Bethany grants exception due to flooding

The Bethany Beach Board of Adjustments during its April 18 meeting unanimously granted an exception to Anna Mae Buhl for the moving and raising of the garage-apartment on her property at 104 Central Boulevard.

Buhl and builder Mark Dieste explained to board members during the meeting that the accessory building had existed well prior to Buhl’s purchase of the property in 1998 and had long been used as both a storage/garage facility and an apartment.

The need for the exception is due to ongoing flooding problems. The building’s floor rests 3 feet below the base flood elevation, resulting in repeated flooding, rotting of floor sills and a degraded floor, as well as damage to the items stored within, according to Buhl. She said the flooding of the summer of 2004 had brought waters inside the garage to a level above her knees.

Buhl and Dieste are seeking to raise the building’s floor to at least base flood level to prevent further damage. But the garage’s approximate 13-foot existing height, once raised on its new foundation, would bring its roof peak to above the 15-foot maximum height for accessory buildings in the town. Thus, an exception was needed to allow the project.

Further complicating the issue is the apartment section of the building. It has only a small bedroom and half-bath, but Buhl said she uses it herself during the summer, enabling her to maintain the property and get to know her renters while the main house is leased. Her full-time home is two hours away, she said, noting the building is still primarily used for storage.

However, using an accessory building for habitation is prohibited by the town code. And granting an exception to ease a continuing non-conforming use was something that also needed to be weighed by the board, despite the other benefits the exception would provide.

On the positive side of the ledger, the renovation project would bring the garage in compliance with town codes regarding elevation.

Building Inspector John Eckrich further noted that efforts to raise buildings to prevent flooding were in line with the International Building Code, recently adopted by the town. That code encourages that administrative exceptions be granted in such cases. But Bethany Beach’s town code offers no option for administrative exception, leaving things in the hands of the Board of Adjustments.

The exception also would allow Dieste to move the garage outside the existing rear- and side-yard setbacks, upon which it currently infringes. Beyond the move and the foundation that would raise the garage above the flood plane, Dieste said plans for the building involved only renovation, such as replacing the rotting sills, floor and exterior siding.

In response to inquiries from Board Member Thomas Mahler, Eckrich acknowledged that even the renovated garage would be in compliance with height limits if it was measured by standards currently used to measure primary dwellings on a property (from the floor to roof peak) rather than the accessory-building standard (from base flood level to roof peak).

According to Eckrich, the reasoning for the two measuring standards is largely in that property owners tend to use accessory buildings for storing vehicles and lawn equipment, which more often require ground-level floors instead of raised foundations. He noted that varying uses by different property owners would sometimes make that rule of thumb invalid.

It was further noted that the flooding problem on the property was likely worsened by the raising of adjoining alleyways and roads by the town. The roadways now trap rainwater on the adjoining properties.

Board Chairman Bob Parsons, in moving the board grant the exception, noted that the town council might wish to consider adopting a process for administrative exceptions as encouraged in the International Building Code.

Town Council and Planning Commission Member Lew Killmer, present at the meeting, also requested that board note in its written decision that members were aware of a non-conforming use on the property and had still decided to grant the exception.

The board, Buhl and Dieste also mutually agreed that a maximum 17-foot height restriction be placed upon the renovation project, measured from the existing grade, as well as noting the building would be moved to conform with setback requirements.

In his motion, Parsons emphasized that the project was not substantially detrimental to the public good and that denying it would result in an injustice due to the flooding problem.

He further noted that the board had been required to weigh the impact of existing town code against the implied wishes of the town council in adopting the International Building Code — erring on the side of flood prevention versus enforcement against a long-term non-conforming use.

The granting of an exception by the Board of Adjustments allows for a 30-day appeals period after the filing of the board’s written decision.