Fenwick Island studies dwellings, signs

Like newspaper editors cleaning up wire copy, Fenwick Island’s ordinance commissioners pored over pages of town codes, tweaking and tightening.

For the ordinance committee’s Friday, Aug. 19 meeting, Chairman Harry Haon, also vice president of the town council, brought two tasks to the redrawing table: amending the definitions for apartments, hotels, motels, condominiums and townhouses in Chapter 160, titled Zoning, of the municipal charter; and modifying sign ordinances in Chapter 135, titled Signs.

Starting with the zoning code, the committee discussed recommendations from Haon and Fenwick Island Town Solictor Tempe Steen on how to limit density. The first proposal called for changing a phrase in the definition of an apartment from “structured as part of a commercial establishment” to “structured as part of a commercial building.” The altered version, while seemingly synonymous, would restrict the number of lofts permitted above stores, since some commercial quarters — strip malls, for instance — feature multiple business establishments within a single building.

“There’s reference to apartments in the code at least six or seven times, and those various mentions are not always consistent. It appears that the original intent is clearly that there will be no apartments in the residential zone. And that is clear in the code,” Haon said. “In the commercial zone, there is a concept that each commercial building could have an apartment upstairs, and of course we have six just like that. If you read the ordinance, however, it doesn’t clearly think like that, and allows for more apartments than one.”

Opportunistic developers, Haon continued, could buy a single-family house on State Route 1, for example, and outfit the lot with three businesses and three lofts. To bolster the buffer against such arrangements, the committee also defined apartment buildings — “any structure or group of structures containing two or more apartments” — and then outlawed them in a later section.

With one question resolved, the committee proceeded to consolidate the code’s entries for a hotel and for a motel, which are currently denoted separately in the glossary, under a single “hotel/motel” listing.

The revision, Haon suggested, would help to moderate the quota for apartments above hotel/motel rooms. A developer, he said, currently could interpret the charter’s nebulous language to allow for the construction of 11 bedrooms — a six-suite motel downstairs and a five-bedroom apartment upstairs — on a single lot.

Taking his formula to the extreme, the committee chairman warned that developers could erect 72 bedrooms on an oceanfront block using motel-apartment combinations. Townhouses, conversely, could fit 35 bedrooms, and single-family houses could fit only 30.

“We have expressed concern, and the people have expressed concern about the conversion of the commercial area into residential, and the loss of commercial,” Haon said. “This is a loophole that exists that allows conversion to residential at over twice the density of single-family homes and townhouses.”

The new definition, on the other hand, obligates each hotel/motel to have at least 16 sleeping rooms. Hotel/motel proprietors, therefore, would need 3 lots, since the code already requires them to possess 1,000 square-feet of land for every sleeping room.

Unlike edits to the zoning code, modifications of the sign ordinance were mostly clerical changes. One adjustment, though, was administrative, necessitating council approval:

Whereas business owners currently cannot set commercial signs larger than 30 square-feet within 25 feet of the Route 1 right-of-way or the property line on other streets and roads, the committee wants to lower the minimum setback for all commercial signs to ten feet.

The shift would align Fenwick Island’s sign laws with the Delaware Department of Transportation’s standards and would please local business owners, according to Patricia Schuchman, the town’s building official and author of the revision.

Haon will recite first readings of the committee’s rewrites at the next council meeting, 3:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 26 in town hall.