With two townhouse complexes in the pipeline for the beachside of Lewes, the city's planning commission is weighing a halt to residential development in that section of town.
Both complexes will be built in the city's marine-commercial district and each received a special exception to do so. The ease at which the townhouses were approved raised eyebrows at city hall. Before more applications were received, mayor and city council unanimously voted in March to place a moratorium on special exceptions.
Council has now tasked the planning commission to determine the best path forward for Lewes.
Commission Chairman Mike Mahafie said there are many routes the city could take, including adding more control to special exceptions, amending permitted uses in the marine-commercial district or adjusting the boundaries of the district.
Resident Nadine Wick said it is important to preserve the marine-commercial district and prevent townhouses from taking over the area.
“I think we're selling ourselves short if we don't keep it pretty much marine commercial with the idea of keeping retail down there,” she said. “I think we'll be making a huge mistake with having townhouses everywhere.”
Many residents view the stretch of Savannah Road from the canal to the beach as Lewes' next Second Street. Mayor Ted Becker reminded everyone at the June 5 meeting that only 30 years ago storefronts on Second Street were struggling to find tenants.
“The evolution has happened downtown, and I do believe there will be an evolution across the bridge,” he said. “There was a lot of careful thought that went into developing the marine-commercial district.”
City officials created the zone to support marine-related businesses, such as fishing or boating, but also sought to include a mix of uses, with a variety of housing options, said Vice Chairperson Kay Carnahan.
Prior to allowing a special exception for townhomes, developers wishing to build residential units were required to reserve the ground floor for commercial spaces. That model so far has been unsuccessful, specifically at Captain's Quarters on Savannah Road, which has four 500-square-foot retail spaces that have been in a constant state of flux.
“That's a very awkward space to rent,” Becker said. “Almost no one can survive, unless you're a jewelry store, in that amount of square footage.”
Beachside business owner Rick Quill said he is not against the development of townhouses on his side of the city because it rids the area of eyesores. His concern is that the special exception will allow townhouses to take over the entire area.
Commission member Joe Hoechner said allowing a few townhouses could spark some life for the struggling businesses along Savannah Road.
“If you have a townhouse adjacent to a struggling business where you have residents coming in – weekenders, renters – it may make shop owners happy if there are signs of life there,” he said.
Gail vanGilder, chair of the city's scenic & historic byways committee, suggested extending the Lewes' beautification efforts into an area that comes off stark compared to the rest of the city. A streetscape project possibly with the help of a transportation enhancement grant from the Department of Transportation could benefit for future economic growth.
“I think we have to look at it as a wonderful resource that we have,” she said. “If Second Street is so jammed that no one can get on it, they're going to go somewhere else. We want to capture that business and keep it in town. This is our way to do it. We have to be patient. We have to have a long-term vision.”
Commission member Victor Letonoff agreed.
“Adjusting the special exception, I think, is important in keeping some of the retail space, so when Lewes expands, it expands into that space,” he said.
The board of adjustment granted special exceptions to Evergreene Companies LLC to build a nine-unit complex at the corner of Savannah and Anglers roads and to local businessman Cliff Diver to construct an eight-townhouse complex at the corner of Savannah Road and Massachusetts Avenue.
After those projects were approved, the city's planning commission received a rezoning request from a developer who wanted to convert a residentially zoned area to marine commercial in order to build townhouses with a special exception. Commissioners recommended city council deny the request, and the developer pulled its application before council could register a vote.
The planning commission made no decisions about the future of the marine-commercial district at its June 5 meeting. Discussion will continue future workshops. The commission will reach out to the beachside business community to provide its input.