Bethany aims to address housing bulk with tradeoff system

Date Published: 
September 23, 2016

The size — or, more specifically, the appearance of size — of homes in Bethany Beach is an issue that has long been discussed by the Town and many of its citizens. Large new multi-story homes built next to the town’s traditional single-story cottages and moderate-sized beach homes on pilings have been a point of contention between property owners and neighbors for years. Now, the Town is poised to do something about it.

On Sept. 19, the Town of Bethany Beach held a public hearing on proposed changes to the Town’s building code that would incentivize building structures that reduce at least the appearance of bulk and perhaps the reality of it as well.

Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer noted that the Town has been working on the issue since 2005, including several efforts by the Planning Commission to address housing bulk.

The most recent of those efforts has been ongoing for three years and has also involved builders, developers and contractors in an effort to create a proposal that is practical and addresses those concerns. Killmer said constructive criticism of draft versions of the ordinance has shaped its current form.

“The latest is a system of tradeoffs and incentives,” he noted. “There’s a fine line between letting people build the house they want to and having regard for the future,” he said, noting a desire for homes to fit in with and not negatively impact neighboring residences.

Especially east of Route 1, Killmer said, larger houses can block light and air from neighbors.

As proposed, the ordinance would apply to new construction or major remodeling only, and it only addresses facets of home design that are visible from the exterior, such as roof lines, wall planes and lot coverage.

When and if approved, the ordinance would not take effect for a year, “so as to not negatively impact people who are in the process of building a home,” Killmer noted.

Building Inspector Susan Frederick explained on Monday that the development of the draft ordinance had included studying the trends and impacts of the new, larger homes. She said the greatest impact has been in the R1 and R1B districts of the town — east of Route 1 — which have narrower lots, higher density and lower elevations, which can necessitate raising a home higher than would otherwise be needed.

Lots in those zones average just 5,000 square feet, she noted, and the focus of the legislation was to create tradeoffs “as a positive approach to the design of future homes as a means of obtaining desirable architectural features that works to all stakeholders’ advantage.”

Those desirable features include dormers, open porches and decks, reduction in lot coverage, steeper roof pitches (something past efforts on the issue incorporated), fewer flat planes and a greater variation in planes. Allowances for encroachment of steps and bay windows had previously been approved as incentives for such designs.

Tradeoffs include larger third story and setback encroachments

The Town has created a chart to explain the proposed tradeoff system, using maximum lot coverage as a key element and adjusting permitted size and features based on how much lot coverage is planned.

Homes, regardless of lot coverage, would be required to either: (1) have a minimum of two exterior wall planes on each side (one of which must be no less than 20 percent of the total wall space), with a minimum difference of 4 feet between the planes; or (2) have a minimum two wall planes at the front elevation (one of which must be at least 40 percent of the total wall space), with a minimum difference of 4 feet between the planes.

For homes built to the current maximum of 40 percent lot coverage, a home would be permitted no more than 2.5 stories — a half-story not being a vertical measurement, but rather the presence of a third story of the house that covers no more than 50 percent of the footprint of the floor below. The minimum roof pitch would be 5:12, and at least 2 feet total would have to be added to the existing lot setbacks on the front and/or side of an interior lot. Lot coverage of 40 percent would no longer be permitted on a corner lot.

With the incentives, when a home covers 38 percent of a lot, it could have a partial third story (noted as a half-story-plus) that could cover a maximum of 60 percent of the floor below, also with a minimum roof pitch of 5:12. The setbacks would again be an additional 2 feet total, with corner lots having a minimum setback of 7 feet on the interior side and 15 feet on a side abutting a street.

With 36 percent lot coverage on an interior lot, there would be a flat 7-foot side setback, plus an additional allowance for up to 5 feet of encroachment in the rear setback over no more than 40 percent of the lot width and limited to one story in height above ground level. The minimum roof pitch would be 3:12, and a third story could cover up to 75 percent of the footprint of the story below.

At 32 percent lot coverage, the same setbacks and rear-yard encroachment would be permitted, along with the same minimum 3:12 roof pitch, but there would be no defined maximum number of stories in a home, so long as it does not exceed the existing limits on total building height. A full third story could be built.

Overall, the ordinance would aim to increase setbacks, reduce lot coverage, discourage large walls and limit the size of third stories, as well as encourage a variety of roof lines that could include dormers, mansard and gambrel roofs, and other roof styles with multiple components, rather than a single simple roof line. Upper-story decks would be encouraged so as to create space between floors.

Frederick noted the “canyon effect” of second and third stories that are built to the full footprint of the story or stories below, saying that the offset required in walls would help reduce that effect. She also noted wall size’s impact on apparent bulk, especially when there are large expanses of wall in the same plane.

The incentives would aim to encourage a human scale to architectural elements, she said, as well as make comparative mass and scale between neighboring homes more appropriate.

The ordinance offers examples of homes that could be built with each set of lot coverage maximum and incentives, depicting houses that could reach farther back into the depth of a lot, rather than spreading across its width.

Frederick also offered up a number of existing examples of homes in the town that make use of the desirable features, including dormers, decks and complex roof lines.

Asked whether she had confirmed that all of the examples would meet code requirements under the proposed ordinance, Frederick said she hadn’t reviewed the examples for compliance but had wanted to show people real-world examples of the tradeoff elements.

Mayor Jack Gordon said the Town was “just trying to keep the town looking as it has been, as opposed to square houses with a maximum number of rooms. … We don’t want to make limits that are unreasonable.”

Proposal finds support and opposition

With a few dozen people in attendance at the Sept. 19 hearing, reaction to the proposed ordinance was mixed.

Resident Jane Richards questioned the impact of the lot coverage incentives, stating that she felt it pushed people to build narrower houses.

Frederick said that she didn’t anticipate that the changes would necessarily make homes that were built narrower but that they may have a bigger front yard or rear yard or porches.

“The intent is to link lot coverage to increase the area between buildings or make steeper roofs. It will look a little different than ones that went on a different path,” she said of some homes built in the town in recent years, without the tradeoff system in place.

Richards said she felt the legislation’s intent was “very good and very necessary,” but she also advocated for the use of trees to help address some of the concerns about newer homes.

“Trees really create harmony. I know we have a tree ordinance, but trees soften the appearance between homes that are larger and smaller,” she said. She also suggested that larger homes be required to be set back farther on a lot, to avoid the canyon effect, and she questioned whether allowing a full third story on a lot with 32 percent lot coverage would get away from the intention of the ordinance by allowing a more “boxy” book.

Baker Richards agreed with her on that concern and added that he felt more attention need to be paid to the front face of a building and the variations in that front plane.

Clem Edgar said he applauded the efforts of the Planning Commission and building inspector in developing the ordinance and felt the “long-range benefit would be very significant here for the town.”

Having built a home in the town in 2005, he said, he had checked to see whether it would comply with the new ordinance. At 35 percent lot coverage, he said, they would be restricted to 75 percent coverage for the third floor, but adding dormers to the design would have put them in compliance.

“I don’t find it overly restrictive,” he said. “It is restrictive, but you have to have some restrictions to achieve the look we want.”

Tracy Mulligan, emphasizing that he was not speaking on behalf of the Bethany Beach Landowners Association, of which he is president, expressed his appreciation for the work Killmer and the commissioners had done to clarify the definition of a story and eliminate color and texture elements from the proposal, as well as for Frederick’s response to questions about it.

He said he wanted further clarification of the definition of wall plane and felt that that element should be separated from the rest of the ordinance. He said he wasn’t sure the issue could be concluded on the suggested timetable for approval in October.

Mulligan also suggested including Realtors in a review of the ordinance and its impacts, noting the “significant investment, financially and emotional,” that people have in their homes, and the potential impact of the ordinance on home value. He recommended the Town send out additional information by mail.

He added that he believed the R1 and R2 districts should both be included in the ordinance.

“I don’t think it goes far enough,” he said.

Joe Clark said he respected the process that had led to the ordinance but that he opposed it.

“There have been some tremendous beautiful houses built in last five years, and they have increased the economic value of all properties in the town,” he said, noting that many of the newer homes have inverted floor plans that he felt could not be built under the ordinance, and that, as a result, the ordinance would diminish home values. He suggested an appraiser, not Realtors, should be consulted on the issue of impact on home values.

Resident Nettie Props addressed the ordinance not only as a property owner in the town for 40 years but also as the designer and/or builder of eight homes.

“I’ve learned a lot about the ownership of homes and what people want,” she said. “One of the first things they want is they want to be able to build the home they see in their brain,” rather than having that constrained by “people who don’t know much about building and what they’ll need in the future. Other people cannot do that for us,” she said. “I’m totally against this.”

Props said her home was built “the way they were supposed to build them at the time. It doesn’t make a difference that we don’t use all the space. People should be allowed to build as they see fit. The recent houses are nice-looking,” she added. “I don’t think this is any way to start on a new path to building homes down here.”

Dale Vorhees noted that his new house had just been completed in May but would not comply with the proposed ordinance.

“I was in the design phase,” he said of when he learned about the proposal. “I instructed my architect to do everything he could do to achieve what the ordinance was trying to achieve.”

Vorhees said the result was a home with seven dormers, knee walls and a shorter top plate, but that didn’t affect his objectives of having an inverted floor plan, deck and an elevator for access as the family gets older, so they can get to the floor they like to live on, as well as ocean views. “It adds value to our house and others,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, the impacts on side setbacks, requiring wall planes to be broken up, had proven “very difficult to build. I’ve invested too much money to build an ugly house,” he said. “Height, setbacks, lot coverage — there are plenty of restrictions the Town has. To take this much further than this is an overreach and will devalue homes. I oppose it,” he added, even if the result was having to suffer negative impacts from neighboring houses.

“If they’re going to spend a million dollars, it’s offensive to have an ordinance that would restrict them in building what want to build,” he concluded.

Bob Highborn said that, with two large homes built across the street from him, he didn’t envy the council for the decision they will have to make. He added that he hoped the Town had had the ordinance strenuously reviewed by its legal counsel, in order to avoid ending up in court and incurring large legal costs.

“I think you’re headed in the right direction,” he added.

Highborn said his home had been built with two stories, to avoid flooding issues. With that vantage point, he said, if he looks out from his house to the right, “I can look out and see the house across the street and the skyline; if I look to the left, there are two beautiful homes, but all see is homes — no sky, no trees.”

BBLA Vice President Doug Mowrey spoke on behalf of the BBLA board, noting that the issue was one garnering members’ interest, especially with concerns about larger houses having previously been voiced.

He said the group had not reached a consensus on the proposal, but that it had advocated for its members to make an effort to understand the ordinance and had asked the Town to explain its effects “in layman’s language.”

Gordon concluded the hearing by saying he felt the issue was an important one for the council to be working on and that they appreciated the public’s comments. He said the topic would be voted upon at a future council meeting, but no specific date was given.

Council selects leadership for year

Also on Sept. 19, the council held its reorganizational meeting, after canceling council elections for 2016 when only incumbents filed for re-election. Council Members Bruce Frye, Killmer, Rosemary Hardiman and Gordon were sworn in to new two-year terms.

The council members also selected the council leadership positions for the coming year, with only one nomination for each of the mayoral, vice-mayoral and secretary/treasurer posts. Gordon will continue as the mayor for another year, as will Killmer as vice-mayor, and Councilman Chuck Peterson will continue to serve as secretary/treasurer, all on unanimous votes.

The council also agreed to continue meeting on the third Friday of each month at 2 p.m.

Gordon’s appointments for committee chairmanships were also approved unanimously, with committee chairpersons to submit a list of requested committee members for approval at the council’s October meeting.

Gordon also requested an extension of the terms of Diane Boyle Fogash and John Gaughan on the Planning Commission. Both terms were expiring before October and both were granted an additional three-year term.

Finally, the council unanimously approved both the contract for the Town’s annual street rehabilitation project and the contract for engineering oversight for that work. The council approved a $288,000 bid from past contractor Jerry’s Paving, which will incorporate $107,000 in Municipal Street Aid funding from the State. Kercher Engineering will oversee the work for $35,000.

“Their 15 years’ of work has saved us a good bit of money on materials and costs,” Town Manager Cliff Graviet noted, saying that the firm is paid based on the time it spends on the project, which is usually between $20,000 and $30,000, but that a figure of $35,000 had been requested so as to cover any overruns.

Gordon also took a moment to thank Graviet, the Public Works Department and the Bethany Beach Patrol’s lifeguards “for a great job” this summer.

“A great staff makes it easy for all of us,” Graviet said.