FENWICK ISLAND – Close to a hundred Fenwick Island property owners converged on town hall last Friday for the chance to share their views on a potential zoning change.
Though there were fewer than two dozen who actually voiced their opinions on the ordinance that would allow for the redevelopment of the Sands Motel, interest in the matter was high, as Friday’s hearing was the public’s last chance to comment on the proposed change before the council’s Dec. 11 vote on the matter. Attendees who couldn’t find seats in the council chamber were relegated by town staff to hover outside the door, straining to hear the speakers, roughly half of whom supported the code change. Those who didn’t favor the zoning amendment that would allow the Sands Motel to be rebuilt with 65 rooms maintained that they wanted to see the lodging facility redeveloped but were concerned about the way it was being handled.
“Everyone agrees it’s an eyesore and needs to be torn down,” resident Lisa Benn said. “What I am opposed to is the process in which the council has gone about doing this.”
Benn and several others said they wanted the council to slow down and make more of an effort to gather public input in advance of any change in the zoning code. Charles Farmer, a Fenwick Island property owner for 40 years, said the public should have had more of an opportunity to provide input on the issue.
“Let people come in and get an understanding and be able to speak. What I’m asking is for the town council to slow down,” he said as he was advised by a Fenwick Island police officer that his three minutes to speak were up and was escorted away from the podium.
Bill Mould offered similar comments and pointed to the fact that the proposed ordinance had been changed as had several meeting dates.
“Everyone should know this is a flawed process,” he said.
Others expressed concern over the traffic impact a larger Sands Motel could have on the community. Jackie Napolitano said her house was next door to the motel and she expected significantly more traffic if it was enlarged to 65 rooms.
“I’m not going to be able to get out of my driveway,” she said.
On behalf of resident Richard Benn, attorney Max Walton presented a protest petition. According to Walton, it contained the signatures of roughly 50 percent of owners of the 104,000 square feet of property adjacent to the town’s three hotels — those that would be effected by the ordinance. Delaware code requires that a protest petition be signed by 20 percent of adjacent property owners.
In addition to presenting the petition, Walton also argued that the change as proposed was not legal under Delaware code, which requires uniformity among buildings throughout a particular zoning district.
“This creates an illegal overlay zone,” he said of the proposal, as it would apply to just three hotels in the town’s commercial district.
After those opposed to the ordinance voiced their concerns, those who supported it were given the opportunity to speak. Longtime resident and former council member Tim Collins said the town’s commercial district was struggling, with empty storefronts and vacant lots.
“The majority of the council has realized we have a terrible problem with the commercial zone,” he said. “I feel we need to support that effort to move our commercial zone forward.”
Alex Daly said that in addition to promoting a healthier commercial district the redevelopment of the Sands Motel would provide the town with needed tax revenues. He also said more hotel rooms could prove an asset.
“It opens the door for those not fortunate enough to own property here,” he said.
Fenwick businessman and property owner Scott Mumford said he saw no harm in an ordinance that would allow the upgrade of a dilapidated property.
“I can’t imagine 26 rooms will create a traffic woe or overcrowded beach,” he said. “I think Fenwick needs to come together and see this as a positive and not a negative.”
As proposed, the zoning ordinance suggested by Sands owner Spiro Buas would allow existing motels — the three that are already in place — one room per 600 square feet. Town code currently provides for one motel room every 1,000 square feet. The Fenwick Island Town Council is expected to hold a second reading on the ordinance Dec. 11.
When contacted after the public hearing, Fenwick officials said that because the town’s solicitor was not able to attend the public hearing, they weren’t sure what impact Walton’s petition would have on the ordinance’s second reading. Council member Julie Lee — who said she was embarrassed by the way Farmer was treated at the public hearing — said that potentially, the petition could mean that a three-fourths vote by the council would be required to pass the ordinance.
Mayor Gene Langan said on Monday town officials were still evaluating the petition and could not say whether it would have an impact on the Dec. 11 vote.
Regardless of what happens with the petition, Lee, who with Councilman Roy Williams voted against the ordinance during its first reading, continues to advocate for a moratorium on Fenwick Island hotels, at least until the town’s comprehensive plan update is completed.
“I’m hoping we slow down,” she said. “I think it’d be wise to implement a moratorium on further hotel development until the comprehensive plan has been submitted to the state.”
She said she thought a moratorium was even more appropriate now that the town appeared to be setting itself up for legal challenges with the proposed zoning change.
“I think we need to make sure the ordinance is doing what we thought it was going to do before we pass it,” she said.