Ocean View continues commercial design

Ocean View has created a business district along the Route 26 (Atlantic Avenue) corridor — but until the town adopts some design criteria, it’s anyone’s guess what that district might look like 20 years from now.

Per the town’s long-standing intention, the town council recently implemented one of the aspects of its Comprehensive Plan by rezoning various parcels along Route 26, or “District 2,” to make the corridor entirely General Business (GB).

Property owners in District 2 may now, by right, develop commercial or residential (either duplexes or single-family homes) uses on those properties.

And so, before the horse escapes the barn, town staff, Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commission members and municipal planner Kyle Gulbronson (URS) are trying to assemble some kind of blueprint for those structures. They once again returned to the roundtable on Oct. 20, at a special meeting of the P&Z.

From last month:

• Buildings should either face, or at least present a side (not a rear) wall toward Route 26. There was discussion regarding requirements for some articulated feature (a window or a bump-out, for instance) every so many feet, rather than just a flat, featureless wall.

• Everyone agreed any new commercial buildings should retain a “residential” appearance. P&Z Chair Dick Logue again grumbled over the Halpern Eye Center, its aquarium glass and steel breaking into the surrounding background (either brick or siding) with jarring incongruity.

• Granted, people have to retain all rainfall on their individual parcels (unless there’s an outfall, into a ditch for instance). But would town residents really want to see pond after pond in front yard after front yard?

Discussion returned to these topics, and Gulbronson placed building design at the top of an outline for further development, with stormwater management coming in a close second.

“We need to try to get some ordinances passed over the next three years, before the whole town’s built out and the horse is gone,” Logue stated. He noted with some regret an application coming before the P&Z later that same evening, where the developer was going to be clearing a significant section of forest to build a new professional building.

“There’s no penalty, and there’s no way to prevent it,” Logue pointed out. And he reflected on projects they’d dealt with in the past, like the Coastal Plaza. There, too, developers had removed some trees.

They had also obtained federal permits to fill a small section of marsh (envision a triangle, a little less than 25 feet on a side), and then built on top of it. Again, there was nothing the town could say (although council did quickly pass a new ordinance requiring a no-build buffer zone around wetlands).

Charlie McMullen noted an ability among private sector land planners to find the loopholes, and a tendency among developers to take their projects right up to the ultimate limits of their property rights.

But in some areas, he said, Ocean View was already very strict — McMullen suggested the town’s signage ordinance was perhaps the most stringent along the eastern seaboard.

Later in the meeting, Gulbronson suggested they could sit around and try to prepare for every possible scenario, but no ordinance would be perfect. More likely, he said, 30 days after council enacted the new design standards, a project would come along and present a problem they’d never thought about.

He went back to the P&Z’s power to expedite the process for developers. People who voluntarily adopted extra design elements would be considered on the “A list.” People who came in skirting the bare minimum would go onto the “B list,” he suggested.

Commission Member Garland Saville voiced skepticism, suggesting this power to give developers a “hard time” was a limited power indeed.

As long as developers cleared the minimum design standards, they were legally entitled to proceed, Saville pointed out. “It might take them a little longer, but whatever we come up with — that’s it,” he said.

Logue suggested the possibility of rewards — perhaps lowered minimum lot sizes in exchange for added amenities.

As McMullen pointed out, this was in essence what the town offered through the residential planned community (RPC) ordinance. And Gulbronson said towns typically went that route only if they were dealing with rather large open tracts of land.

The group eventually left the enforcement issue for another day, turning to concrete specifics.

Commission Member Joe Evans asked about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, handicapped-ramp dimensions and the like. He recommended the town consider listing those requirements, rather than just referring to them, in the new design standards.

On that topic, McMullen said there was actually an ADA-related reason for the grass strip between the sidewalk and street, as noted on the Delaware Department of Transportation’s plans for improvements along Route 26. He said that strip minimized the sideways slant toward the street where the sidewalks crossed driveways, making them much safer for people in wheelchairs.

Gulbronson noted federal regulations covering the ADA issues — and that DelDOT would be building sidewalks the length of Route 26, eventually. But he suggested the town would definitely need to look at how pedestrians moved from the sidewalks to offices and shops.

“You don’t want to see people crossing between three rows of parked cars,” he pointed out. By Gulbronson’s estimation, parking lots and sidewalks would be one of the most important features the group worked on.

He also brought up a new topic in building design– franchise architecture.

“What’s happening, across the country, is towns aren’t accepting the standard corporate architecture anymore,” Gulbronson pointed out. Major chains increasingly had to add design elements to better fit with communities’ unique character.

“As far as the unique character of Ocean View — I’m not sure what that is, at this point,” Logue said. “It’s kind of a mish-mash.” However, he and the others agreed the best set of design standards would be the set that best preserved and maintained the overall look of Route 26, as it exists today.