Fenwick officials discuss renovations

As promised at the April meeting of the Fenwick Island Town Council, Mayor Peter Frederick raised the issue of renovations to the town hall at a May 14 “workshop-without-agenda” (WWA).
Previously, Frederick had asked his fellow council members to consider accepting a proposal from engineering firm Davis, Bowen & Friedel (DBF) to perform a series of planning steps to determine usage needs and eventual plans that could be implemented in the design of the town hall.

But there was opposition to the proposal as a package, particularly from Council Member Harry Haon, as to whether the town should accept the proposal or perform some intermediate steps before engaging expert assistance. Haon had championed an internal needs assessment before outside help was brought in.

In discussing the issue May 14, Frederick said he had serious concerns about the space availability at the town’s current building — most seriously about its police facilities.

He said the town’s police had recently “been getting involved in some serious stuff” and that he was concerned about both the legal requirements of detaining suspects, as well as the safety of town employees during the daytime.

Additionally, Frederick cited the growing need of Building Official Patricia Schuckman to spread out large sets of plans and consult with high-end builders in her closet-sized office. He also said he would like to move office assistant Agnes DiPietrantonio out of her recently established location in the town hall lobby.

There, Haon voiced agreement, noting the likely distractions DiPietrantonio faces in the busy location.

Frederick also pointed to the lack of an office for the town’s beach patrol, which also lacks so much as a filing cabinet for its paperwork. Lifeguards meet daily in the town hall meeting room, due to lack of any other gathering area, and Frederick said that use was undoubtedly bringing much sand into the carpeted meeting room.

Finally, Frederick said there was a need for a council meeting room, where confidential discussions could take place without disrupting other uses of the town hall meeting room — including its function as a coffee/lunch area for town employees. He noted council members often took over the office of Town Administrator Helen Torres when such meetings needed to take place.

However, Frederick said he wasn’t automatically planning to build an entirely new town hall. Instead, he suggested the town consider a number of options to make the best use of existing land and buildings.

Those options included renegotiating the town’s lease of property behind the town hall to the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company for a substation. He suggested doing so might allow the town to build a single public safety building that could accommodate the fire company, police and lifeguards.

Another option would be to add a second floor to the existing town hall structure, if feasible. Or, the town could deal with a loss of parking at the location, in favor of widening the existing building.

Every option he mentioned, Frederick noted, carried the caveat of its feasibility being unknown. Thus, he proposed they hire an engineering firm to get the answers to such questions and better determine what the town’s options really are. He emphasized that the engineers would not be proposing architectural designs for future buildings. It would be a true feasibility study, Council Member Vicki Carmean noted.

“There has to be a more efficient use of space,” Frederick said, pointing to a need to look at the issue on a long-term basis by a) defining what the town has (including its options) and b) defining what space is really needed (particularly for the police department, with expert assistance on such matters).

“We may find out we can’t afford to meet all of the needs,” Frederick allowed. Particularly in that case, he said, the town should also look at the existing public works space and further investigate the idea of a possible land acquisition or trade with the state to relocate the town’s public works department.

The latter idea has been proposed to state officials, with Fenwick Island officials expressing some hope that the state might opt to take some or all of the existing town park and public works location as state parkland, in exchange for allowing the town use of less-publicly-accessible property north of the town for its public works department.

Resident Gail Warburton questioned whether the town should consider doing away with its public works department entirely, instead contracting out such services. She also questioned whether the town could receive additional compensation from the state or county for police work outside town limits, as well as lifeguard services provided on the state-controlled beach.

Frederick said neither of the latter two suggestions was realistic, based on existing negotiations and agreements with state and county government. He also reminded Warburton that some town residents make use of the state beach, offsetting some of the “extra” costs. Haon also said that efficiency of costs such as those for public works was analyzed during the annual budget process.

Warburton noted that she did not oppose a new town hall structure but did support a thorough feasibility study that would take such issues of efficiency into account. Others present at the workshop also pushed for a long look at the town’s overall situation, with council members encouraged to include the entirety of town property and even property purchase options as part of such a study.

While he hadn’t been ready to agree to the existing DBF proposal, Haon said he felt the discussions of the town’s needs were on target and it did have a real need for a “conceptual” feasibility study to define needs.

He reiterated that he did not want to see any drawings resulting from the work done under such a contract, instead asking for the process to proceed from an interview with engineers to committee discussion and then into concepts.

Carmean also supported a feasibility study as a starting point in the process, noting her opposition to building town facilities within 20 feet of the canals (a prohibition for residential building in the town) and a desire to see the building issue melded with town’s ongoing “visioning” process.

Council Member Chris Clark warned fellow council members not to forget the needs of the community to use town facilities for meetings of clubs and other organizations. Frederick agreed with that assessment, saying he liked the value of having some sort of community center, such as had developed at Bethany Beach’s town facilities.

Resident Joyce Chaconus asked if there was a way for citizens to help in the town’s efforts to obtain the use of state land for its public works department, such as through petitions or letters. Frederick said negotiations were not at such a point yet, but Clark pointed out that a feasibility study could help the town make a case for such.

Frederick said he would request DBF submit another proposal with a scaled-back plan of work in line with the feasibility study suggested at the workshop, for future council consideration.

Also at the May 14 meeting, Carmean told fellow council members that she felt strongly that a recent lawsuit between a property owner and the town should not have gone to court.

The case was decided against the town in recent weeks and involved a property owner who was prevented from building her planned home due to having razed the freestanding garage previously on the property. Carmean said, and council members agreed, that the case had been rooted in an ordinance that was not clear in its intent or wording, specifically as regards building on properties that exist as non-conforming uses.

Carmean particularly objected to the fact that town funds had been used to defend the case when she felt it should have been settled with the property owner before it got that far, owing to the wording problems.

Frederick said the council’s hands had been tied by provisions that restrict it from taking a hand in matters decided by the town’s Board of Adjustments. Once the property owner had decided to fight the board’s decision on her case, he said, the town had been obligated to defend the board’s action, with no ability for the council to intervene.

While she expressed dismay that the town’s hands would be so tied, Carmean said the incident should add more impetus for the town to complete revision of all ordinances — a long-term, ongoing process.

Haon noted that the town’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) had been temporarily forced to drop revision of the ordinance in question, since it was under judicial review, but was proceeding with other work and would come back to that ordinance now that the case was complete.

Frederick said the cost of such cases to the town had been a key factor in raising its fee for Board of Adjustments hearing from $100 to $700 recently, but he said he suspected the actual cost of this case to the town was minimal, regardless.

Specifically addressing the case and the ordinance, Haon said the judge’s decision had indicated the ordinance was “complicated but clear,” notably missing an element to address non-conforming homes and thus requiring both town officials and property owners to “read into” the ordinance to find its meaning on the issue.

The judge, he said, had found that when the meaning of such a zoning ordinance was in doubt, the decision should err in favor of the applicant. His decision noted that the block in question was split evenly between non-conforming structures and conforming ones, and made specific allowances for that block on that basis.

Frederick also opined that such cases were ones where the town often didn’t know there was a problem with an ordinance until someone pointed it out. Clark agreed, saying that the town couldn’t plan for every possible circumstance.

On a related note, Carmean asked Haon for more information on CORC’s recent consideration of an allowance for outside eating areas at restaurants in the town.

Haon emphasized that the ordinance change was just being formulated and considered by the committee, with the next formal step being a review of the issues involved by the town solicitor, once additional feedback has been received.

Warburton said she personally opposed any such change, as it would make the town’s code more lenient than other area coastal towns and increase parking problems. She said she felt preferential treatment was being given to businesses over residents and raised again her concerns about delivery truck parking near her home on Farmington Street.

Fenwick Freeze co-organizer Jo Ellen Cain took the opportunity of the workshop to propose the town consider a summer recreational program targeted at children ages 5 to 12.

In addition to providing a service to resident and visiting children (and their parents) during the summer, Cain said the program could serve as a feeder program for the town’s new junior lifeguard program, which is targeted to children age 9 and older and has been suggested as one method of encouraging young people to become lifeguards.

A teacher and experienced recreation program manager, Cain said the program could run anywhere between one and four days a week, with two three-hour sessions, morning and afternoon. It would charge a fee, which could allow the town to break even on its costs or make a profit, depending on officials’ desires.

Cain said she would direct the program and encourage teachers and older students to serve as other paid staff members. Activities would not include beach time, due to liability issues and on the basis that parents could use other hours of the day to supervise their own children on the beach. The program would be recreation and not childcare, Cain stressed.

Frederick expressed concerns about the management of the program, citing the difficulty of predicting participation with the town’s rental/vacation population. Cain said she expected participation would become more predictable over time.

Haon propose the town consider endorsing an experimental program to test the concept. Cain said she would be willing to run the program for one or two weeks in the summer, with volunteer staff, just as a test.

A remaining obstacle is the availability of a facility with sufficient restroom access for the number of children who might attend. Town hall was deemed unsuitable for that reason, but the idea of using a local church or other facility was raised.

Further concern was expressed about liability and insurance issues, focusing on how the program would be managed — with Cain as a contractor running the program on her own, or as an official town function with recreation program employees being added to the town’s existing policies.

Council members were split on the issue, while Cain expressed a preference that the town oversee the program in those respects.

Frederick said it was a great idea but would be an added burden and possibly expense for the town. Clark said someone would have to foot such expenses, regardless of who was charged with managing them. He also praised the idea, while championing a focus on such “value-added” services in the town.

Cain said the idea made sense to her, noting that she had seen in recent months what the town can “step up to the plate and do.” The Freeze and the junior lifeguard program are two recent examples of such efforts in the town.

Finally, Clark raised the issue of restroom access in the town at times when the town hall is closed. “I feel the town should have some sort of public facility,” he said.

Carmean proposed the idea be included in the proposed feasibility study, while Frederick said he felt that such needs were the reason the state park had public restrooms. He said he opposed moves that would make Fenwick Island a “destination,” while Warburton pointed out that South Bethany also has no public restroom facilities.

It was also pointed out that the town does have residents and others using its park facility into the evening, when the town hall is closed, with no restroom available for all the young visitors who are drawn to the location.

That reminder brought additional support for some sort of portable facility at the town hall, while opposition to beachside facilities remained. Clark said he would gather additional information on the options available and present it at a future council meeting.