homes with the steeper roofs.

They realized they were comparing oranges to grapefruits, in a way.

With the sill plate difference taken into account, Wode emphasized, the added architectural benefit that was the major selling point of the higher roof pitch didn’t have quite the same visual impact as they had thought. It was not quite the same difference as between the two roof pitches taken in respect to an otherwise identical structure.

For Wode, that negated enough of the benefit of the roof-pitch proposal to make the added height of such structures a wash, negative for positive.

Trodden, meanwhile, said he didn’t think the additional height and resulting roof-pitch options inherently made for better home designs. An ugly house could be built within the 31-foot limit, or at 35 feet, he opined. Similarly, he said, either limit could be in place when a beautiful house was built. Some existing structures clearly showed that to be the case, he noted.

Killmer cited the recommendations of the Zoning Ad-Hoc Committee (ZAC) and its group of architects and builders, who all endorsed the higher height limit as something that would allow them to build better designs and maintain an architecturally diverse town. The committee members and commissioners had largely been convinced.

But Trodden argued that the town has diversity now. He simply wasn’t sold on the merits of a steeper roof, he said.

Killmer again asked for a vote on the basic principal of the recommendation on the table: supporting a higher roof pitch through an increased building height allowance for those with such a roof. And again, his motion died for lack of a second.

“I’m really getting confused here,” he said, obviously at a loss. “We’ve discussed this at meeting after meeting after meeting, and now we’ve flip-flopped.”

Seeking further discussion, Wode finally offered a second, if for discussion purposes only. He said that considering the flood elevation allowance, the commission had to realize there was a possibility of homes peaking at some 40 feet above grade, with the 35-foot building height limit and some properties in the town being nearly 5 feet below base flood elevation. That was not what the commission wanted, he said.

Getting back to basics, and with Trodden unconvinced on the roof pitch’s value, commissioners voted 4-1 that they supported the notion. They then tackled the lingering problems, offering a three-story maximum in living space and then a compromise on height with a 38-foot cap above surrounding grade.

But Wode was concerned about the cap, citing potential differing impacts on properties based on their individual topography and base flood elevation.

They simply couldn’t agree on a solution. In the end, the issue was tabled until the commission’s March meeting, with Wode and Evans tasked by Killmer to come up with an alternative they could endorse.

Also at the Feb. 18 meeting, commissioners:

• Granted final approval for the Snider family planned residential development (PRD) at 417 Central Boulevard, “Snider Crossings,” calling for three single-family units;

• Granted final approval for the Vallient family PRD, “Bethany Landing,” at 831 Garfield Parkway, despite a more than three-year span between their initial application and the hearing date for the final plan. The PRD thus fell under the town’s previous code incarnations for PRD requirements and no tree protection plan, and was heard by an entirely new set of commissioners.

Eckrich explained that the delay had been largely due to efforts to resolve issues of wetlands and drainage. The plan calls for two duplexes and a triplex, totaling seven units on the site. Killmer said, “It bothers me that the code now is so different from the plan. But there’s not much we can do.”

• Wrangled over the requirements of developing a new official town map, in light of other needs for hyper-accurate mapping for town building and zoning purposes. They agreed that more research was needed to determine exactly what was needed and how much that should realistically cost.

A side issue was the exact nature of the map, with a proposal on the table to revamp the existing Public, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) zone into a Municipal, Education, Recreation and Community (MERC) zone that would include town properties that are currently unmarked on the official map. They determined the matter was under the commission’s purview but were not quite positive it was free of serious zoning implications requiring a public hearing. Additional research was to be done on that as well.

• Heard from Town Manager Cliff Graviet as to his early research into a commercial planning expert who can aid the town in developing guidelines for the Bethany Beach commercial district. Commissioners emphasized that they were still planning to include input from commercial property owners, business owners and the community at large, though no meeting with those stakeholders was set.

Graviet’s first steps, he said, were intended to “jumpstart” the process by having an expert available to the commissioners as a process of meetings and discussion on the issue got started. Killmer reiterated the emphasis on speed, with some property owners already having to put the brakes on design and construction plans with the 180-day commercial construction moratorium enacted Feb. 10.