Changes on horizon

Bethany Beach may soon tackle the aesthetics of the town’s commercial district with the same kind of attention it has recently given to the looks of its residential areas — and it’s not a moment too soon, as some of the town’s landmark commercial locations consider major renovations and changes in use.

Members of the town’s Planning Commission voted unanimously at their Dec. 17 meeting to organize a roundtable session with the town’s commercial interests. It would be based on the same kind of framework they used to open a dialogue with the town’s builders and architects on residential zoning concerns.

In the case of the residential issues, the builders and architects not only contributed their concerns and suggestions to an initial list of possible code changes at just such a meeting but also became part of the commission’s Zoning Ad-Hoc Committee (ZAC), where their expertise has proven useful.

Town officials and citizens got a bevy of ideas for potential theming in the commercial district from an early 2005 University of Maryland presentation on architecture, and Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesch recommended that as a starting point.

But the Town Council’s representative on the commission, Lew Killmer, was adamant there should be no preconceived notions or agendas for an initial meeting.

“We don’t want to focus on parking or signage,” Killmer said. “We don’t want to set an agenda that we don’t know is their agenda.”

Killmer stressed that the meeting was a Planning Commission event and not a venue where an official town position on aesthetics or commercial zoning would be a starting point. Later meetings could begin to nail down those more specific notions, he said.

Instead, he championed an open dialogue, saying the commissioners would be “in listening mode” at the meeting, waiting to hear ideas, complaints, suggestions and plans from as many of the commercial district’s business owners, managers and commercial property owners as possible.

“We need to understand their feelings and plans, get their needs,” Killmer noted. “We need to seek a unified, complementary approach.”

Those three groups will be the initial focus of any efforts toward zoning changes for the district.

Much as three “stakeholders” (property owners, the local building industry and the community) were identified in the recent focus on residential zoning with ZAC, so the town’s initial look at the commercial district will likely focus on its unique group of stakeholders — again the community, but with commercial property owners and business owners in place of home owners.

Boesch, who at the outset of the Dec. 17 pointedly avoided commenting on Town Council rejection of his preferred Scheme 4 plan for the town’s Garfield Parkway Streetscape project the night before, admitted that he felt that “Streetscape now sounds more like a traffic program.”

But his pressing concern about the lingering effects of the decision for the commercial district was that the loss of 14 parking spaces (Boesch says the number is actually higher) contained in the modified Scheme 2 plan the council put forward had perhaps left commercial entities in the town feeling less than cooperative toward other town initiatives.

“I wonder if this is a good climate for starting this kind of discussion,” Boesch said. “They may not come forward willingly. They’ve been pretty negative about what’s happening,” he added, referring to the potential loss of parking.

Additionally, Boesch said there was bound to be some uneasiness from business and property owners whenever commercial facades were a topic. “Facades means signs for these businesspeople,” he said. “This is a very serious topic for them. It came up during the Streetscape meetings,” he reminded those in attendance.

Under the hammer

There’s also a time element involved in moving forward on any such initiative.

Commission members said they’d heard and 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 – a fixture at the corner of Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue — is planning a renovation that could involve either a second-story addition or complete demolition of the existing structure in favor of a new two-story building.

Branch Manager Chris Phillips on Tuesday said the branch was scheduled for renovation in 2008 but she was unable to confirm any details of the plans.

“We know we’re going to go through a renovation but don’t know what it’s going to be yet,” Phillips said, citing a number of other branches in the renovation pipeline ahead of the Bethany branch

(The bank parking lot across the street from the branch is virtually guaranteed to remain for the time-being, however, under a five-year lease commitment to the town for metered parking that was agreed to by the council Dec. 16.)

There could also be changes to another Bethany Beach fixture: the landmark boardwalk-fronting Blue Surf motel. John Eckrich said he had received conceptual drawings of a possible future use.

“It would be retail on the boardwalk, retail on Garfield, retail on Atlantic, and condos or apartments on second and third floors,” Eckrich said. “It is a conceptual drawing. It may never come forward,” he emphasized. “But that’s what they’re showing us so far.”

Blue Surf owner Patty McCabe this week confirmed that the family is considering possible changes for the property’s use but said no plans had yet been made. “It’s something we’re looking at,” McCabe said.

The same goes for the largely retail space topped by a mini-golf facility, right in the center of the town’s commercial area. Eckrich said he had also seen conceptual drawings for the property, owned by Sharon Rose.

“I understand that it would be all retail,” Eckrich said. “There was some talk of apartments, but that’s been backed out for right now — all retail and a facelift.”

And the former Harry’s Bait and Tackle and adjoining lot is also potentially scheduled for a makeover. Eckrich said he had also viewed a conceptual design for that property.

“It’s proposed for a restaurant on two floors and a small condo or living quarters on one end,” he confirmed to the Coastal Point this week.

“There was some discussion of the liquor store, that someone may try to open that up until her plans are approved. So, there may be someone approaching us about running the liquor store for a year or so,” Eckrich noted.

The building inspector 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 want to ensure the town doesn’t make its move to late.

As was discussed during the University of Maryland presentations over last winter, any town preferences for appearance of commercial properties would need to be well laid before trying to get commercial property owners on the bandwagon to adopt the ideas.

That means the town will have to hurry to get any new requirements, or benefits for compliance, in place in time to encourage any or all of the above property owners to participate in a commercial zoning initiative.

“We don’t want to miss the boat,” Killmer emphasized, noting there might be a potential for the town to assist with additional expenses of façade renovation under such a program.

That means the planned initial meeting with the commercial-zone stakeholders needed to be set prior to spring, when business owners start to get busy with preparations for the summer season and may be getting any new signage, renovations or lease agreements done.

“January is the worst time for a public meeting of any kind,” Boesch allowed. But the commissioners conceded they had little choice in the matter. “Spring is too late,” Boesch concluded.

The commissioners set a tentative timeframe for the meeting in the week of Jan. 23, with plans to contact some of the business and property owners to get their preference for a particular date and time that week.

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead, present at the meeting, initially suggested a delay while council members considered their stance on related issues but agreed that an open dialogue was best for the initial discussion.

Killmer said he would seek the informal agreement of other council members to the idea of the meeting. He promised he would return to the commission for further decisions if there were any objections from council members.

Barring that, letters inviting the town’s commercial property owners and businesspeople to the late-January meeting will be sent out in the coming weeks, hoping for as constructive a turnout as the town received in its previous call for the local building community to pitch in on residential aesthetics.