Bethany enacts commerical moratorium

Bethany Beach has enacted a moratorium on the construction and exterior renovation of commercial structures, with a 5-0 vote on Friday, Feb. 10. (Mayor Jack Walsh and Council Member Harry Steele were absent.)

The moratorium was limited to a maximum of 180 days, with no option for further extension by the council. The town will have to complete its goal of developing guidelines for commercial exteriors within that time period, recognizing time is of the essence for some commercial property owners.

The option to extend the moratorium was eliminated during council deliberations on the issue, having heard from at least one commercial property owner — the owners of the oceanfront Blue Surf motel — that their financial position stood to be negatively impacted by the moratorium.

Council and Planning Commission Member Lew Killmer noted that the timing of the moratorium had been as ideal as was possible, with relatively few businesses planning renovation between now and the summer season, and most that planned renovations over the longer term still in the early design phases, where new design guidelines could be incorporated without significant impact on timeframes and finances.

But Shannon Carmean, attorney representing the owners of the Blue Surf, noted that the motel was hoping to begin construction of a combined condominium-retail renovation in September of 2006 and that motel customers were already inquiring as to whether reservations for the fall would be available. They couldn’t give those customers an answer, she said, until they knew whether or not they’d be ready to start construction in the fall.

Carmean argued that the moratorium seemed aimed specifically at the Blue Surf project, since it was the only downtown commercial project in the planning pipeline.

There, Town Solicitor Terrence Jaywork took issue, noting that the motel owners had not formally applied for permits or otherwise entered the town’s official planning process and therefore did not have any established rights in the planning process. They had informally presented a rough sketch to Building Inspector John Eckrich in the fall, requesting his confirmation that it was in compliance with existing town code, and they had only received informal assurances on that front.

That inquiry, and the inquiries of several other commercial property owners with Eckrich, had alerted the town’s Planning Commission that major changes were possible in the near future for the exteriors of a significant portion of the downtown commercial district.

They moved to organize a set of zoning code revisions similar to that recently developed for the residential district — providing primarily options and allowances to encourage desired architectural designs and features, and to, they hoped, move away from architecture out of character with the town’s existing buildings.

That, combined with the seaside-town architectural theme suggested by University of Maryland architecture students after their work in the town last winter, left town officials eager to see a specific shift in the commercial district in the future.

That multiple property owners planned demolition or significant renovation in the next year or two sent out alarm bells that, as new Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink said, “The horses are about to get out of the barn.” They feared they wouldn’t have time to get the guidelines in place before projects were well under way. And, as Killmer emphasized, they also hoped to prevent property owners from spending money on detailed designs that might be altered prior to construction once the new guidelines were known.

Thus Town Manager Cliff Graviet proposed the 180-day moratorium at the January town council meeting, and council members set a public hearing and vote on the issue for Feb. 10.

While most in attendance at the hearing had no input on the issue, some did express concern about what kind of maintenance and light renovation might be prohibited with the moratorium worded as it was proposed. Could repairs be made to exterior elements for safety reasons? Could signs be changed to reflect a new business replacing an older one? Could they even paint?

Graviet clarified that the moratorium would affect only work requiring a permit from the town — clearly not something as simple as painting. But it might prevent some of those maintenance and repair plans from going forward, contrary to the original intent. Graviet allowed that even with a straightforward moratorium passed, the council could come back in the coming weeks and open up such possibilities, versus forcing a lengthy and expensive Board of Adjustments process, as had been otherwise suggested.

Jaywork also questioned the feasibility of Carmean’s suggestion that the Blue Surf be subjected to a voluntary architectural review process rather than enacting a moratorium. She pointed to a similar process for commercial review in Lewes.

Jaywork noted there was not only no architectural review committee in Bethany Beach (that idea having been scrapped after it was initially suggested by a town-wide survey, in favor of other zoning changes), but that there existed no design standards upon which a committee could base a decision. And with more projects to come in the near and long-term future, those guidelines still needed to be developed.

That process was — and still is — to start with a stakeholders’ meeting among planning officials, builders/architects and commercial property owners. It is hoped that it will closely mirror the approximately 90-day process it took the current Zoning Ad-Hoc Committee to recommend a series of residential zoning guidelines — some of which were voted upon at the same Feb. 10 meeting as the commercial moratorium.

But, in apparent concession to the urgent need for a resolution for the Blue Surf, council members agreed to push forward the internal timetable of that process, requiring a draft of proposed commercial architectural guidelines to be ready before the council’s May meeting, instead of a town manager’s report to them by June 30.

That could mean new ordinances in place before September. Council is free to vote to end the moratorium at any time – and will likely do so once the new guidelines are in place. So some construction projects will be able to start this fall.

Designers on proposed projects will, of course, have to pay close attention to the design standards as they are discussed in the process and work with the town on their designs — much as Carmean proposed the Blue Surf would do on a voluntary basis.

As it stands, no new permits on the commercial structures in the town’s C-1 and C-2 districts will be issued for nearly six months — or until the moratorium is lifted by the council. It is likely that there will be an allowance made in the intervening time for minor repairs or maintenance that does not alter a commercial exterior.