FENWICK ISLAND – In spite of concerns raised by residents, a local developer’s plans to replace the aging Sands Motel are moving forward.
The Fenwick Island Town Council voted 5-2 last week to approve the first reading of an ordinance that would permit developer Spiro Buas to replace the Sands Motel with a larger hotel.
“The Sands is in bad condition,” said Councilman Bill Weistling. “This gives the opportunity to build a new hotel equivalent to the two existing ones.”
Since Buas purchased the motel this spring, he’s been working with the town’s charter and ordinance committee to explore potential zoning code changes that would enable him to replace the 38-room motel with a bigger facility. The town’s existing zoning code allows one room per 1,000 square feet and does not allow for a motel to have more than 65 rooms. The Sands Motel property is 39,000 square feet.
Buas inquired as to whether the town’s zoning code could be amended to allow one hotel room per 500 square feet, as that change would enable him to build a 78-room hotel. Members of the charter and ordinance committee, however, proposed a change to the code that would allow one hotel room per 600 square feet as long as the facility didn’t exceed 65 total rooms. It was that change presented to the town council Sept. 25.
Weistling, who serves as chairman of the charter and ordinance committee, said the majority of the committee supported the change because it would keep the new hotel in line with Fenwick Island’s other lodging facilities. The Seaside Inn features 61 rooms — or one room per 640 square feet — while the Fenwick Islander has 62 rooms — or one room per 363 square feet.
Councilmember Diane Tingle asked whether the town could put a moratorium in place at some point in the future to stop the construction of hotels. Town solicitor Mary Strider-Fox said the officials certainly could enact a moratorium as long as they followed the same process they would for a zoning change, including a public hearing. She said the length of the moratorium should be based on the reasoning for it. If town officials want to study the hotel situation, the moratorium should give them time to do that.
“You want the time period of the moratorium to be commensurate to what you think you need to do,” Strider-Fox said.
Councilman Roy Williams said he was not in favor of making any changes to the zoning code.
“I think we should back up on this and make sure we’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Williams and Councilmember Julie Lee were the only officials to vote against moving the ordinance forward. Lee said she agreed the Sands Motel needed to be replaced but wanted to make sure the town wasn’t opening the door for future developers.
“I think we need to look at the overall view of how many motels and beds versus residential homes …,” she said. “Clearly any commercial property could be sold and converted to a hotel.”
A number of local residents also spoke against the proposed change. Richard Benn compared the ordinance to taking “a sledgehammer to a finishing nail.” He said the aging motel needed to be redeveloped but within certain limits.
“It could potentially lead to 8,000 additional people on the beach,” he said. “This is shortsighted.”
Resident Dottie Lopez said she didn’t understand why town officials were so eager to change zoning.
“People come here because of our strict zoning,” she said. “I’m missing something. Everybody’s jumping to change the zoning. I’m totally blown away.”
Weistling pointed out that the town was already home to two other hotels. He added that the charter and ordinance committee had rejected the initial proposal Buas presented and had advised him to lower the number of rooms he was proposing.
“I don’t feel we’re doing this specifically for him,” he said.
Doug Lopez said he felt the proposed change was not in line with Fenwick Island’s comprehensive plan.
“People are concerned not just about that property but what would happen with other properties,” he said.
Others in the audience criticized the lack of information that was available to the public regarding the proposed ordinance. Weistling stressed that the council received comments like that all the time in spite of the fact that town meetings were open to the public and that agendas were posted on the town’s website.
The Fenwick Island Town Council will host a public hearing regarding the proposed ordinance change Oct. 23.