The Lewes Planning Commission has recommended denial of a developer's request to rezone two properties to marine commercial for the purpose of building townhouses.
Commissioners said they didn't want to move forward with a project that may never come to fruition. Mayor and city council are considering a moratorium and potential changes to the special exception process that could drastically alter what is allowed in the marine commercial zoning district.
“My concern is the initial impetus for having marine commercial was not to have homes built; it was to provide for a vital commercial area across the bridge,” said commissioner Barbara Vaughn. “I think what we've seen is that it's not really working the way it was envisioned. I would have a hard time increasing something that isn't working.”
Canal Front Partners LLC plans to develop .33 acres of land at 2 and 4 Tennessee Ave., just west of the Cape-May Lewes Ferry, into a six-unit townhouse complex. City council will have the final say on the rezoning decision following a public hearing.
The properties are currently zoned R-3, a residential beach zoning classification. Carpenter Engineering, Canal Front Partners LLC's engineering firm, is seeking a change to marine commercial, which is designed to mix residential and commercial while preserving the city's historic connection to the sea. Projects not meeting requirements may seek relief through a special exception. Two other townhouse projects have received special exceptions in recent months.
Ronnie Carpenter of Carpenter Engineering said the project has been in the works for at least six months, and he assumed the project would be grandfathered despite council's decision. He said he was notified just hours before the planning commission's Feb. 19 meeting that it would not be exempt from council's action on the moratorium.
“We feel this has been a moving target for us,” said Carpenter, adding he was guided toward marine commercial zoning by city staff. “Getting a phone call an hour before close of business telling us you were grandfathered to go forward with the marine commercial special exception and now you're not is a little surprising to us.”
The developer had the option of seeking R-5 zoning, which allows for a greater mix of residential types. However, because the properties are small, he said, a variance would be required if the land were rezoned R-5. By applying for marine commercial zoning, he said, developers would only need a special exception.
“We're not dead set on having marine commercial business. Our intent is to redevelop with townhomes on this site,” he said. “Whether that's the vehicle of marine commercial or R-5, we've already said that is irrelevant to us.”
Townhouses would fit the character of the surrounding area, Carpenter said, with the Pilot Point community just to the west as well as other townhouse developments close by on Cape Henlopen Drive.
Commission Chair Michael Mahaffie said townhouses may not be a bad idea for this land, but he cannot approve marine-commercial rezoning.
“In a different situation I might support the idea townhouses in this place,” he said. “However, given the uncertainty of the townhouse question for this application I'm not comfortable making that piece of property marine commercial because I don't think that is the right place for marine commercial.”
City attorney Michael Hoffman agreed with commissioners in saying it is tough to approve a rezoning application when the applicant isn't planning to follow the new zoning district's rules.
“It's difficult for this body or any other city body to assume that a special exception is going to be granted,” he said. The required special exceptions are granted by the board of adjustment only if projects meet specific criteria.
Residents in favor of moratorium
The latest project comes to city hall as council is on the verge of placing a moratorium on such special exception applications. Mayor and city council held a public hearing Feb. 13, when input from residents was nearly unanimously in favor of a moratorium.
“I think it's time to take a little bit of a step back and decide what the proper development is out there. That's all I'm asking for at this point,” said resident Tom Panetta.
Council voted to allow the special exceptions in a marine-commercial zone in May 2013. Mayor Jim Ford said the city amended the zoning district language to include the special exception because of unforeseen complications that made it difficult to develop certain properties.
Since then, two townhouse projects have been granted special exceptions – one at Savannah and Angler's roads and the other at Savannah Road and Massachusetts Avenue.
Resident Elaine Simmerman says council and planners need determine if townhouses are appropriate in that part of the city.
“I think we need to look at the long-term view and the overall effect on the community before we start allowing these special exceptions,” she said. “For example, looking at summertime parking, core values, infrastructure and the overall affect on the community.”
Resident Nadine Wick said allowing developers to build residential units in that area is wrong.
“As we see continued growth just outside the city, we know there will be more demand for boutique shops, marine-themed shops and restaurants with or without residential above,” she said.
Marine-commercial zoning has something that benefits everyone, she said.
Residential units are allowed under marine-commercial zoning, but without a special exception, the building must have a commercial use on the ground floor.
Ford said the city recently went through an extensive citywide zoning change, which involved public hearings and comment periods. However, he said, zoning is fluid.
“There's going to be need to amend your zones,” he said. “You don't create the document and it's done and it's in perpetuity.”
With it now apparent how developers view the special exception, he said, a moratorium may be in order to reevaluate the special-exception process.
“Now it's time, according to public comment all being unanimous, to take a break and take a pause and see how it can be modified to address the reflections of the community,” he said.
Council will likely vote on the moratorium at its next meeting, slated for Monday, March 17.