Rehoboth officials debate lot mergers

Planners seek public process
Rehoboth Beach officials are working on an ordinance that would set up a formal public process for unmerging lots that are considered merged by use.  While the city previously recommended applicants wishing to "unmerge" lots go through the planning commission's subdivision process, three property owners, including 89 Columbia Ave. shown here, appealed their cases to the board of adjustment and were allowed to divide the lots without going through the subdivision process. BY RYAN MAVITY
May 20, 2014

Rehoboth Beach officials are considering an ordinance to establish a public process by which property owners could request to divide a property that by use has been considered a single lot.

The ordinance, first drawn up by the planning commission nearly two years ago, would codify what has traditionally been city policy. Until recently, Rehoboth's building and licensing office has allowed property owners to merge two or more lots if the lots are used as one parcel.

The building and licensing office would recommend owners wishing to divide a lot used as a single lot  go through the subdivision process, which requires a public hearing before the planning commission. However, a formal process to subdivide this type of lot was never spelled out in city code.

In the past year, three property owners applied for building permits, but were denied by the building inspector, who said the city considered their properties  single lots by use. The property owners then appealed to the board of adjustment, which has its own process for determining whether a lot is considered a single, merged lot. In each case, the board ruled in favor of the property owner, overturning the building inspector’s decision.

Board of adjustment solicitor Craig Karsnitz said the board’s rationale has been that there is nothing in the code giving them guidance for when a lot is considered merged.  He said the board is calling for clarification of how and when large properties are determined to be single lots.

As a result, building inspector Terri Sullivan revised department policy; she no longer advises property owners to go through the subdivision process. Large lots can now be split into smaller lots without going through the subdivision process.

That decision rankled the planning commission, which proposed an ordinance 18 months ago, but no action was taken until Commissioner Stan Mills took up the issue up April 7.

“Unhappy is a mild understatement,” said Commissioner Jan Konesey at the planners’ April 11 meeting. Konesey said no one from the building and licensing office bothered to call Chairman Preston Littleton to tell the planners the policy had changed.

"As long as I have been in Rehoboth every partitioning, merger or unmerger has come to the planning commission,” she said.

Littleton said a formal process for lots previously considered merged benefits residents because it provides a public forum for neighbors to offer input. Without a new ordinance, a property owner with a 100-by-100-foot lot with a house in the middle – a merged lot by use – could be unmerged and a house could be built on each of the resulting 50-by-100 lots, but neighbors could say or do nothing about it. Littleton said because the city is so built-out, any development should be considered publicly, with consideration for issues such as trees and parking.

Karsnitz said he would like to see a formal list of lots that are considered merged available at building and licensing to make it easier for homeowners and prospective buyers to know what lots have been merged by use.

Mills said no count has been conducted on the number of merged properties. He said he plans to continue discussion at the commissioners’ Monday, May 5 workshop.