Committee tackles Bethany's zoning future

The Bethany Beach Planning Commission’s zoning ad hoc committee (ZAC) has only met twice, but it’s already nearing the end of its appointed task – consideration of a list of possible zoning modifications developed with area builders. The question has become what further work — if any — the committee will do.

At the second ZAC meeting, Nov. 14, Town Council Member Lew Killmer questioned ZAC Chairwoman and Planning Commissioner Kathleen Mink about a series of steps that had been taken from the previous ZAC meeting, moving three recommendations forward to the Planning Commission.

The commissioners voted to move forward with one recommendation — to require four off-street parking spaces for new construction — and passed the concept along to Town Solicitor Terrance Jaywork via Building Inspector John Eckrich for development into a proposed ordinance.

Killmer said he was concerned about ZAC making use of Jaywork prior to any town council approval of the recommended change. Mink countered that the decision to send the proposed ordinance change ahead to the attorney had been that of the Planning Commission, placing Killmer’s objections with them and not ZAC itself.

That issue — and the scope of the committee’s work — is likely to be on the agenda for the Nov. 19 commission meeting. Mink agreed with Killmer that the list of action items from the September meeting with the builders would likely be exhausted with that day’s ZAC meeting, leaving a number of loose-end ideas that resulted from the ZAC discussion of the original action items.

Should ZAC continue to make recommendation on those new items? Keep itself strictly to the original list? Brainstorm on new ideas once discussion of the action items was completed?

Mink said she planned to ask her fellow commissioners just that question Nov. 19, to ensure ZAC had any official mandate it needed before proceeding on other work.

The ZAC chairwoman also wanted to clarify exactly what the committee’s work entailed, based on feedback she had received since the committee’s October meeting.

ZAC is not all-powerful, with the ability to change town codes at will, she emphasized. All recommendations will be sent through the Planning Commission (for their approval) and be subject to public input through public hearings as a part of the normal process of passing ordinance changes in the town.

That means there will at least be first and second readings of any proposed changes, before council members weigh in with a vote that would give thumbs-up or thumbs-down to any of the ideas that are forwarded from the Planning Commission.

Along those same lines, Mink requested the input of committee members on a “statement of work” (differentiating it from a “mission statement” for a regular town committee, since it is an ad hoc subcommittee).

She said she’d been asked by a number of townsfolk about when ZAC would be taking on issues of density, lot size and preservation of existing structures, to name a few. She wanted the statement of work to clarify that none of those issues were among those the committee had been tasked to consider. Their scope was more limited.

In agreeing to the statement of work, committee members opted to strip down a draft of the statement provided by Mink, aiming for both simplicity and to boil down the intent of the committee’s recommendations into something that adequately covers its scope without leaving too much room for misinterpretation.

In the end, the key words were “curb appeal.” Committee members agreed the group’s purpose was to prepare proposals for Planning Commission consideration, with an eye toward preserving the character of Bethany Beach by addressing curb appeal.

The primary focus of that curb appeal notion has been on massing — the architect’s term for how massive a structure appears. It has been the chief complaint about recent construction in the town, with smaller, traditional cottages replaced by what most have come to call “McMansions.”

Efforts to alleviate the problem have centered on changing the “big box” architecture that maximizes living space by instead encouraging differentiation in building planes, to limit large, sheer faces – particularly in the fronts of homes as they face the street.

Toward that end, ZAC members continued to consider a series of recommendations from the action-item list, including encouraging higher roof pitches, bump-outs and honest-to-goodness front doors.

Architect John Hendrickson, a member of the committee, presented the group with a new series of sample architectural renderings at the Nov. 14 meeting. They were designed to show what kind of difference the recommendations would make in a relatively standard Bethany Beach home — one that rests on pilings.

Committee members appeared pleased with the results: a 7/12 roof pitch replacing the current minimum 5/12 pitch, a covered porch bumping out from the front of what was previously depicted as a flat front façade, stairs leading to a real front door, instead of the side-facing main door or under-house entryway that many beach homes possess.

The carrot to be offered to property owners to use that higher roof pitch would be a higher height limit, if the committee’s recommendations are followed — up to 34 feet from the current 32 feet.

Hendrickson was careful to say that the added height would not really allow an extra floor of living space, but instead allow for extra light, for example. (Detailing how the design features could be used, Hendrickson depicted a mixed-pitch roofline that featured dormers to allow extra light into the upper floor.)

The other payoff would be for both the property owner and the town — creating a more interesting, varied home that moves away from the big box and helps create a more varied streetscape.

Committee members again emphasized that the roof pitch was in the mode of an allowance, not a mandate. Former Mayor Joseph McHugh said he didn’t believe that allowance was anything new — he already had a steeper pitch of roof on his home.

The change, committee members said, was in the 34-foot height allowance for those who chose to go with a 7/12 pitch on at least 60 percent of the roofline that faced the street — a carrot to encourage homes built to a standard the town preferred, without making a flat-out requirement.

Planning Commissioner Steve Wode indicated he’d rather the 7/12 pitch was a requirement, but the idea didn’t garner support from the committee, or from commission Chairman Phil Boesch, who greeted it with an adamant, “No.”

Hendrickson noted that the 7/12 pitch created a slight challenge for residents of many lots in the town’s R2 zoning district. Those lots are generally much wider than the 40-foot standard in the east-side R1 district. The architect said a 7/12 roof pitch on the same style of home as built to maximum width on an R2 lot would present a huge roof face or push the home above even 34 feet in height.

He said the best option in R2 was to break up the home’s roofline, using a 7/12 pitch on the larger portion (to meet the 60 percent requirement) or turning it.

Committee members also noted that the 7/12 pitch is believed to be more resistant to storm winds, making homes less likely to lose their roofs in a hurricane or nor’easter.

ZAC members moved on to discuss the proposed requirement for at least two planes on the front of a home. The second plane would have to be differentiated from the other by at least two feet for 60 percent of either the height or width of the façade.

The most common way to get that kind of relief on a façade, Hendrickson said, would be to create a porch bump-out or to even pull a portion of the whole house’s interior forward or back.

He noted that many new homes in neighboring South Bethany were being built with unrelieved flat facades to maximize interior space and thus economic value – something that has not been greeted with open arms by many in the area.

Killmer pointed out that there were special concerns for properties on corners, with implications for the setbacks depending on which side of the home was declared the front. Front setbacks in the town are 20 feet, while side setbacks are only 15 feet. Choosing to place the long side of a home across the front — as might be desirable under some of the recommendations — might cost the home owner some space.

Committee members agreed a second set of guidelines might be needed to address the corner homes, perhaps with a setback allowance to encourage that varied streetscape they’ve been aiming to achieve. Mink said she would note the idea when passing the overall recommendations along to the commission.

Another potential setback allowance may come for uncovered stairs. That idea was floated as a way to make it easier for architects to design true front doors on homes while still accommodating the under-house parking (now for four vehicles) most common on piling-built homes.

Hendrickson noted that Sussex County already allows a 5-foot encroachment into a front setback for uncovered stairs. That allowance does not exist in Bethany Beach, however.

By creating it, the town could make it easier for architects to place a set of stairs running from the front of a yard to the front of the home, while still allowing at least a 10-foot opening for each of two under-house parking areas. The door could end up on either side of the home, or potentially in the center, Hendrickson said.

Committee members returned to a point from their previous meeting: front doors make a home feel welcoming, establish where access is and reduce the anonymous feel that comes from not being able to see a door from the street. And it was noted that short walks from the street or sidewalk to the stairway would further add to that warmth and visual appeal.

Property owner Tracy Mulligan said he was concerned that the requirement for four off-street parking spaces would push builders to build on pilings instead of on traditional foundations. Hendrickson said the requirement could technically be met even with no under-house parking — it was just easier when under-house parking was a possibility.

On the subject of pilings, Killmer and other committee members expressed interest in reviving the idea of a requirement to encapsulate pilings within finished building materials, as is already required in many North Bethany developments. The idea had not been resoundingly supported at the previous ZAC meeting and was dropped.

Mink said the it was considered such an individual aesthetic notion that it was deemed not the province of the committee. However, additional support from members present at the Nov. 14 meeting brought the issue back onto the table, with Killmer saying that much of the committee’s work dealt with aesthetic issues already.

Builder Mark Dieste said excuses about the additional cost paled in the face of the fact that doing so costs an estimated tenth of a percent of the total construction cost of a home — a pittance when many homes are valued at $1 million or more.

Committee members agreed to add the notion to their list of recommendations for the Planning Commission.

The commission members will also have to decide whether they want the committee to consider other issues — including the banks of plain rectangular windows that Boesch said were a pet peeve of his and related to the massing concerns.

That running list of issues included setback requirements for replacement structures, but committee members agreed the topic was already dealt with in existing building codes. The committee also rejected the idea of dealing with the defining of parking areas and related concerns about increasing amounts of impervious surface, saying it was an issue outside their purview and knowledge.

The idea of controlling home size with floor-area ratio (FAR), however, will go to the Planning Commission, where commissioners can determine if they want ZAC to deal with it at a future meeting.

Even if they elect not to do so, the committee plans to meet at least one more time, to assemble a complete package of recommendations for the commission and the future of zoning codes in the town. The date of that meeting is to be determined.

Mayor Jack Walsh, present at the Nov. 14 meeting, said of the committee’s work, “It’s great that you could do this,” noting the value of including the input of professionals from the architectural and construction world in the ideas that were considered and recommended.