ABC hearing the next step for Ropewalk in Bethany

Date Published: 
Feb. 9, 2018

Coastal Point • Shaun M. Lambert: Ropewalk’s new 325-seat location in Bethany Beach is slated for a June opening.­Coastal Point • Shaun M. Lambert: Ropewalk’s new 325-seat location in Bethany Beach is slated for a June opening.­After expanding their restaurant from Baltimore to the Delmarva shore in 2013, the owners of Ropewalk have since set out to establish themselves in downtown Bethany Beach, constructing what will be a brand new 325-seat location one block off the beach at 107 Garfield Parkway, formerly the location of Fish Tales, which has moved across the street.

Part of the process of opening the restaurant is obtaining a liquor license, and that application will be up for a public hearing this week, after neighbors of the location filed protests against it with the state’s Office of the Alcoholic Beverage Commissioner.

Deputy Commissioner Robert Weist told the Coastal Point this week that any resident or property owner within a mile of the location can file a protest, and if 10 of them file protests, the OABC is required to hold a hearing on the application. As a result, a hearing has been set for Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 5 p.m. at the Sussex County Administration Building on The Circle in Georgetown.

“We would like to formally register our opposition to this restaurant’s application for a liquor license on the basis that we feel it would not be in the public interest to have a 325-seat restaurant with an open-air rooftop area located right in the middle of town,” Susan R. Fried, Joshua Fried, Larry Bullis, Judy Bullis, Joseph P. Smith, Claire Loftus, C. Michael Loftus, John Barbour, Kathy Sierra, Margaret Young, Bennie Allen and Steve Allen wrote in a letter-to-the-editor of the Coastal Point.

“The size of the establishment will bring added noise, congestion and traffic, further straining very limited parking availability,” they added. “We don’t want to be a smaller version of Ocean City, with all the noise, congestion and rowdiness that goes along with that distinction. This would certainly have a significant adverse impact on our quality of life.

“We are concerned that it just opens the door for more and larger bars and restaurants which would totally change the character of Bethany Beach and make it a less attractive destination for the many families who vacation here,” they said.

Bethany resident Karen Meyer wrote, “This establishment is so opposite to everything that Bethany is. Parking is difficult already during the summer season. I think there is a better location for a 325-seat restaurant, and that would be out on Route 1, where a larger property could accommodate the large number of people and their cars. I hope that this will continue to be a family community,” she added.

But Ropewalk co-owner Chris Reda said Ropewalk is “more of a family restaurant than any kind of bar or nightclub. We’ll have a playground outside so kids can play and parents can unwind,” he noted of the feature, which was also present at its former Fenwick Island location and in its Ocean City, Md., location.

Despite the protests from some neighbors, Reda said that the reactions he’s seen to the new location have generally been “overwhelmingly positive. I went to a Chamber event last week and met 150 local businesspeople, and they’ve been overwhelmingly positive.” He said there have been numerous signatures in support of the restaurant.

Reda said he knows all the area’s coastal towns have parking issues during the summer. The Fenwick location had to utilize a separate parking lot down the street to accommodate some of its customers.

“It’s the nature of the beach,” he said, adding that Ropewalk does “plan on participating with the trolley” and that the restaurant’s staff will be parking off-site.

“Noise is always an issue,” Reda acknowledged, but it’s an issue they also have experience in addressing. “We started 23 years ago in Federal Hill, where we had residential neighbors. We’ve always worked with them and been very good neighbors. In Ocean City, there are residences on both sides of us. We’re very conscious of that. Even in Fenwick, we never had any violations,” he emphasized of that location, which has since become Big Eye Jacks.

“I don’t think noise is going to be” an issue, he added of the Bethany location. “We’re not really that concerned. There are no outside speakers, so there will be no noise other than conversations.”

“We are good neighbors,” Reda reiterated. “I think most of the Bethany businesses have been very positive and greeted us with open arms. Time will tell,” he said, but they’ve had positive experiences with neighbors in their other locations.

“We’re not a chain,” he emphasized. “We’re just three owners. We take it as being part of the neighborhood, and our staff is a family — we’re not a big corporate entity, just local guys who got together.”

Town says Ropewalk met all its criteria

Town Manager Cliff Graviet said in November that the Town is aware of the opponents’ concerns, but he emphasized that the restaurant has already made it successfully through the Town’s permitting processes, which has three layers for new construction or renovation.

“First, is the business a permitted use in our Town Code? In this case, the proposed restaurant met the criteria set forth in the code for approval,” he said. “Just as Bethany Blues, Grotto’s, Mangos and the Blue Crab have done in the last decade or so, opening and operating in the C1 Zoning district in Town.

“Attempting to regulate what types of business can be opened or constructed in a commercially zoned area is often fraught with legal issues,” he noted. “Our Town Code lists a reasonable and defensible list of permitted businesses.

“In addition, setting criteria for what business we ‘like’ and those we don’t, besides being legally problematic, is extremely subjective. What adds more value to downtown Bethany Beach and thus the entire community, restaurants like the Blue Crab or Bethany Blues or the ubiquitous T-shirt/beach equipment store that proliferate in beach towns?” he asked.

The second layer of approval, Graviet explained, is whether the exterior design of the restaurant is compatible with the Town’s legislated design criteria.

“In this case, the Town’s Commercial Design Review Committee felt that the restaurant met those standards,” he said of the April 2017 review.

In fact, the building has been designed by architect Jeff Schoellkopf, who was hired by the Town as a consultant to develop the guidelines that are employed by the Design Review Committee and has designed several of the existing structures in downtown Bethany.

As with most of the buildings in the C1 zone, the first floor is being constructed to the property line on Garfield Parkway. It will have an open patio on the street, and the second floor will also have an open deck in the front, approximately 20 feet by 40 feet. The deck will have an open trellis roof with retractable awnings.

Graviet said some believe the DRC “erroneously permitted a restaurant with a ‘roof top’ dining area. This is simply not true,” he said.

“Similar to other restaurants in Town, like Mango’s and Grotto’s this restaurant has a second-floor dining deck that fronts Garfield Parkway. This deck opens to the street and is immediately adjacent to and across the street from other businesses and will not affect any residential area.

“This design feature is not prohibited in the C1 Zoning District in Bethany Beach,” he emphasized.

The DRC, chaired by Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer and also including John Hendrickson, Mike Boswell, Jim Weisgerber and Building Inspector Susan Frederick, voted unanimously in favor of the design approvals at their April 26, 2017, meeting.

Graviet noted that the third level of approval within the Town requires that the building’s construction complies with all applicable codes, and complies with both local and state guidelines in its construction as a restaurant.

“The Town Code stringently regulates restaurants with an eye to making sure the business cannot become more of a ‘bar’ than restaurant. In this case, the proposed building meets all those criteria, and the building’s construction has been permitted,” Graviet said.

He also noted that the amount of seating in a restaurant is computed according to the size of the restaurant.

“The developer of the restaurant has applied for a restaurant that will seat 325 people. By comparison, Bethany Blues seats 228, Mangos 244, Grottos at the boardwalk 249 and the Blue Crab 289. We have no criteria or regulation that allows the Town to regulate restaurant seating capacity at this time,” Graviet explained.

“When presented with a request for a business license and or building permit that comply with Town codes, the Town is left no choice but to issue those licenses or permits. Such is the case with the Ropewalk restaurant,” he concluded.

Commissioner has specific criteria to consider

With construction well under way, if slightly delayed by the winter weather, Ropewalk’s owners have sought a liquor license, which does require “certification from the appropriate governmental authorities that the location and building for which a license will be applied conforms with zoning ordinances allowing the sale of alcoholic liquor and with building ordinances.”

The Bethany approvals would meet those criteria, but the protests from the neighbors mean that the application still requires a public hearing.

“The public has the perception that the commissioner has broad, overreaching authority,” Weist acknowledged, emphasizing that the grounds upon which the commissioner could refuse to issue a license are spelled out in Title 4, Section 543, of the Delaware code.

“There are 14 things there,” he said. “A lot of people come in and talk about parking and things like that, and that is not under 543.”

“We require as part of the application that they have the zoning from the Town — they’re the authorities, they know better than we’d know — and that they have appropriate approvals, be it from the Town, County… They’re the local experts, and they understand traffic better than we would.

“The commissioner can’t really consider traffic, but people bring it up all the time,” Weist added.

He said noise concerns can be considered, and that the commissioner can and will look at proximity issues, but he said excessive noise is specifically defined in the state statute and in municipal ordinances as well.

“Especially if there’s a patio,” he said, “they would usually would have to advertise any variances that would be required, such as for outdoor speakers” — which, as Reda noted, are not in the plan at Ropewalk in Bethany.

Weist said that once the applicant has met the statutory burden, the burden then shifts to the protestors, and that objections have to meet the statutory criteria by which the commissioner can refuse to issue a license, including offering “substantial evidence” of a statutory reason for denial.

“If it’s just arbitrary, the [applicant] is just going to appeal the commissioner to the courts,” he said. “A lot of people who come to protest, they aren’t lawyers … and they bring up things we really can’t consider. But we let them speak.”

Reda said Ropewalk expects to have some supporters at Tuesday’s hearing as well. If the liquor license is granted and everything stays on track with construction, Ropewalk could be open in early to mid-June.

Reda said the menu will be similar to that of their Ocean City location, with “a couple special items” for the Bethany location. He said they plan to serve brunch every day in the summer, opening at 10 a.m. seven days a week. He said they also hope to keep their staff employed year-round by remaining open through all four seasons of the year.