Fenwick may loosen building restrictions for businesses

Despite a seeming lack of building now, Fenwick Island’s Charter and Code Committee is brainstorming new business footprints for the future.

After Town Council recently rejected changes to commercial setbacks, it was back to the drawing board on Nov 3, with the concept of placing businesses right next to the road, with parking in the rear.

This discussion began with the Fenwick Island Comprehensive Plan, which recommends changes to pedestrian safety, bicycle safety and sidewalks, especially in a town with so many strip malls.

That means a proposed 15-foot setback from the property line, with some low landscaping between the building and sidewalk. That puts buildings 10 feet closer to the highway. The rear setback would remain at 10 feet, but include 5 feet of landscape buffer.

“Most of Fenwick is 80, 85, 90 percent built,” said Diane Tingle. “I don’t see... people tearing things down and building new.”

Sooner or later, someone might, Weistling said.

For instance, Libby’s restaurant was torn down and had a potential buyer who wanted apartments over a business. Between that and the requested setbacks, Fenwick Island didn’t accept his proposal.

“I’m with Diane [Tingle],” said Roy Williams. “It’s probably not gonna happen in my lifetime. But I think you need to have something in place... guidelines to let everybody know.”

“All you’re doing is giving the option to build their building closer if that’s what they wanna do, or to the back if they want,” said Town Manager Merritt Burke.

When he served on the Comprehensive Plan Committee, resident and architect Phil Craig said, “If you went through Fenwick, the highway was the main thing, the town was peripheral. If you drive through Dewey Beach, you’re drawn to the buildings, pedestrians on the sidewalk.”

He said it slows drivers down.

Besides making the town more attractive, the committee does not want to decrease parking.

“The biggest problem we’ve heard is parking. If somebody comes in here with a successful business, they’re never gonna have enough room,” for summertime parking, Weistling said.

There’s plenty of parking on western side streets, Burke clarified, but no one wants to walk that far to a restaurant.

Charter & Code seeks public input for what best fits the town. The public, businesses and others are welcome to share what they want in the layout of business properties. They also intend to ask several developers why they chose not to buy and backed out of their building plans.

In a few months, Landmark Engineering will lead a workshop, using a computer program to mock-up various options.

“We can visualize a building’s footprint and various setbacks,” Burke said. “I think it’s going to be a great workshop so everybody can visualize what we’re discussing.”

Freeboard off the table, for now

Although DNREC recommends 12 to 18 inches of freeboard on houses, the Charter & Code Committee said this is a discussion for another day.

Freeboard is the amount of space between the ground and the house bottom, meant to reduce flood damage from rising waters.

Langan and Tingle suggested two feet of mandatory freeboard.

But currently, houses are 30 feet to the roof peak, said building official, Patricia Schuchman.

“If it affects height, I have problem because... [height limit has] been in place. I hate to see it messed with,” Mike Quinn said.

Tingle scoffed.

Although Weistling prefers 18 inches of freeboard (which still gives homeowners the insurance credit worth 2 feet), he wouldn’t let the controversy delay the entire floodplain ordinance.

“When we go to vote, it’s very important we get this passed. This whole ordinance could be voted [down] because of freeboard,” Weistling said. “I recommend we return later to discussion of height and freeboard.”

Resident Craig warned the committee not to do this piecemeal, but the committee agreed to continue the discussion later.

Drainage plan

On the State’s recommendation, the committee agreed to consider a new drainage ordinance.

The plan is voluntary now, but may eventually be state-mandated, Burke said.

“You can’t blame them because of the $65 million it’s cost the taxpayers,” said Burke, reporting that few towns pay the full price of chronic drainage issues, which has cost the state that much since 1996.

Although this targets the unincorporated zones with few drainage standards, Fenwick has room for improvement, he added.

The committee will consider definitions, drainage obstructions, construction requirements, compliance and more.

Bonfire parking permits

For bonfire nights, the committee will approach Town Council with the idea of allowing up to five parking permits for bonfire organizers. These one-night passes will be issued for free, with the purchase of a bonfire permit. They allow parking from 5 p.m. to midnight on the ocean-side.

Currently, cars are allowed to park long enough to unload firewood, but must move immediately. When beach-front parking is done correctly, ten cars should typically fit.

Despite discussion of opening eastern side streets up to free parking for the public or just for Fenwick employees, the committee ultimately decided against it.

Williams had safety concerns for public parking after dark. Police Chief Boyden didn’t see a problem with enforcement, although the most common issue is people parked after midnight.

Craig felt that businesses would shift all their employees to the residential streets, to make room for customers, when “restaurants should be supplying employee parking.” That could produce much traffic and noise.

Burke said 130 bayside parking spots are already mostly unused.

Plus councilmember Diane Tingle said residents must purchase parking passes, and out-of-towners could swarm Fenwick.

Although Boyden said dusk is primetime for surfers and photographers, it doesn’t necessarily flood the beach.

Charter & Code Committee meets again Dec. 2 at 9:30 a.m.