Fenwick residents split on home size, coverage ordinance

Some Fenwick Islanders in attendance at last weekend’s special council meeting (Jan. 14) were already steamed over new state regulations that would limit homeowners’ ability to build on the seaward (and apparently, bayward) side of their lots.

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) officials had hosted a workshop on those regulations less than 24 hours earlier. Now, they were hearing that their own town council was considering an ordinance that would further restrict their building options.

But other residents in attendance suggested the proposed cap on maximum home size, and coverage of the lot, might be just the thing to preserve Fenwick’s small-town character.

Council Member Harry Haon forwarded the proposed mechanism, floor area ratio (FAR), from the Charter & Ordinance Committee.

“‘McMansions’ — although that term encompasses a lot of different thoughts,” Haon prefaced — “FAR gets a hold of McMansions that are being built out of character with the other homes in the community.”

Although the numbers aren’t set in stone, council settled on a cap for home size at 5,500 square feet, and a FAR based on 70 percent.

That would mean that the sum of all the rooms in the house (plus decks, porches, balconies and residential pools) could not exceed 70 percent of the total square footage on the lot.

Certain areas wouldn’t be calculated into total floor area — accessory buildings, garages, uninhabitable attics, and covered ground-level storage areas or foyers below Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain, for instance.

Residents Ed “Buzz” Henifin and Dick Griffin not only supported adoption of the ordinance, but suggested council should close a loophole associated with those ground-level foyers.

Bunting Avenue resident Richard Klein, on the other hand, thoroughly disapproved.

“So, you’re not only telling us how big we can build our house, you’re telling us what we can put in it,” Klein stated (referencing existing limits on the permitted number of bedrooms and bathrooms in a single-family home). “You’re doing everything but paying for it, is basically what you’re saying.”

There were grumblings from ordinance supporters that people who didn’t like all the regulations were welcome to build elsewhere.

Haon outlined the argument for FAR regulation, in a letter from Charter & Ordinance.

The idea, he pointed out, was to prevent people from pushing to the very tipping point their legal rights to build within the setbacks.

Haon noted residents’ concerns (as expressed in various Vision Workshops) regarding “a loss of open space, reduction in sunlight and air circulation, blocking of views and a sense of over-crowding non-consistent with Fenwick Island’s traditional character.”

He referenced a trend toward larger homes around town over the past 10 years. “In a number of instances, these homes have been built out to the full limits of the current, front, rear and side setbacks,” Haon wrote. “In the extreme, this would allow houses with as much as 8,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet or more of total area to be built under the Ttown’s current zoning regulations.

“This would be two to three times the typical house size in Fenwick Island,” Haon concluded.

Council Member Vicki Carmean suggested the town should proceed with all possible public outreach, especially so close on the heels of criticisms over DNREC’s treatment of the beachfront regulations.

“We’re going to hear the same objections on this — that we’re doing it in the dead of winter, when most of the property owners aren’t available,” Carmean said.

Her colleagues agreed. While Mayor Peter Frederick recommended they keep the ordinance on track for introduction on Jan. 27, he offered assurances that the town would send out letters explaining the proposed ordinance to property owners who hadn’t been able to attend.