Owners of the Seaside Inn in Fenwick Island have been trying to put in an elevator since the building was originally constructed. Though the hotel is now under new ownership and management, that desire was again thwarted this week in yet another Board of Adjustments hearing on the issue, Jan. 23.
The source of the problem is the town’s building height restriction, set firmly at 30 feet. Board of Adjustments members proved unwilling to waive that restriction — even a little — again this week.
The emphasis of the presentation from new owners Sue and Jim Luft was the additional safety an elevator would provide and the benefit they said the improved hotel facility could provide to the town in the form of more commercial viability for the hotel and the town’s businesses as a whole. The plan had even won the endorsement of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, which cited just those points.
At issue is approximately 4 feet, 1.75 inches. That’s how much the elevator shaft — built at the time the hotel was originally constructed — would have to be extended to meet commercial elevator code requirements mandating a maintenance clearance of 3 feet, 7 inches above the top of the car. That entire 4 feet and change would extend above the hotel’s existing roofline, however, and that’s where the objections come in, since the hotel is already at the 30-foot cap.
If allowed the variance for that extra height — in a space the size of the existing shaft — Seaside Inn could finally put in the elevator, allowing not only easier access (and handicapped access) to the hotel’s upper floors but also better access for emergency medical workers to more easily remove any ailing or injured guests.
Jim Luft further noted that, while the hotel has seen a growth in occupancy since taking it over last year, his guests these days expect an elevator, considering it a given that the hotel would have one. Adding in the ability to better accommodate older or handicapped guests, finally getting to put an elevator in might bring in additional guests, he said, who might in turn patronize the town’s other businesses.
Extending that argument, Luft said making the height allowance for the hotel to get its elevator would be a step toward preserving the town’s commercial area, and specifically its hotel industry, with the town’s other two hotels expected to be gone in the long term, in favor of single-family homes, he said.
And it was further noted that the vent cupola on nearby Warren’s Station is already of similar total height.
But board members weren’t buying those arguments.
The burden of evidence for the decision rests primarily in proving that “exceptional practical difficulty” would result from a denial of a variance. The board members said the hotel’s recent success was proof enough that that level of hardship simply didn’t exist.
Beyond that, they cited the opposition of a number of neighbors who, while sympathetic to the desire to have an elevator in the hotel and to preserve the commercial district, considered the town’s height restriction inviolable without a far better reason.
Anything less would be against the public interest, the board members opined.
Board member John Rhymer referred to the height restriction as “sacred,” while his fellow board member Mike Quinn referenced the possibility of providing limited additional access with an elevator that runs to the second floor of the hotel but not the third floor.
And acting board chairwoman Mary Pat Kyle said a variance would violate the spirit of the town’s height ordinance and would be against the public interest.
Town Solicitor Tempe Steen queried the board members as to their reasoning, in preparation for writing up the board’s official position. She noted that, though they might consider the height restriction sacred, the board had the authority to make a single variance without fear of setting a precedent that could damage it.
But they were firm in their decision and voted unanimously, 3-0, with two members absent, to deny the variance.
It was a similar stone wall for David Mackes, who for the second time in a year was requesting a variance to allow him to put a house on his property at Bayside Drive.
In February of 2005, the plan had been to move an existing home to the small triangular lot, but the approximately 900-square-foot footprint of the home in question would have jutted into the lot’s setbacks.
The board members — while agreeing that an exceptional practical difficulty existed — said Mackes hadn’t gone far enough toward ensuring the variance needed to site a home on the property was as minimal as possible. They recommended he consider a different design of home, rather than moving the existing structure — and one that would better fit on the oddly shaped lot.
Mackes subsequently consulted an architect/engineer who designed a home with an 821-square-foot footprint — above the town’s minimum 750-square-foot footprint, but still large enough that it encroaches on the front setback of the property. And the extra 71 square feet in the footprint proved to be a stumbling block this time out.
After determining that town code did allow expected encroachments of an open deck and open front staircase into the front- and rear-yard setbacks of the property, board members were left with two issues to consider: 1) the 22-square-foot bump-out on the first and second floors (elevated above the ground-level crawlspace and not part of the footprint per se) that encroaches on the front setback, and 2) the requested reduction of the front setback itself from 25 feet to 15 feet.
Mackes cited the 15-foot adjacent setback of the home neighboring the property, due to its corner location and facing on Glenn Avenue. He said he considered the setback sufficient for the front of his property if it was enough for his neighbor’s side yard, which also faces on Bayside Drive.
Moreover, Mackes and his architect said, enforcing the 25-foot front-yard setback would impose an exceptional practical difficulty on any effort to build a home on the lot, since it would reduce the maximum footprint to just 423 square feet — not only tiny but also well below the town’s 750-square-foot minimum. They noted the current plan called for a structure smaller than the 979-square-foot “building envelope” a 15-foot setback would allow.
Opposition to the idea first focused on parking, with neighbors citing an existing parking problem due to the adjacent rental property overflowing with cars on many a summer evening. They said some of those cars were routinely parked on Mackes’ property as it was, though he hadn’t given permission for it. That granted, they said they expected building on the property to only make the situation worse.
Specific to Mackes’ use of the lot, they said the 15-foot setback wouldn’t provide enough space for today’s larger vehicles to park and still be clear of Bayside Drive. Mackes and attorney Dennis Schraeder argued that point, saying parking could be parallel or elsewhere on the lot, and not necessarily in front of the home and in the setback. (Steen noted such could be a condition of any variance granted.)
Another repeated objection was simply that the lot was known to be unbuildable. Neighbors said they’d long been told it was unbuildable due to its odd configuration and small size. They said, to their knowledge, Mackes had been aware that it was unbuildable and historically commented to them that he planned only to use it for boat storage and water access, though Mackes objected to that notion.
Neighbor Robert Logan was one of those making that assertion and particularly objecting on the parking concerns. Reiterating that Mackes surely had known the lot was unbuildable, he suggested that if Mackes really wanted to build another house in Fenwick Island, there were any number of lots currently up for sale in the town that were buildable. The situation was not a hardship for Mackes after owning the vacant lot for 18 years, he opined.
Logan further said he feared that if a variance on the front setback were given to Mackes, owners of other lots with similar problems of size and configuration would rush to request variances of their own and build on those lots, too. There was at least one similar lot just a block away, he noted.
Board members took the parking concerns to heart, citing concerns about public safety during their deliberations, while Kyle extended that to concerns about fire spreading.
Rhymer also cited Logan’s line of reasoning, saying, “He doesn’t have a house there now. What is the hardship for him?” Steen noted that position was a reversal of the board’s previous decision that a hardship did exist.
Quinn, meanwhile, focused on whether the plan met the requirement for using the minimum variance needed to accommodate reasonable use of the property — and there the core of the board’s opposition stuck, with that extra 71 square feet of footprint.
The board voted 3-0 to deny the variance requests.
Again, Steen pushed board members to clarify their reason for denying a variance, asking if there were any circumstance in which they’d be willing to grant one or if they could offer Mackes any recommendations. Their only recommendation was for a smaller home that could conform to the existing front setback, even if it encroached further on the rear setback.
Mackes has that option, though it will necessitate again going before the board for variances, as well as another redesign. Another option would be to pursue the matter in the court system. In both cases, there is a 30-day appeals period after the written decision is filed. Schraeder said his client would make a decision on his course of action after receiving the written decision from the board.