Fenwick council discusses hotel height restrictions

Building height restrictions were the hot topic at Fenwick Island’s July 27 town council meeting.

“It is my understanding that there is some gray area in the height-limit ordinance,” said Councilwoman Julie Lee, who went on to ask Bill Weistling, chairman of Fenwick’s Building Committee, about the issue.

“Any request for a change to the ordinance is initiated by the town council and then sent to me at the Building Committee,” responded Weistling. “I do not take the responsibility of taking it up just because a few people want something addressed. I do not recall council suggesting at the last meeting, or any meetings, that we should look at it. I would be more than happy to do that, but it has to come from council.”

Lee said she would like the item to be expedited and also called for a moratorium on all building permits until the issue is resolved.

“It definitely needs to be looked at. It’s a real issue,” said Councilman Roy Williams. “It probably should’ve been looked at before. This would definitely be the time to look at it.”

“I need some more specifics before I determine there’s a problem, or a proposal of what needs to be made,” said Councilman Richard Mais.

The discussion stemmed from building permits requested for the construction of a new hotel to be built where the Sands Motel currently stands.

The developer wishes to place the HVAC units on the roof of the hotel, which would exceed the Town’s height restrictions by 6 feet. At first, the Building Committee denied the request; however, after a follow-up conversation with the developer’s attorney and architect, and Town Solicitor Mary Schrider-Fox, Weistling said they OK’d the placement of the HVAC unit on the roof of the structure.

“We looked at it and, based on the wording of our ordinance,” he explained, “‘No building,’” he said, emphasizing the word “building,” “‘shall exceed a height of 30 feet except as provided in Section 160, which allows 32 feet for freeboard. A building is a structure,’” he continued, emphasizing the word “structure,” “‘having a roof, supported by columns, posts or walls which is utilized for shelter, support or enclosure. The definition of a structure is that which is built or constructed, an edifice or building of any kind or any piece of work artificially built up or composed of parts joined together in some manner.’

“Their argument was that mechanical units are not part of the structure of a building, and therefore we cannot enforce that in the height requirements. We agreed that mechanical units are not a part of the structure and should not be restricted.”

Weistling said the Building Committee did stand firm that the elevator shaft, which the developer also wanted to exceed the Town’s height restrictions, did fall under “structure.” The hearing on the issue, before the Board of Adjustment, will be held on Thursday, Aug. 23, at 2 p.m.

“I agree with everybody that it needs to be changed, but right now, we have to enforce what is on the books,” Weistling said.

Councilwoman Vicki Carmean said she recently became aware from a “group of four” that “it basically raised the height of the buildings in our town to 38 feet.”

Carmean said that, while she is in support of new buildings and the sunshine law, she believed the topic was not properly handled.

“I do believe this should’ve been handled in an executive session, where everything is confidential. This has nothing to do with the Board of Adjustment hearing.”

“You can’t have an executive session for something like this,” replied Mayor Gene Langan.

Weistling said there is nothing on record that would justify an executive session, which may be called to discuss things such as personnel matters, potential or pending litigation, and collective bargaining.

Town Manager Terry Tieman said that Schrider-Fox had been asked for a legal opinion.

“Mary is not the final word,” argued Carmean.

“She’s your town solicitor that council approved,” said Tieman. “We very much did want to bring this to council, and I think the mayor did talk to you all individually.”

“I feel that counsel gave us an opinion that is different than where you ultimately ended up. That’s why I think this is something that should’ve been brought to council that still needs to be discussed by council,” added Lee. “I can sit here and look at these words that our attorney wrote to you… I do not understand how you were able to get from the opinion to where you got to, concerning mechanicals not being a fixture or part of the building,” she said to Weistling.

Anyone who wants to do construction work within Fenwick Island Town limits must apply for a building permit.

Weistling said the process for years has been that the building official reviews the permits and contacts two members of the Building Committee to review the permits separately, and then a decision is made. Weistling said that process has existed for more than 26 years.

“If we have any questions — and this doesn’t happen regularly — [Tieman] will call [Schrider-Fox], and we’ll go forward. Council has never been involved in the process of doing that,” he said.

Carmean said she is not against new construction and would like to see a nice motel/hotel project.

“I’m not against them. I’m not against anybody here in this room. I like everybody, pretty much,” she said. “But, honestly, this process that was used … opens it up to every other person who wants to build something here in town.”

Langan said the process was set up to keep the council out of the business of issuing building permits.

Councilman Bernie Merritt said he didn’t approve of how Weistling and others involved were being treated.

“I think it is quite disrespectful to single out Bill and these other people, whose decisions we’ve followed for the last 27 years, and all of a sudden they’re been villainized. I think it’s incorrect. I think these are the most dedicated people in this town, and it’s wrong.”

“No one is trying to vilify anyone, but we had a group of four that made a decision, and they themselves, basically,” said Carmean. “I really think we should’ve had the chance as council to sit down and quietly, privately, examine the process.”

Weistling recommended waiting to do so until after the Board of Adjustment meeting regarding the 6-foot encroachment of the elevator installation.

Carmean motioned to have the Building Committee meet in August to review the height restrictions as soon as possible. The motion did not pass, as only Lee, Carmean and Williams voted in favor. A motion to have the committee meet following the Board of Adjustment meeting was also denied.

The council did vote to have the height ordinance to be reviewed in September, with Lee stating that the code should be clarified as to all items that fall under the height restrictions, so there are no “gray areas.”

“I would like to see a temporary moratorium on the issuance of building permits until our code can be clarified concerning our height limit,” motioned Lee.

That motion also did not pass, as only Lee, Carmean and Williams voted in favor.

Questions of possible conflict of interest

During the meeting, Lee also said that there is a feeling among some people in the town that, with all the discussion related to the motel/hotel that, “perhaps it would be advisable for all the members of council and committees to sign a document that they had no personal or financial interest in the hotel.”

Langan asked for the names of the individuals to whom Lee was referring.

“They’re going to get notified — it’s defamation.”

“None of us should have a personal or financial interest,” said Carmean, adding that Langan should “just say it.”

“Nobody on this council has any financial interest, nor does anyone on the building committee or our employees,” said Councilman Gardner Bunting.

“My impression is someone has an interest,” said one attendee in the audience, “because it makes no sense to not discuss the interest now. How does discussing it affect what’s going on?”

“Because there’s a hearing scheduled for the end of August for the Board of Adjustment, and you can’t start talking about things like that. We shouldn’t be talking about this now without the other side being here,” said Langan.

Resident Pete Frederick said he didn’t understand why the Town went through the process of allowing mechanicals into yard setbacks if they would be allowed on the tops of structures.

“You’re trying to push something through that you could do properly,” he said. “You’re not doing it. The thing that hurts me the most is the group denied the request. But then, because the lawyer came in and talked to our lawyer… It sounds like they’ve got a better lawyer than we do, because they scared you into saying, ‘Oh, they’re going to sue us, and we’ll lose.’ How do you know that?...

“We all want the Sands to be replaced. It’s a pigsty. But let’s do it right. You’re not doing it right now.”

Property owner Mark Tingle asked what Frederick felt would be the right way.

“All these objections, and I don’t see where there’s any problem with putting the mechanicals on the roof,” Tingle said. “I think it’s a better place for them than in the back yard.”

Tingle said he said it sounds as if the Building Committee has been following the rules.

“This has been going on for years; we’ve had an election on this same subject. Julie wants to know if anyone has a financial incentive as far as replacing the Sands goes? I personally feel we all — if you own property in this town — have an incentive to see the Sands replaced. And there is no way, even if it was 40 feet high, it would be any worse than what is sitting there right now.

“Anything we do to obstruct this keeps what we have there now, keeps this going and going and going. If you think an $85-a-night hotel is what you want representing the town of Fenwick, then we’ll just keep what we’ve got. The Holiday Inn Express is $300-plus a night in Bethany.”

Tingle called the Sands “an eyesore” and said it “needs to go.” He added that he believes Weistling has done everything above board as relates to the building permits.

“In my opinion, Bill Weistling is above reproach — more than anyone I’ve ever met in this time, and this is how you want to treat him?”

Resident Faye Horner said she believes it would be fine for the elevator housing to exceed the height restrictions within town.

“I would like to think we owe it to the people who visit our town every summer to have a nice hotel to stay at — clean and safe. We’re talking a 6 feet addition to the top of the roof to house the elevator. I have no idea what the housing would be…

“Don’t be afraid you’re setting a standard for all buildings to do this. You have to take each one individually. Stop arguing! We’re talking about a new hotel. We want it to look nice; we need it for our people here. They put money in the pockets for our merchants here in town… To me, it’s simple.”

By Maria Counts
Staff Reporter