Ocean View hears opposition to church project

Ocean View Church of Christ representatives recently introduced plans to raze an older auditorium/Sunday school and construct a new building, to house a “gymnasium and office/classroom space,” but the project has encountered some vocal opposition from neighboring residents.

'Builder (and parishioner) Jeffrey Bennett soon admitted they probably should have avoided the use of “gymnasium” — some of the residents opposing the project had apparently envisioning a rowdy sports venue.

While the church does plan to host volleyball and basketball, Bennett suggested “multi-purpose room” probably would have been a better choice of words. It wouldn’t be a gym in the most traditional sense, he explained — no bleachers, for one thing. And parishioners planned to use the room for a host of activities — vacation Bible school, church dinners and other functions — not just athletics, Bennett pointed out.

And Ocean View Church of Christ’s Art Decker later suggested there may have been some confusion about the use of the word “office.” These would be church offices, he pointed out — they weren’t building a professional office building.

Bennett did say they were in part interested in new construction and bringing everything up to code — installing proper Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access, for instance — because members of the church had at least a wistful vision of opening a Christian school there someday, maybe.

Getting back to the building as proposed, Jeff Clark (Land Tech) presented the more technical aspects at the Ocean View planning and zoning (P&Z) commission meeting Dec. 15.

To begin, Administrative Official/Public Works Supervisor Charles McMullen advised the applicants their project would probably work better if they first combined all three of the church’s adjacent lots into one big parcel.

Clark questioned this. “Combining the lots was not our idea,” he said. “Although there are three separate tracts, this has been working fine for quite some time.”

He suggested the applicants wouldn’t want to combine the lots, unless they had to, and asked McMullen to explain his reasons carefully, because he’d have to report them back to his clients.

McMullen referenced plans to combine at least two of the parcels at some time in the past, but the paperwork was never filed with the county. That kind of slipup had a tendency to cause problems down the road, McMullen pointed out — in fact, a similar oversight had complicated one of the other projects on the table that night.

And he also noted a driveway literally overtop one of the property lines. Such nonconformities can persist — but only until property owners initiate new construction or a major remodel.

“This was suggested simply for the second application’s benefit,” McMullen pointed out — the first application being the lot combination, the second being the actual construction project.

As Clark explained, the new building would be two stories, with 20,500 square feet combined floor area. The multi-purpose room would take up about 6,000 square feet of the roughly 13,000-square-foot first floor.

McMullen said this would be triple the footprint of the existing building.

Clark said the church would hook up to town water, with fire suppression via a sprinkler system. They’d handle ADA compliance by installing two elevators, he said.

“There’s not much guidance, as far as what to do with the parking, for this type of building,” Clark pointed out. “But from what the church’s representatives have indicated, they’re just replacing old with new, so there should be no real additional impacts.”

The current lot accommodates 109 vehicles — the site plan Clark presented on Dec. 15 showed 114 spaces.

But what most concerned neighboring residents was the loss of the existing building. Although it might be old, and Clark said there were structural concerns (there’d been termite damage), they considered the old building attractive.

Jean Athan, Historic Preservation District Committee chairwoman, characterized the building as a kind of transition zone, between homes on West Avenue and the more modern architecture of the Ocean View Church of Christ itself, and Route 26.

And she suggested it might have some historic cultural value, as well. “The old church represents how the earlier members of the community worshipped,” she said. “How they struggled and made do with what little they had.

“It’s not just something that popped out of the 21st century,” Athan stated. She noted a renewed interest nationwide in the preservation of old churches and suggested the parishioners could probably find grant monies to help them with a restoration project.

Bob Swenson, who owns the Front Porch (formerly Iron Age Antiques) on Central Avenue, said his greatest concern was the building’s design — how it would fit into the community. “I agree with Ms. Athan, that the old church is a beautiful structure — aesthetically pleasing,” he said.

Swenson used the oft-belabored Halpern Eye Center as an example of a modern architecture he would rather not see along West Avenue. “It’s interesting,” he allowed, “But it doesn’t seem to fit into the surrounding community.”

As Dexter later pointed out, form needed to follow function — “rather than, ‘Let’s build something we think looks like a church, and see if we can make it work,’” he said.

He insisted it was not the church’s intention to destroy history, but it would cost them more money to repair the structural damage and restore the building than to build a new one.

And the building was rather bodged together anyway, Dexter pointed out. The original auditorium was built in the 1930s, he said, the Sunday school tacked on in the 1950s, then a couple rooms transported to Ocean View from the old church, in Bayard.

He questioned its aesthetic value. “While it was functional in its time, I don’t know that anyone would call it beautiful,” he said. “I suppose some people might feel that way.”

In other P&Z business, the commission once again visited Ralph Picard’s townhouse project at 32 Atlantic Ave., and Clark once again represented the applicant.

There’s been some back and forth between Clark and the town, regarding Picard’s ability to build nine, or eight, townhouses on the roughly 1.85-acre parcel.

Just how many the parcel can legally accommodate has apparently come down to just a few square feet, but Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader restated an earlier opinion that the number was eight. The debate stemmed from two related issues.

First, there’d been an agreement back in 1996, between the prior owners and neighboring Savannah’s Landing, that a strip of land be dedicated to the state for public right of way. However, as with the Church of Christ parcel consolidation, the paperwork was never recorded at the county.

Second, there was some question as to whether the 10-foot strip along Route 26, which Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) officials plan to use when they widen the roadway sometime in the not-too-distant future, belonged to the applicant or the state.

Clark agreed the Route 26 widening was a “viable project,” but said the dedication to DelDOT wasn’t like a straight real estate transaction.

If DelDOT managed to build their road before the townhouses went up, “Your nine would become eight, wouldn’t it’” asked Commission Member Garland Saville. Clark admitted the total developable land area would diminish – but he suggested the P&Z was going to see that occur many times once DelDOT initiated the project.

P&Z Chair Dick Logue asked him about the existing tree buffer — how many trees would have to come down to accommodate stormwater management. It didn’t necessarily make sense to remove trees to slow runoff, when trees themselves slowed runoff, Logue pointed out.

If they did have to remove trees, Clark agreed they wouldn’t want to remove anything large. Logue asked if the developer would agree to mark the trees he planned to remove.

With that condition attached, and reference to some added amenities (for visiting grandchildren, for instance), the commission unanimously approved the site plan as a preliminary.

Finally, Emlyn Jones petitioned for and received permission to subdivide and then recombine a neighbor’s empty lot. Half of the vacant lot would be absorbed into the parcel owned by Jones and his wife, Linda, the other half would attach itself to the parcel owned by William and Mary Fries.