Bethany zoning committee begins work

Kathleen Mink emphasized that the meeting she was chairing Oct. 14 was not a formal workshop or a public meeting. Nothing decided by those on the committee will be set in stone anytime soon.

The results of the Bethany Beach Planning Commission’s ad hoc committee’s work on possible zoning code changes will eventually be forwarded to the commission, then to the town council, and finally come up before the public before they are even considered for adoption.

So the mission of the ad hoc committee will be, as Mink told committee members and others in attendance Oct. 14, to “roll up our sleeves and do the work” of determining what changes should be considered.

Their focus is on retaining the current architectural character of the town and minimizing the “big box” look that some larger homes might take on under current zoning codes and allowances.

That architecture results most commonly from efforts to maximize living space — building to the setbacks, up to three or four floors, and using sheer planes for exterior facades.

And the committee’s goal will be to encourage the building of new construction and significant renovation in ways that defies that big-box mold in favor of more aesthetically-pleasing structures.

Toward that end, the committee comprises what Mink referred to as “the three stakeholders” in the issue: the town’s property owners, the community at large and the builders and architects who are responsible for the structures that are built.

Representing the latter group on the committee are architect John Henrickson and builders Mike Cummings (Miken Builders) and Mark Dieste. Mink, Council Member Lew Kilmer, Kathleen Holland and Building Inspector John Eckrich represent the town’s official elements.

Selected from among 12 people expressing interest in serving on the committee, Dave Evans, Sara “Sally” Phillips and Bill Quinter round out the committee as citizen advisors.

The Oct. 14 meeting was the first for the committee, but Mink got right to business, working from a preliminary list of ideas that were gathered from a Sept. 2 meeting between the Planning Commission and local builders and architects.

Rooted in a carrot-and-stick approach raised at this past winter’s theming workshop, the concepts center on making additional allowances for those who choose to incorporate some select elements into their structures.

They generally move away from making pure requirements or restrictions in addition to existing zoning code, though some of those could also be included and were among things to be considered by the committee.

Mink said the notions from the Sept. 2 meeting had focused on lot coverage, building/roof height and setbacks. Each area is one in which a minor allowance could be made as an enticement to meet items on a list of target aesthetics.

She requested committee members consider and discuss each of the list items. Any that were supported by the committee as a whole would be forwarded to the planning commission once details were worked out.

Right off the top, allowances were seen as possible to need in the wake of a suggestion to require at least four off-street parking spaces per property. A move toward bigger homes with a higher number of bedrooms was cited as the reason for that need.

Committee members acknowledged that it might push property owners toward building on pilings but would still allow some homes to have a garage and additional parking in a driveway. It would also potentially move many parked cars off the town’s streets and out of the limited on-street parking.

Determining a minimum amount of parking space based on the number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms or square footage of living space was considered but rejected as too difficult to administer and enforce. Committee members supported the flat requirement for four parking spaces.

Similarly, they settled on a limit of three floors of living space per home, not including open ground-level areas created by pilings but including ground floors that offer entryways or storage. Currently, homes are limited only by the town’s roof height restriction of 31 feet.

With that limit in place, concerns were that attics might be converted to bedrooms, particularly if the town encouraged a higher roof pitch in order to enhance aesthetics. But Henrickson calculated that even a 34-foot height limit would leave only 5 feet of height in an attic room — far too small for anyone but a small child to be comfortable.

That left committee members wondering whether the restriction to three floors was needed at all, in light of the 31-foot building height limit, but Dieste and Henrickson voiced support for the limit — just in case someone got creative in the future.

More directly tackling the aesthetic element of building in the town, the next item related to encouraging builders to break up the front façade of a home as it faces the street.

Suggested by Cummings and seen in a number of his recent projects, the concept would focus on articulating that front façade with porches, bump-outs and multiple planes across either horizontal or vertical planes.

The new mark would be that a minimum of 60 percent of the width or height of the façade would represent a second plan that varies 2 feet or more from the rest of the façade. With general support from the committee, the engineering contingent promised to provide visuals of such a plan at a future meeting.

Another point of aesthetics — as well as practicality, in some cases — was the idea of more clearly indicating the front entrance of a home by having the front door visible from the street.

That may mean moving front entry stairs in many cases — resulting in a suggestion to allow a 42-inch encroachment into the side setbacks, but only on properties making that front-doorway adjustment and only for open stairways.

Former Town Council Member Jane Fowler, present at the meeting, said she opposed any allowances for further setback encroachment, for any reason, saying houses were already “terribly close” in the town.

Mink noted that part of the idea behind the allowance was also to provide some relief to the parking requirement and its impact on ground-floor layouts.

Planning Commission Member Steve Wode suggested the idea also apply to the front setback, providing other options to home owners. He noted that the door position was a purely aesthetic issue in many cases, with ground-floor entries being commonly used by residents even when they had more formal entryways.

Henrickson pointed out that the county already allows a 5-foot encroachment into setbacks for open stairways — an allowance not made in Bethany Beach at present. He championed the encouragement of front doors, saying they reduce “the anonymous nature of homes.”

“Ask any child to draw a house, and they put a front door on it. They recognized that it’s part of a house,” he said, acknowledging that few of his home owners actually use a front door, but emphasizing the importance of the front door in the home aesthetic.

There was general support for allowances to encourage such designs.

Committee members also voiced support for a wider variety of roof pitches, particularly focusing on a 7/12 mark that is higher than the current 5/12 standard in the town. In addition to being structurally stronger, the higher roofs are considered more aesthetically pleasing by some.

As such, encouraging them was another item on the Sept. 2 list, and the carrot to be offered: an increased roof-height limit of 34 feet. It was emphasized that while the higher limit might allow higher interior ceilings — 9 feet instead of 8 feet — it wouldn’t allow additional floors of living space to be built.

The home owner would simply be able to go a little higher with the overall building — provided they went with the higher pitch.

Dieste noted that older homes in Bethany Beach commonly had higher roof pitches — some as high as 8/12 and 12/12 — while committee members noted with disdain some 3/12 roof pitches in recent South Bethany construction.

The reasoning and the reward established, committee members sought to set a standard that could be enforced — a key checkpoint in the whole committee process and one monitored by the builders, architect and Eckrich.

They narrowed the mark to require 7/12 or higher roof pitch on at least 60 percent of the structure’s roof and to have that roof line visible from the street.

Eliminating one possible future trouble spot, the committee also voiced support for restricting barrel roofs to use as accent features and not as main rooflines.

Their time exhausted for the October meeting of the committee, Mink requested additional visuals be provided to illustrate some of the changes and options supported at the meeting. Those may arrive in time for the planned Nov. 14 second meeting of the committee.