Belhaven variance approval appealed

Rehoboth resident argues board erred in allowing hotel to increase floor-to-area ratio by 50 percent
March 11, 2022

A lawsuit has been filed by a Rehoboth Beach resident challenging the city board of adjustment’s decision to grant a variance for the proposed Belhaven Hotel to exceed the allowable floor-to-area ratio by 50 percent.

During a hearing Nov. 22, the board of adjustment voted 3-1 in favor of a variance request allowing the project’s floor-to-area ratio to go from 2 to 3.

In an appeal filed Feb. 23 by Wilmington-based attorney William Larson with Delaware Superior Court, appellant Francis Markert argues the board’s decision will negatively impact his health, safety and the general welfare of the community. The appeal argues the approved variance will bring increases in vehicle traffic, existing parking problems, trash and noise, as well as higher risk to Markert’s safety as a pedestrian.

Markert, who currently chairs the city’s parks and shade tree commission and is a former planning commissioner, also argues that the aesthetic benefit of the iconic Boardwalk will be diminished. The proposed hotel and variance violates the city’s comprehensive plan, limits light, overcrowds the land, and diminishes safety from fire, panic and other dangers, reads the appeal.

The proposed Belhaven Hotel was first introduced in April 2019 and sits in one of the city’s most coveted commercial areas – the southeast corner of Rehoboth Avenue and the Boardwalk. The project has an address of 2 Rehoboth Ave., but the property fronts the Boardwalk to the south property line of Grotto Pizza; encompasses all the Rehoboth Avenue commercial space west to the property line with Go Fish; and stretches south to Wilmington Avenue.

The project does not include a square-shaped piece of property that includes Gus & Gus, the five-and-dime store facing the Boardwalk, and Zogg’s Raw Bar & Grill on Wilmington Avenue.

The project has been brought forward by father-and-son property owners John and Alex Papajohn, who have a family connection to the site dating back 100 years. John’s father and his mother’s two brothers opened the family operation in 1938. The original hotel was destroyed by the Storm of ‘62.

During the hearing in November, the Papajohns argued the city’s 2010 Comprehensive Development Plan encourages, and calls for, the revitalization of downtown Rehoboth Beach, especially the areas of Baltimore and Wilmington avenues. However, they said, in the 12 years since the CDP was passed, city officials have done little to adjust the city’s zoning code so property owners can redevelop their properties in the manner described by the CDP. This contradiction, the team argued, fell under the ‘exceptional practical difficulties’ portion of the area variance request.

During the hearing, the Papajohns brought in hotel industry expert Chris Cylke of Washington, D.C.-based REVPAR International. City code currently allows a 160-room hotel on the property with limited amenities, ground-level parking and less retail, said Cylke. However, he continued, the Papajohns are proposing a 116-room hotel that has balconies, a pool, a large meeting room, underground parking, ground-level retail and restaurants.

Attorney Hal Dukes has represented the Papajohns since the project was first introduced. He said everyone is surprised by the appeal. The board did a careful review and study of the application in regard to the specific use of the site, he said.

“This site is the poster child of Rehoboth Beach, and to construct a building that does not have stores along Rehoboth Avenue, the Boardwalk and Wilmington Avenue would change the entire character of the town,” said Dukes in an email March 8. “John Pappajohn and Alex Papajohn are committed to building a high-class structure that will combine the rich history of Rehoboth with all the modern amenities of an upscale hotel. The family did that on the site in the 1930s and now they want to do it again. They want Rehoboth to be proud of their product.”

Board of adjustment attorney Fred Townsend declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Superior Court Judge Craig Karsnitz, who was Rehoboth's board of adjustment attorney for 32 years, has been assigned to the case.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter