Bethany takes a look into town's future

The future of development and zoning in Bethany Beach has been an ongoing topic of discussion in the town. In recent years, town officials and property owners have repeatedly returned to the topic of the need for zoning changes, architectural review boards (ARBs) and development guidelines.
The urgency of discussion has intensified as the town’s last few large or undeveloped lots have been sold or built upon, and as development focus has shifted to moving or demolishing older, traditional-style cottages in favor of larger, more lavish, modern homes.

Despite the continued influx of new property owners, the town’s existing population has sought ways to preserve its character, and in 2004, the focus of that drive was consideration of an ARB for the town.

Indeed, a survey of the town’s property owners in 2004 showed 70.3 percent of respondents were in favor or strongly in favor of an advisory-only ARB to review new developments and improvements.

With clear support for ARB shown in the survey, Lew Killmer took on the project of researching ARBs, initially as a citizen and more recently during his brief term as head of the town’s planning commission.

Killmer has since been elected to the town council and resigned his chairmanship of the commission in favor of the council’s appointed seat on the body. But he has continued to work on the issue of an ARB, as well as the more recently touted concept of “overlay zones” that would dictate preferred architectural styles for areas of the town.

Toward that end, in recent weeks Killmer and Building Inspector John Eckrich met with planner Kyle Gulbronson of URS Corp.

Gulbronson was requested to provide the town with a proposal for defining a “true PRD” (planned residential development) and for how he might be able to help the town put into place overlay zones, such as those suggested in a recent University of Maryland-led architectural theming workshop for the town.

At the March 19 Planning Commission meeting, Killmer noted that Gulbronson had, in his previous work for the state, been deeply involved in the town’s successful bid for state funding for the planned nature conservation area on the former Natter property. He has also worked with officials in Millville and Ocean View on their planning concerns.

Killmer recently handed over the reins on the ARB and overlay research project to commission member Kathleen Mink. At last week’s meeting, Mink provided commission members with a framework for overlays for the town, culled from similar plans put into place around the country.

Mink noted that the recent emphasis from commission members and town officials had been on the overlay concept, versus the original idea of an ARB. She said she felt the commission was “stepping back from the ARB” and might go before the town council with a recommendation to instead consider overlays — or as she termed them, “neighborhood conservation districts.”

In developing the overlay framework, Mink said the intent was to “protect the current scale and massing” of the community. “We’re losing cottages, all to large houses,” she said, noting the new structures were all still technically within the town’s code, if not quite what most of its citizens had in mind as the best possible type of development.

Mink suggested that the town consider going beyond simply developing “overlay zones,” which would be superimposed on existing zones in the town, and instead consider making the overlay zone conditions an inherent part of new zoning regulations that would affect various areas of the town.

She even suggested the town establish a permitting process and requirements for demolition, geared at preserving the town’s existing character.

Commission Chairman Phil Boesch noted that it hadn’t officially been decided by the commission or council to proceed with overlays versus an ARB or other solution, but he recognized that recent thoughts on the idea had decidedly leaned in favor of the overlay zones.

Mink pointed out that the standard for such as system of overlay zones would divide the responsibilities for building permits essentially into two job descriptions: a permit-issuing authority and a compliance official or body.

Boesch suggested that in dividing some of the job responsibilities currently assigned to Eckrich, it would be better to use his expertise in the area of compliance rather than issuance of permits.

Killmer also offered the commission a copy of Ocean City’s downtown development guidelines, calling it “an outstanding document for development guidelines” and emphasizing that it used a “carrot and stick” concept to encourage compliance.

When overlays were originally proposed for the town, it was an emphasis on such a voluntary approach that was the focus for compliance, aiming to offer benefits for building in ways the town encouraged and limiting hard-and-fast prohibitions to those already in place.

Mink, however, said she felt that by enacting requirements for the zones, the town could better control development in directions its citizens preferred. She emphasized the urgency of putting such requirements in place with continued movement toward removing or demolishing older homes in the town.

Boesch also voiced his concern about a softer approach, saying, “People will always choose to do things the old way,” rather than opting for the town’s preferred way and taking some sort of reward for doing so.

But he also questioned whether the town would accept a more formal system of requirements. “I don’t mind being hard-nosed about it, but I don’t know that we could ever get it sold,” Boesch said.

Killmer championed Ocean City’s approach, noting that it essentially offers three areas of standards, one for elements that are required, one for elements that the city encourages be used and a third for those that are simply unacceptable.

Eckrich recommended the commissioners read both packages presented and consider meshing the two to form a plan that would suit Bethany Beach.

Mink said she felt the end result of the plan, whether applied as zones or overlays, should define what the town’s existing neighborhoods are and make a plan for each of those neighborhoods. “Every area of town would be a different district,” she said.

Boesch, though, said he had difficulty in seeing much difference between the characters of many areas of the town.

Responding to concerns about any potential economic impact of restrictions that might be imposed, Killmer noted that the intent was not to be that restrictive, i.e. simply prohibiting large homes in favor of small cottages.

Wrapping up her presentation, Mink noted that another element to be considered by the town was FAR — floor area ratio. The concept was recently adopted in South Bethany and limits the size of new homes or expansions not by setbacks or lot coverage restrictions but by a ratio of the total floor area of the home divided by the area of the lot.

She noted that FAR was an increasingly common standard in communities nationwide, which she said are abandoning setbacks as a primary control standard. And she emphasized the ability of FAR to keep homes within a given neighborhood in scale with those that already exist there.

While the theming concepts presented by University of Maryland students at the Jan. 19 workshop were not presented in any sort of implementation framework, one of the key topics coming out of that presentation was how to actually put such a theme in place in Bethany Beach.

The original concept had been that of the ARB, but concerns have been that an advisory-only board would have no “teeth” to enforce the town’s desired guidelines. John M. Maudlin-Jeronimo, associate dean at the school’s architecture and preservation department and faculty advisor for the theming project, instead recommended overlays.

Jeronimo’s emphasis was also on the “carrot and stick” approach. He noted that the town could encourage compliance with architectural standards by offering a slightly higher building height in exchange. Thus, a roof that might have been flat or truncated becomes more in line with the desired aesthetic, if a few feet higher than might otherwise be allowed.

He also suggested incentives such as matching grants, as well as incremental implantation requiring compliance when buildings are renovated or new owners take possession, plus the idea of “peer encouragement.”

The presentation itself focused on Garfield Parkway as an academic exercise for the students, transforming photographs of existing storefronts into drawings of what could be — on both ends of the aesthetic scale.

The students offered two disparate views — the high-tech/“high-tack” approach and a “vernacular approach,” that of a traditional seaside resort town. It was a dichotomy that Jeronimo characterized as Ocean City versus Rehoboth Beach.

Unsurprisingly, town officials and residents present at the workshop decidedly favored the latter, which Jeronimo later called “timeless.”

Jeronimo noted that the town’s existing architectural character is a blend of Cape May (Victorian), Rehoboth Beach (cottage) and Ocean City (high-tack), so the students’ designs were based on those elements, as well as the existing facades and town design guidelines.

The students chose motifs that were then presented even in an expanded vision of the town’s planned “streetscape” project on Garfield Parkway. That design called for widened sidewalks, elimination of bike lanes on Pennsylvania and Atlantic avenues (due to safety concerns), brick sidewalks and crosswalks, plantings and seating niches.

They even suggested replacing a bank parking lot with expanded commercial space, to preserve the area’s flow and for aesthetic improvement, as well as establishing an open-air market across from the town hall. The planned bandstand renovations got the students’ thumbs-up as fitting right in with their recommendations.

The extent of their work also involved writing code, and there they demonstrated how small aesthetic elements could be codified and provide improvements on the basis of a theme.

Overly large signage could be restricted and replaced with standards suitable for a small resort town. Light pollution could be limited by restricting up-lighting, and some aesthetic elements controlled by prohibiting odd-shaped windows.

The students further emphasized that the town’s existing residential district is largely consistent in its appearance, while the commercial district is largely not, consisting of very disparate styles of architecture that evolved over the years.

Under their hands, the facades of numerous downtown storefronts were transformed from the existing impromptu mix of styles into a coherent theme — or rather two.

Of course, the modern, high-tack style was proposed by the students not as a real concept for Bethany Beach but as an “academic challenge.” It aims for simple, geometric lines with flat roofs and glass storefronts. The aesthetic is for efficient, exposed structures.

While the resulting view was decidedly more consistent as sections of storefronts came together under similar aesthetics, the reception for the modern style was also decidedly polite and cool.

On the other hand, the vernacular, or coastal town, style was greeted warmly and with eager enthusiasm. It was represented in simple structures dressed with clapboard, shingles, large trim elements and gable roofs. The transformation of a Sunsations store into the vernacular style was so dramatic, in fact, that it was greeted with a round of applause.

With an apparent stamp of approval on the approach, the discussion naturally turned to its implementation. Mayor Jack Walsh noted that such a transformation was something the town would have to ease into. “We can’t do this overnight,” he said. But the approach taken by the students he deemed “refreshing” and said it gave him “a new perspective.”

Jeronimo was immediately tapped with hopes for more information on obtaining grants to help implement the ideas, as well as developing incentives that would encourage property owners to cooperate with the effort. He has continued to consult with Killmer in the intervening weeks.

For his part, Killmer said at the January workshop that he believed it was “reasonable to think it can be done.”

Whether the ARB was the appropriate method for the implementation remained — and remains — to be seen.

“It needs to be done right, in a way that doesn’t turn people off,” Killmer said at the time. “It’s hard to do with an advisory-only board. It may need some teeth,” he noted.

That was where town officials left the discussion before it returned to the purview of the planning commission, where it has remained.

In the intervening weeks, commission members have continued to lean away from an ARB and toward overlay zones as a preferred method of controlling development in the town and possibly implementing the ideas tendered in the theming workshop.

But they have yet to come to a single viewpoint on exactly how the town should go about encouraging compliance with desired architectural guidelines, particularly as to whether the town should lean on the proverbial carrot or stick. The work of reaching that consensus — and obtaining the support of the town council and its citizens — will proceed, possibly now with the assistance of Gulbronson.

And there the work simply begins, with the actual guidelines also yet to be developed and someday, perhaps, implemented.