Bethany suggests increased off-street parking spaces

Only eight days after the first meeting of the Bethany Beach Planning Commission’s ad hoc committee, commission members gave the go-ahead for one of the concepts put forward by the new committee: a requirement for four off-street parking spaces for new construction or renovations, instead of the two currently required.

The measure was originally suggested at a meeting between commissioners and area builders, as a way to meet ever-increasing demands for parking as smaller homes are replaced with those housing five or more bedrooms and many more occupants.

Commission Chairman Phil Boesch (unanimously re-elected to the position at the Oct. 21 meeting) noted that the target of the committee’s work had been to find solutions to some of the aesthetic and zoning issues in the town in a way that satisfied all three “stakeholders” in the town: property owners, builders and the community at large.

In the case of the parking initiative, it was deemed to have done so.

The remaining question was one of detail — how to define parking areas so that the ordinance could be said to have been met, or not met. Was just having enough accessible front yard — made of sand or grass — enough to meet the requirement? Or should there be some sort of constructed surface, such as asphalt or pavers?

Building Inspector John Eckrich noted that town code currently doesn’t define what materials can serve as the surface for a parking area.

Commissioner Steve Trodden asked what would be accomplished by the ordinance if merely having enough yard space to park four cars was enough to satisfy the code. Shouldn’t there be a requirement for an improved surface?

“We need to define a parking space in order to encourage more off-street parking,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Wode, however, was concerned that moving to do so would just result in restrictions for the types of surfaces that could be used for parking — a difficult thing with the town’s history of parking on sand or grass.

The issue was enough of a sticking point to cause Trodden to initially vote against the measure and Wode to abstain. But tacking on a requirement that the commission define parking spaces in the code when they came to the pertinent section during their overall review of the larger code was enough to net a unanimous agreement.

Trodden also raised concerns about the owners of smaller homes and suggested a lesser requirement be put in place for them.

But Commissioner Kathleen Mink noted that the idea of proportional off-street parking requirements had been raised by the ad hoc committee and rejected as unworkable. The administrative difficulties of assessing whether a den was a den or a bedroom in disguise made it plain to committee members that working from such a formula would be difficult at best. They favored the flat four-space requirement instead.

Trodden accepted that decision in the end.

The ordinance will now be forwarded to Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork for appropriate wording. It will then return to the commission for a final look before being forwarded to the town council for possible adoption.

Not so favorable was the fate of a second ad hoc committee recommendation: to limit homes to a maximum of three floors of livable space as part of efforts to minimize the “big box” aesthetic that is an increasing trend in the town.

The initial problem pointed to on the proposal was how to define “livable space.” Did that include a foyer? Ground-level storage space? An attic?

Property owner Tracey Mulligan questioned the purpose served by limiting buildings by the number of floors — wasn’t the building size the same at a given height and other outside dimensions? Did it matter how many floors were contained within?

The question raised an issue for Eckrich, who said he believed the best way to limit the visual impact of homes was with a height restriction. The town already limits homes to 31 feet in height, with some discussion of an allowance up to 34 feet in exchange for an aesthetically desirable higher roof pitch.

Either way, Eckrich said, he’d never had complaints about a home having four floors versus three when heights were equal.

Wode noted that part of the intent of limiting floors of living space had been to prevent people from using small attics as livable floors. Mink emphasized that builders on the committee had favored the limit even after discussion that concluded its impact might be minimal.

But in the end, Eckrich’s point of view won out, leading the commissioners to reject the floor-number limit.

Mink noted for the other commissioners that there had been 18 applications for the three community representative positions on the ad hoc committee, from which the field had been narrowed to 12 once the committee’s work was detailed, and finally leading to the selection of three members.

The balance of the committee is made up of two builders, an architect and town officials. Mink said those applying but not selected had been thanked and reminded that there would be other opportunities for input in the future.

Also at the Oct. 22 meeting, commissioners fine-tuned wording of the so-called “grandfather clause” as relates to planned residential developments (PRDs) on properties smaller than 50,000 square feet.

Dealing with what some referred to as a loophole and others as simply a vagueness in the code as it was originally drafted, the new wording sought to clarify at what point in the approval process a project should be before its grandfathered status is cemented.

Commissioners tacked that marker at approval of the preliminary plan for the development, leaving heirs or buyers free to continue the process without the original grandfathered owner-of-record from that point on.

The issue was raised as to how the commission would deal with a final plan that didn’t match that preliminary plan – whether the new owner had to return to the start of the process if a final plan was rejected, and thus lose the grandfathered status, or whether there was an intermediate point from which to continue the process.

The final discovery was that town code already defined the process to be followed when a final plan was rejected: the applicant could alter the final plan to where it met commissioners’ approval (or met preliminary plan specifications enough to get past Eckrich for a hearing) or they could re-apply with the new plan and start the entire process over again — losing grandfathered status.

No loophole for such last-minute changes remained. And so commissioners unanimously agreed forward the revised ordinance to Jaywork for wording. It will also return to the commission for a final look before being sent on to the town council.

Closing the meeting, Boesch formally announced the re-commission of the Beautification Committee, per the request of town officials at the previous night’s council meeting. The committee members will participate in a review of the town’s 2002 Streetscape concept as it is considered anew.

Boesch said he had also inquired as to the possibility of bringing in John Slater, who developed the original presentation for the concept, to update the existing Powerpoint presentation so that the updated version can be presented to the town council. He said he would ask Slater for a proposal for the work, with a decision to be made on the idea at a later time.

With so much time having passed since the original approval of the concept, Boesch said he felt the commission should really have provided an update for council members in the intervening years. He said council members were no longer aware of many elements of the plan, including one aspect of its basic intent: to reduce vehicular traffic in the downtown area in favor of pedestrians.

Mink said she felt the review was important to “set the record straight on how we got there” in respect to the final concept.

Boesch emphasized that, despite an original three concepts that were the working fodder for the Beautification Committee, only a single concept had been presented for any kind of council approval. “There was only ever one,” he said.

The review of that plan has been set for Saturday, Nov. 19, at 1 p.m. at the town hall.