Bethany proposes commercial moratorium

Bethany Beach officials have been expressing concern about the appearance of the town’s commercial district for more than a year. And they may buy themselves some time to deal with the situation under a proposed moratorium on changes to the exteriors of commercial buildings in the town.

At the Jan. 20 town council meeting, Town Manager Cliff Graviet suggested the moratorium be added to the agenda of a public hearing set for Feb. 10. Council members moved on that suggestion, voting 6-0 (Mayor Jack Walsh absent) to set the hearing on the moratorium.

If the moratorium is approved by the council after that hearing, new commercial construction and exterior changes on existing commercial properties could be banned for as long as 180 days, while planners and council members work to make any desired changes in zoning ordinances.

In making his suggestion, Graviet noted that the town has already received preliminary inquiries about possible exterior changes in a handful of downtown businesses. He said the result could be a drastic change in the commercial zone’s overall appearance, and that he feared Planning Commission efforts to channel the area’s aesthetics in a desirable direction might not be on enough of a fast track to get the job done in time.

At the December Planning Commission meeting, Building Inspector John Eckrich confirmed rumors that there are plans in the works for major changes to a handful of downtown landmarks.

Mercantile Peninsula bank (at Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue), the landmark boardwalk-fronting Blue Surf motel, the Sharon Rose property (a largely retail space topped by a mini-golf facility, right in the center of the town’s commercial area) and the former Harry’s Bait and Tackle are all potentially scheduled for makeovers — some in use, some in exterior design or overall construction.

Eckrich emphasized that all of the plans presented to him for the properties in question were in the early conceptual stage and could change completely or be abandoned by the property owners. But with plans already on the drawing board, the Planning Commission members wanted to ensure the town doesn’t make its move to late.

They had planned a late-January meeting with owners of commercial properties — a meeting that was set to mirror the 2005 summit between commissioners and local builders. That meeting in turn sparked the creation of the Zoning Ad-hoc Committee (ZAC), which worked with property owners, architects and builders to create proposed zoning changes targeted at improved aesthetics on residential properties.

ZAC’s first group of recommended zoning ordinance changes — mostly reward-based architectural preferences designed to move away from the “big box” building trend — is now set to be discussed at that Feb. 10 hearing and possibly voted upon by council members later that day at a special council meeting.

Planning Commissioners hoped to follow up on that effort with a similar one for the commercial area that would incorporate the input of the property owners, as well as design and building experts. And they could also take a page or two from the design book of University of Maryland architecture students who visited the town last winter and suggested a cohesive seaside-village theme for the commercial area.

But with so many projects already in the early planning stages, commissioners did fear they’d miss the boat if they didn’t get moving on the project soon. Graviet’s suggested moratorium may buy them the time to do so, if it is approved by the council Feb. 10.

The planned meeting with the commercial property owners remains up in the air, but new Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Mink (also the ZAC chairwoman) said the meeting could now be scheduled at a time that would better enable commercial property owners to attend and get involved in the process.

The end desire is to improve the Bethany Beach commercial district’s appearance in a way that will please all the various stakeholders: town officials, the community at large and the property owners themselves.