Bethany continues overlay zone discussion

Members of the Bethany Beach Planning Commission continued their discussion of zoning overlays at their April 16 meeting, working through the details and potential impact of the idea before possibly bringing it to the town council for approval.
Coastal Point • SUBMITTED: This block in the Bethany Beach downtown commercial district shows the architectural diversity in the area.Coastal Point • SUBMITTED:
This block in the Bethany Beach downtown commercial district shows the architectural diversity in the area.

Kathleen Mink, having provided her fellow commissioners with an outline for the development of overlays at the commission’s previous meeting, this time presented them with examples of how individual overlay zones could be created for the town, ranging from residential sections and developments to the town’s downtown commercial district.

She also encouraged the other commissioners to comment on the previous information and ask any questions they had about what she had presented.

Commission Chairman Phil Boesch said he had noted that Mink appeared to be presenting the overlay zones and their design guidelines as mandatory restrictions, in addition to existing town code. That was in contrast to the original concept of using an advisory-only architectural review board (ARB), brought forward as a result of responses to the town’s 2004 survey of property owners.

Boesch reminded the commissioners that previous discussion of overlays had focused on the idea of using “carrots” or enticements to property owners to encourage compliance with town-desired design elements rather than adding clear-cut requirements toward that end.

Mink confirmed that she had intended to portray a mandatory system of design requirements in her plan for overlays, an intentional change toward hard restrictions and away from purely voluntary compliance.

Commissioner Steve Wode said such mandatory restrictions were “not a path I want to take,” that he sought instead to aim for creating guidelines. Boesch agreed.

Mink questioned how the town would monitor and enforce compliance if the guidelines were fully voluntary.

Town Council Member and Commissioner Lew Killmer again championed the format of Ocean City’s development plan and its design guidelines.

That plan is arranged with design guidelines in three categories: 1) desired — elements desired by the town and which could be aimed toward by building designers from the first phase of the design process; 2) approved — elements allowed by the town but not particularly encouraged; and 3) unacceptable — prohibited elements.

While the Ocean City format does allow for both hard restrictions and voluntary compliance with a desired standard, Killmer was in agreement with Mink that a completely voluntary guideline would be difficult to enforce.

She emphasized that the overlays would deal only with exterior elements of buildings, not interior elements, such as the number of bathrooms. Wode pointed to the example of design elements that could make a home appear smaller in scale when viewed from the street or otherwise better the exterior appearance.

Town Council Member Harry Steele questioned that notion, asking in whose eyes the structures would be made to look better and focusing on the idea that some board or other town entity would be making aesthetic decisions that property owners would potentially be required to follow.

Boesch countered that the alternative was returning to the concept of the ARB, which Wode emphasized was a “totally subjective” body, while the overlay system would establish design themes that would be applied universally to a given area of town.

Boesch again questioned the ability of the town to define neighborhoods within the town as overlay zones and to define the design themes that would apply therein.

Mink said she initially defined at least six such stylistic zones during her research, noting they were not necessarily geographically concise but could apply in a particular group of blocks and again in another group of blocks on the other side of town. She suggested such definitions would be determined by a committee that would be led by an architectural or design expert.

Killmer pointed to the notion of an all-brick home mixed in among a neighborhood such as Bethany West, largely populated with wooden-exterior cottage-style homes, saying such a contrasting design would clearly stick out. “You know what outrageous is” when you see it, Killmer said.

Resident Lois Lipsett debated that example, saying at least one brick home existed in the town and fit in well with its surrounding neighborhood. “You’re picking out a theme everybody would have to live with,” she said, emphasizing that the end result could be the same as that of an ARB.

Killmer replied that property owners’ responses to the 2004 survey had suggested the ARB concept, but “not fully realizing what that could be.” The commission’s efforts to refine the idea have instead led toward the overlay concept.

Beyond the survey response, the notion of a need for control over architecture is a growing one, Killmer emphasized. “We have a situation developing where all the houses are the same. It looks horrible,” he said, noting that the last thing intended by the overlay concept was to create “cookie-cutter” neighborhoods — one of the things increasingly objected to by commissioners and property owners.

Town Council Member Tony McClenny also questioned the notion of restricting design elements to what already existed in a given neighborhood. He offered up the example of his own neighborhood, Sea Villas, and said recent covenant changes in the development had allowed significant design changes to be made there — to positive feed back on the growing diversity of the homes. It would not be a step forward to put restrictions on such change, he said.

With those objections in mind, Boesch emphasized that the commission was “not trying to sell you something. We’re still working to coalesce something. We don’t have a core yet.”

Building Inspector John Eckrich sought to focus the commission not on the diversity of members’ opinions or concerns from those in attendance, but instead on the one area of concrete agreement: the need for change in the downtown commercial area.

Despite the desire for diversity (within reason) in the town, he said the commercial section was overwhelmingly deemed too diverse in its design. He encouraged the commissioners to back off of a residential plan and instead focus on the downtown area, to develop a cohesive plan for commercial buildings.

Concrete agreement had indeed been shown in regard to transforming the downtown district, through overwhelming positive response to the University of Maryland-led theming workshop held over the winter – a primary mover in pushing the commission away from an ARB and toward the overlay concept.

While the design transformations created by the UM students for the commercial district had been well received, Boesch noted that he had held off on pushing the project forward due to the planned Streetscape project for the rest of the downtown area, expecting it to be completed before implementation was extended to the commercial buildings.

Echrich encouraged the commissioners to start on the commercial element now, so the town could be ready to implement that as Streetscape work commenced or completed. Steele agreed with the need to get started on the commercial district, particularly to gain lead time to develop any sorts of incentives that might be needed to encourage property owners to comply with the design ideals.

That led to debate over whether a fully developed concept for overlays should be completed before focusing on a single zone, such as the commercial district.

Mink championed developing the overall concept of overlays, while Killmer suggested the development effort focus on that single area as part of the process. Steele said he felt the overall concept had already been agreed to, simply by virtue of agreement to develop the overlay for the commercial district.

Boesch suggested developing a standard for the commercial district would be a test of the overall concept of overlays. If it didn’t work, they would know they needed to return to the drawing board.

In the end, that reasoning won out, with Boesch asking the commissioners to review Mink’s overlay zone examples and work on developing design guidelines for the proposed downtown commercial district for discussion at the commission’s next meeting.

The issue of mandatory requirements versus encouraged guidelines remained undecided, with a near even split among the commissioners.

Killmer was adamant that entirely voluntary guidelines would never work. “If we say, ‘Here’s something for your consideration,’ we’re wasting our time,” he said. “We need to show them where we want to go. They are not allowed to build whatever they want.”

McClenny again emphasized the existing consensus regarding the commercial district, saying he personally opposed telling home owners what they can and cannot do but that business owners were a very different case. He again pointed to the good reception given to the commercial design transformations from the University of Maryland students.

Those concept drawings will likely be a focus for the commissioners in trying to develop guidelines for the area as their first test of the overlay concept.

Two side issues were also addressed before the discussion concluded: Mink’s suggestion that demolition of a building should require approval, and her inclusion of floor-area ratio (FAR) as a possible element of design guidelines for the overlays.

Asked about the standards that would be applied to demolition under her suggestion, Mink said they were intended to avoid mass demolition for purposes such as creating a planned residential development (PRD). They could be included as part of individual overlay zones or eliminated from others, she said, noting the commission or another body could oversee demolition permissions before the permitting phase.

FAR, she said, was just another potential element of the individual overlay zones, geared at controlling apparent size of buildings on existing lots, to avoid the construction of buildings that were out of character for a given area.

Boesh again emphasized that the commission was still working its way through all the various concepts and components of the overlay idea, with much room left for commissioners (and town officials) to change their minds.