After years of acting as individual advisors to the Town’s building official, the Fenwick Island Building Committee is now meeting as a cohesive unit — pending a town council decision on whether to keep it around at all.
After controversy over the long-running policy of committee members signing off individually, and outside public meetings, on major project applications coming before the Town, on Sept. 7, the Fenwick Island Charter & Ordinance Committee officially proposed that the council disband the Building Committee.
A member of both committees, Bill Weistling was among those who recommended disbanding the Building Committee, so all future building decisions and permits would be done by the town manager or “the designee.” That is a common element of town and school governance, as the lead employee or superintendent is responsible but can delegate tasks to other individuals.
Weistling said the Building Committee is a relic from years past, and it was in use at least 25 years ago, when he first got involved in Town politics.
“I think it was checks and balances on the building official at the time. … I think the times have changed that we probably don’t need that,” Weistling said.
Plus, he said, it slows the permit process by requiring seven days’ meeting notice.
Historically, the committee acted as an extra set of eyes, Weistling said.
“We’d come in individually” and Building Official Pat Schuchman showed them the plans for any new or substantial construction worth $20,000 or more. They focused on items such as parking spaces, setbacks and FEMA regulations. They made very few and minor changes, such as ensuring the house was measured from the right spot.
Weistling said he had researched other neighboring municipalities and, “All these towns do not have a building committee. They depend on the building official and the town manager to approve the plan. … I think the times have changed now that we … are hiring competent employees,” he added.
“An organization is only as strong as its structure,” advised Town Manager Terry Tieman, who said she was comfortable with the proposal. “This has worked in many other cities for many years. … When you get professional staff, you get rid of [town council] commissioners.”
The hired staff are required to follow town law, and they answer to the town council.
Under the proposed change, large projects would now only require one signature, instead of three. Applicants would still need to meet all town laws.
If the code is ambiguous, the staff have the right to consult with architects or attorneys, Weistling said. (However, it’s not appropriate to send questions about an active application to the Charter & Ordinance Committee, because the applicant could accuse the Town of targeting them, Weistling warned.) Anyone unhappy with the building official’s response can apply to the Board of Adjustment for a variance.
At the Sept. 7 Charter & Ordinance meeting, residents requested more public input in the building process. For instance, many towns have a planning-and-zoning committee to review planning and building, at least for big projects, so neighbors can comment on potential impacts when applications come in front of that body.
Supporters of the notion were asked to present that idea before the town council for future consideration.
Committee officially reaffirms decision on Sands
Recently, three Fenwick Island Town Council members had said they were unhappy to learn that the town’s building “committee” had issued opinions on a major building project, with the town solicitor’s input but no public meetings.
While the Delaware Attorney General recently agreed with the disappointment Council Members Vicki Carmean, Julie Lee and Roy Williams had expressed in the public process involving the Fenwick Building Committee, they didn’t fully censure the committee. But the AG’s Office did suggest the advisory group start acting like a committee, and vote publically to reaffirm their decisions.
“Any future building-permit applications will be discussed and approved/disapproved in a Building Committee meeting,” Weistling had promised at a Sept. 4 meeting on the subject.
While that may sound straightforward, tradition hasn’t always required the committee to meet publically. They were instead three individuals who, on an individual basis, advised the building official, Pat Schuchman. That’s pretty much all the town code demands.
But as times have changed, the Freedom of Information Act has taken a more stringent definition of “committee.” The result is that Fenwick officials didn’t specifically break FOIA laws when no public meeting was held on requests by the developers re-developing the Sands Motel. But the AG’s Office said the overall process wasn’t ideal and recommended that the committee meet publically, with agendas and all, to reaffirm their vote.
“For the past 25 years, the Building Committee, usually composed of three members, has been available to review plans for approval. Chapter 61 requires two members to approve/disapprove any permits over $20,000. We have never met as a group, and inspect the plans individually from each other,” Weistling explained at a Sept. 4 meeting about the group’s traditional process.
“On occasion, I will be asked to consult with our building official and others to help gather information in the process. Our approval/disapproval is based on our obligation to make our decision by the wording in our Town code. This process appears to have been started over 60 years ago as a checks/balances on the building official.”
So, when Fenwick Sands requested to build above the town’s building height limit, Building Committee members Weistling and Jesse Shepherd sought input from the town manager and town solicitor before issuing a denial.
“As stated above, there has never been a meeting or quorum of the members in 25 years, but we respect the AG ruling,” Weistling said.
The building committee had met publically on Sept. 4 to officially reaffirm the opinions that Weistling and Sheppard had originally given. The third committee member, Reid Tingle, recused himself from the proceedings and did not participate.
“I find that the plans meet compliance with our code and flood regulations, except for the protrusion of the elevator shaft above the required height restriction,” Weistling said in stating publicly an official opinion on the application. “The mechanical units located on the roof meet our code requirements. … Mechanical units are not part of the structure and are thus allowed to exceed the height requirement.
“Elevator shafts are part of the building structure [and] are thus denied,” Weistling continued. “For these reasons, I again deny the permit application originally signed on July 20, since the elevator shaft exceeds the height restriction.”
With that July 20 decision, reaffirmed officially on Sept. 4, Fenwick Sands was required to seek a variance in order to exceed the height restriction. On Aug. 23, the Board of Adjustment had approved a height variance for the Sands’ elevator and mechanical equipment.
By Laura Walter