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New hearings, same result for Clear Space project

Vote was closer, but Rehoboth planning commission approves new theater proposal
March 1, 2021

Story Location:
Clear Space Theatre Company
415 Rehoboth Avenue
Rehoboth Avenue  Delaware  19971
United States

For a second time in a little over six months, the Rehoboth Beach Planning Commission has approved the site plan for Clear Space Theatre Company’s Rehoboth Avenue project.

Currently located on Baltimore Avenue, Clear Space has proposed a new venue at 413, 415 and 417 Rehoboth Ave. The project includes two buildings – a 14,968-square-foot, 256-seat traditional theater and a 9,979-square-foot rehearsal theater.

The planning commission first approved the site plan in August, but the decision was appealed to the city commissioners, who told the planning commission it needed to conduct a second public hearing because the first hearing wasn’t procedurally correct. The second public hearing took place Jan. 29, and the planning commission began its deliberations Feb. 12.

Discussions concluded Feb. 26, with the second approval of the theater’s site plans. The vote was a little closer this time – 5-3 in favor versus a 7-2 vote on the first go-around.

As approved, there are no off-street parking requirements. However, Clear Space is supposed to develop a traffic and parking mitigation plan that will minimize the impact of parking on the surrounding neighborhood. The plan is to direct patrons to use alternative means of transportation. There will also be a group created to monitor Clear Space’s conformance to the conditions during construction, and then meet as needed after construction is over.

Also, as approved, Clear Space will have to install another layer of sound-deadening gypsum to the roof, install a 6-foot-fence and 16 trees along the north property line, and install a water feature. No rooftop terrace will be allowed.

Chair Jeff Trunzo and Commissioners Lee Weber, Barry Covington, Michael Bryan and Stephen Kaufman voted in favor of approval. 

The issues with parking and traffic have been addressed, and the plans are consistent with the city’s comprehensive development plan, said Covington. It’s a great opportunity to have a great institution in town, he said.

Kaufman recognized there will be impacts to the city, but he said it would be up to the city and Clear Space to address, and then fix, those issues as they arise.

As with the August vote, and for similar reasons, Joyce Lussier and Michael Strange voted against the site plan.

Vice Chair Brian Patterson was the new no vote, and he gave a number of reasons. One reason, he said, is that Clear Space had not given the planning commission an updated set of plans that show ceiling heights originally taller than 12 feet are now less than 12 feet, which is important because square footage is counted twice for rooms with ceiling heights over 12 feet.

Clear Space is on the record saying they have submitted those revised plans to the city planner, but they’re not included in the planning commission’s packet, said Patterson.

Patterson said another reason for his vote was because the smaller venue has been set up as the place for the larger venue’s accessory uses, but the plans were submitted as two separate entities. In his opinion, this means the uses of one shouldn’t be allowed toward the uses of the other.

Commissioner Rachel Macha recused herself prior to the meeting after being advised by the state’s Public Integrity Commission to do so because she had independently contacted a sound engineer who submitted a report for the appellants, who in turn questioned her impartiality. 

One of those appellants, John Swift, also questioned the impartiality of City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas; he accused Mandalas of trying to intimidate him as a way to stop the complaint against Macha.

Commissioners addressed the issue at the start of the meeting after Lussier said she was concerned about Swift’s accusations. She motioned to have Mandalas removed from the proceedings, and there was some discussion on the issue, but ultimately the motion failed by a 1-6-1 vote.

Mandalas is the group’s counsel until the planning commission is told otherwise, said Kaufman.

Before the meeting was even adjourned, Clear Space has issued a statement thanking the planning commission for a second favorable vote. One of Clear Space’s top priorities is ongoing communication with nearby neighbors about sound, light and parking concerns throughout the phases of building and subsequent openings of the new theatres, said the release. Once construction is complete, Clear Space will conduct sound-emission tests and maintain close contact with the police department to ensure any traffic or safety concerns are handled promptly, said the release.

“Clear Space looks forward to being a good neighbor in our new location and providing live theatre at the beach for decades to come,” said Clear Space Executive Director Wesley Paulson in a prepared statement Feb. 26.

Trunzo did allow for a brief public comment period following the vote. All four people who spoke were against the project as proposed.

One of those people was Harvey Shulman, who is also one of the appellants. The record is full of many legal and factual errors that doom this project in the form it's proposed, said Shulman, in an email after the meeting.

“We're confident an appeal here will also succeed – whether with the mayor and commissioners, or in court,” said Shulman. “It's only the fourth inning in a nine-inning baseball event."

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