No exception for Sea Villas driveways

Residents of the Sea Villas in Bethany Beach may have some adjustments to make in their parking practices. Members of the town’s Planning Commission voted Saturday, April 16, that the properties are not due any sort of exception from the 20-foot driveway width restriction imposed on the rest of the town.

Property owners and residents in the one-time Freeman development have argued that their properties are a special case, originally designed with wide driveway/parking areas that front along a substantial portion of their front property lines.

Though the exact timetable of the issue remains hazy, the general consensus is the development was brought into the town with those driveways and other non-standard features already in place on some of the properties.

Town officials have debated the issue for more than a decade, but have repeatedly put the issue aside or moved to make no decision at that time. But with the town’s experimental driveway-marking program due to expand to the entire eastern side of the town early this week, a definitive decision has been looming for the Planning Commission.

The driveway-marking program was designed to more clearly delineate the driveway areas of individual properties, ensuring they conformed to the town’s maximum 20-foot driveway width and that those parking at the front of properties were more clearly blocking (or not blocking) driveways for police enforcement purposes.

Property owners on the east side of Route 1 in the town have been encouraged in recent months to indicate where on the front of their property their official driveway (or driveways, in the case of those choosing, for instance, two 10-foot drives) would be placed. Barring those exceeding the maximum width, the driveways were to largely be marked where the owners preferred.

But the issue of Sea Villas has been far stickier than just a property owner’s preference for a wider driveway.

The development’s homeowner’s association (HOA) most recently produced a letter from the town’s then building official, dated 1972. In the letter, Sea Villas builders and property owners are admonished to ensure they have allowed a minimum of 500 square feet per driveway.

Current Building Inspector John Eckrich noted that with some homes already built and too close to the roadway to allow for that amount of area at the driveways’ existing width, the builders had apparently elected instead to expand the driveways’ widths. (Beyond the 500-square-foot area requirement, the letter refers to a 10-foot minimum width and 25-foot minimum length — only 250 square feet in area, with those minimum dimensions.)

During discussion of the issue, commission Chairman Phil Boesch emphasized that many of the driveways in Sea Villas do, in fact, come well short of that 25-foot minimum length — a violation of the requirements for length stated in that letter, despite any efforts to accommodate the area requirements. Eckrich said many are as short as 20 feet and even less in some cases.

The issue of the 1972 letter from the town, as well as the complications of having brought Sea Villas into the town during its construction phase, led the commission to request a legal opinion from Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork. Boesch said Jaywork had told the commission that the 1972 letter “does not apply to today’s situation” and emphasized that the town has control over right-of-ways.

Boesch also noted that the commission had previously rejected the notion of a separate zoning area for Sea Villas — a zone that might have accommodated the unusual driveway dimensions and other common situations in Sea Villas that don’t conform to existing town code. The commission has shown resistance to any form of “spot zoning.”

With Jaywork’s opinion and the 1972 letter in hand, Boesch concluded that he couldn’t find any reason to exclude Sea Villas from town requirements. But he also quickly noted one of the resulting complications of enforcing the maximum driveway width there: residents of Sea Villas may lose their roadside mail delivery.

While Town Council and Planning Commission Member Lew Killmer noted that the narrower driveway parameters won’t restrict Sea Villas property owners from entering and exiting their properties, the impact on existing curbside mail boxes is likely to be substantial.

Currently, as in other locations in the town where mailboxes have been installed at curbside, Sea Villas’ mailboxes are installed on town property — a fact pointed out by former Mayor Joseph McHugh, who was present for the April 16 meeting and acknowledged his own mailbox (and those of his many neighbors in Turtle Walk) was also installed on what is technically town property.

Many of those present at the meeting noted that the placement of mailboxes was on the instruction of the U.S. Postal Service, even though it infringes on town property. And while the town may not be cracking down on mailbox placement, the enforcement of driveway widths and resulting increased allowance of parking on the street in front of Sea Villas may affect — even eliminate — access to the mailboxes from the USPS’s delivery vehicles.

According to those residents receiving mail delivery, mailboxes on private property must be easily accessible to the mail delivery vehicles, and even if the Sea Villas mailboxes are moved, it is likely most would be blocked by cars parked in the newly opened areas that were once verboten driveway space. (McHugh, however, did note that cluster boxes at the end of streets could be used instead.)

The potential inconvenience was noted but did not affect Boesch’s stance on the issue, or that of his fellow commission members. (Indeed, many town residents are simply unable to obtain curbside mail delivery or home mail delivery in any form.)

Again noting that Jaywork confirmed the town’s right to enforce the 20-foot driveway width restriction in Sea Villas and asserting no reason existed for granting different treatment to those property owners over others in the town, Boesch called for a vote. He received unanimous agreement that no exception would be made for Sea Villas in regards to the driveway width restriction.

In contrast, the issue of variances granted to Sea Villas remains up in the air.

Of particular note has been ongoing concern about the portion of the development’s deed restrictions and other associated documents that allow neighbors to build their decks on up to 10 feet of the width of their easterly neighbors’ property and also restrict property owners from including windows in the westerly side of their homes to avoid encroaching on the westerly neighbors’ use of said decks.

Town code would not allow such use to take place elsewhere, and Town Council Member Harry Steele commented he viewed the issue as a taking of land. But the town did previously grant the development variances for the function, and those variances are now a part of the recorded deeds for properties in Sea Villas. As such, they go with the property, no matter how many times it is sold.

Killmer said the current concern was how the town would handle problems arising when one home owner tore down his home, perhaps to build a new structure with windows on the west side.

Noting that town code does require egress routes be provided in bedrooms, as well as other requirements for ventilation, Killmer asked Eckrich whether a new structure could be built to conform with those town requirements and still meet the deed restrictions in Sea Villas.

Eckrich replied that a window could be placed on another wall of the home to meet those town requirements, as well as an option of glass block for lighting on the west side — technically not a window. He noted that even building a window on the west side would not be a violation of town code but would instead be a violation of deed restrictions and subject to enforcement by the Sea Villas HOA.

Boesch said one main issue that had yet to be determined was whether the town could revoke the variances that it had previously granted. Steele argued that the matter should be passed on to the state attorney general’s office for a final legal opinion, saying that the variances appeared to him to be illegal and allow the taking of land.

Commission Member Steve Wode asserted the variances were legal but said he was concerned the town would still be pulled into disputes between neighbors. He said he believed the town needed to develop a clear position on the issue and have its reasoning established before such a dispute arose.

Boesch noted that Jaywork was in the process of developing a legal opinion on the matter of the variances and that he had previously suggested other methods of tackling the problem, such as changing setback requirements in the town. (That had been rejected on the grounds that it would throw most of the town into non-conformity with the new setbacks.)

Despite his concerns, Wode emphasized that he did not believe that changing the individual deed restrictions on more than 20 properties was something in which the town should be getting involved.

Eckrich acknowledged that he had dealt with many Sea Villas property owners over the years on the issues brought forward by the variances, covenant and deed restrictions in the development. Those issues were worked through, he said, but had required some work on Eckrich’s part.

He also noted that there were many properties within the town where unique deed restrictions were in place and where the town did not routinely get involved.

Boesch said that he believed the commission should not proceed with making a decision on the matter until Jaywork’s legal opinion had been rendered. He said the issue would be placed on the commission’s agenda again in the future, once such an opinion was available.

Also at the April 16 meeting, the commission:

• Unanimously approved partitioning of the Ryall property at 41 Kent Avenue into two individual lots. The owners had previously requested a three-unit planned residential development (PRD) on the property. The two lots will house two single-family homes, both to be rented out but owned by the Ryall family.

During the discussion of the partition request, it was noted that approximately 1 foot of paving at the neighboring South Coastal Library encroaches on the Ryall property. The Ryall’s representative said calls had been made “to the library” to attempt to address the issue but had not been returned. Steele suggested the matter be taken care of prior to construction.

Lois Lipsett of the Friends of the South Coastal Library noted at the conclusion of the meeting that the Friends group had not received any communication from the Ryalls about the problem (nor, she said, in response to previous attempts by the Friends’ to contact them regarding the groups’ desire to purchase some of the land). She said that matters concerning the property itself should be addressed to the county.

• Developed a process for creating a charter amendment addressing the use of the former Neff and Christian Church properties.

A draft of the amendment is to be created by Jaywork, while Town Manager Cliff Graviet is to oversee the drawing of an official map of the properties that clearly indicate protected wetlands thereupon. The Planning Commission will start the process of developing accepted or prohibited uses for the properties, including incorporating existing comments from the Town Council, and comments and feedback from the community (through public meetings and other methods). Boesch emphasized the process could take six to eight months to complete, in order to accommodate maximum public feedback.

• Discussed the March 30 state agency hearing on the town’s draft comprehensive development plan (CDP). The plan was deemed to have received “a very good reception” and all but guaranteed to be accepted by the state once finalized by the town. Some minor suggestions were made by most of the agencies, but incorporation of those ideas was optional. The town also received some offers of potential funding for projects relating to tree preservation and flood mitigation.

Once the state’s written report on the plan is received by the town, the CDP can be finalized, voted upon by the town council and sent off to be certified by the state. The plan would then come up for a review within one year, to make any changes needed for fine-tuning. Once accepted by the town council, though, it is essentially final and has the effect of law.

• Noted plans to hold a public workshop regarding town/DelDOT plans for pedestrian and bicycle traffic on Monday, April 25, at the South Coastal Library.

• Issued a reminder about a DelDOT meeting regarding the Route 26 project, set for May 9 at the Roxana fire hall.