Lewes addition faces teardown after board denial

Property owner built addition without city approval
April 22, 2017

A Lewes homeowner may be forced to demolish a new addition to his Dewey Avenue home after variance requests were denied for work already underway. 

In March 2016, Assistant Building Inspector Robin Davis discovered Ernest Nepa had begun work without necessary approval on a rear addition to his home at 116 Dewey Ave. He immediately issued a stop work order. 

More than a year later on April 18, Nepa went before the city’s board of adjustment to seek variances in order to complete the work. 

“On the Nepas’ behalf, I want to apologize for the procedural spot we’re in here,” said Bill Schab, Nepa’s attorney. “Had the proper procedure been followed, we would’ve had a lot less controversy. They jumped ahead of themselves, and I think they had good reason.” 

Nepa said the addition became necessary when a section of the rear roof collapsed into the kitchen following a nor’easter in February 2016. After stabilizing the structure, he poured a new foundation and began work on a nearly 15-foot addition off the back of the home, which he said could be used as a master bedroom or additional family living space.

“My No. 1 goal was to keep the architectural integrity of the house,” he said. “I did not want to tear it down, even if someone said to tear it down.”

After nearly two hours of testimony, the board voted against three variance requests – to increase the nonconformity of a nonconforming structure, to encroach on an 8-foot side-yard setback and to build within a 10-foot required separation between a home and a garage. 

After the board’s written decision is issued, Nepa has 30 days to appeal the decision in court. If he does not choose to appeal, Baynum said, the city will order that Nepa remove the unapproved addition to the home. If he plans to build in addition to anything already approved, he will likely have to go before the historic preservation commission.  

This is the third home Nepa is renovating in Lewes. A certified public accountant from Wilmington, Nepa said he first bought a historic home on Kings Highway several years ago and did all of the renovations himself. He then took on another home on Dewey Avenue.

By all accounts, Nepa’s work up to this point has been by the book with good craftsmanship. 

“The aesthetic value of the home is beautiful,” said board member Candace Vessella. “But our measures of evaluation are not altogether about aesthetics.” 

When Nepa purchased 118 Dewey Ave., he said, he saw it as another fun renovation project. But after getting into the project, he said, he found puff beetles had caused significant structural damage, essentially working their way into the center to hollow out wood beams. He also later discovered decades-old water damage as well as fire damage. 

His intent, he said, was to keep the original footprint of the home. Nepa had received approval from the historic preservation commission in July 2015 for exterior changes to the home, including raising the home for leveling purposes, a new roof, new windows and a new porch. An addition was not included in the approval.

The board was instructed by its attorney, Mike Hoffman, to look at the variances as if no work had already occurred. The board is required to make its decision based on four factors: a hardship exists that is not shared by other properties in the same zoning district and vicinity; the variance can be granted without detriment to the public good; the benefits of approval outweigh the detriments; and approval would not impair the intent of the comprehensive plan or the zoning code.  

Board Chair Brook Hedge said Nepa’s property is not unique, and there are many similarly sized lots with homes in comparable condition on the block and elsewhere in Lewes. She added that other property owners in the vicinity have requested and been denied similar variances. 

“The addition of the nonconforming use is such that, in my mind, it would not have been approved [before construction] because it went so beyond a simple, little minor variance,” she said. 

She said there is a reason the building codes and standards exist, and the only reason a variance is granted is if a property owner can present an exceptional, practical difficulty. 

“Just to make it more marketable, more habitable, more desirable is not an exceptional, practical difficulty,” she said. “While our comp plan talks about the desire and need for all types of housing, it doesn’t mean every single house has to have a master bedroom on the first floor.” 

Lewes-based architect Brenda Jones spoke against the requests. She said approving the variance would set a precedent and open the floodgates for variance requests. 

“This would be a game-changer,” she said. “I have people ask me all the time why can’t we do this or why can’t we do that, and I say it’s in the code. We’re not allowed to do certain things. There’s certain rules.” 

Board member Denise Emery said when she renovated her home, she heard a lot about setbacks and other regulations, and Nepa should have had a better plan in place before moving ahead without permission.

“From the beginning, we realized there were certain things we had to conform to regardless of what our plans were,” she said. “I think to grant these variances really takes the teeth out of the codes that exist.” 

The board received several letters for and against the variance requests. Virginia Mitchell, the 62-year-old next-door neighbor of Nepa’s Dewey Avenue property, testified that Nepa’s work has not negatively affected her, and the resulting renovation is a vast improvement. 

Schab said that should be enough to grant the variance. 

“When the person who could be most adversely affected says she’s not affected one bit, I’d support it,” he said.