Roughly two weeks ago, June 30, Rehoboth Beach commissioners reversed the city planning commission’s site-plan approval of Clear Space Theatre Company’s proposed Rehoboth Avenue theater complex.
In the planning commission’s first meeting since that reversal, July 9, commission members Steve Kaufman and Rachel Macha defended their approval of the site plan and responded to comments made by city commissioners during the appeal hearing.
The June 30 reversal was the second time in less than a year the planning commission’s approval of the Clear Space project had been overturned. The planning commission approved the site plan for the two-building proposal at 413, 415 and 417 Rehoboth Ave. in August 2020. A group of citizens appealed soon after, and commissioners sent the issue back to the planning commission on procedural grounds. The planning commission conducted a second round of hearings and deliberations in January and February, then approved the site plan for a second time in late February.
The same group of citizens appealed again, and again the commissioners voted in favor of reversing the approval, citing these main issues – the planning commission’s approval of the site plan without actually reviewing a code-compliant set of drawings for the project, planning commissioners’ lack of discussion on the educational component for the project, and their misinterpretation of code-mandated parking requirements related to the project’s square footage.
In response to those issues, Kaufman said the code-compliant drawings were a part of the oral record; that the educational component of Clear Space offerings is merely supplemental to the theater; and that theaters do not require parking.
Ultimately, the city commissioners may have cost the city a cultural asset, said Kaufman.
Finally, Kaufman specifically called out Commissioner Susan Gay, who during the hearing noted that the planning commissioners who voted in favor of the site plan didn’t have prior site-plan review experience, while the ones who voted against the site plan did.
As a land-use attorney with 45 years of experience, Kaufman said that comment was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and unfair. That statement shouldn’t have been made, he said.
Macha, who is a candidate in the city’s 2021 municipal election, said the planning commissioners did their job and they did their job well. It was the city commissioners who kept kicking the can down the road, she said.
Macha also called out Gay for her comments. The majority of planning commission members have legal land use or urban development backgrounds, said Macha. However, she continued, neither the current mayor nor any of the commissioners has any land-use experience.
Chair Jeffrey Trunzo didn’t call anyone by name, but he did say he wasn’t a big fan of the phrase arbitrary and capricious, which is the legal standing used to overturn the planning commission’s approval.
It’s a legal term of art, said Trunzo, adding that he tried not to take it personally, but having that term applied to the planning commission’s process did hurt.
Planning commissioners support hiring of a city planner
Prior to making comments on the reversal of their Clear Space decision, the planning commission members discussed their desire for the city to either hire a full-time city planner or to retain a consultant who can evaluate plans.
Commissioner Lee Weber presented the board with an outline of what a city planner should do. It wasn’t a voting situation, but the commissioners unanimously agreed with the list. Among other things, the list says the planner should be able to analyze if an application meets zoning and the intent of the comprehensive development plan for a particular use at a particular location; analyze if the proposed use is compatible with existing nearby uses; analyze if the proposed use is the highest and best use for a particular location or if it might be better suited for some other use or mix of uses; advise on what potential adverse impacts can be anticipated from a proposal and help formulate what conditions might help mitigate those impacts; review and comment on studies or reports submitted by an applicant in support of their application; act as a liaison between the planning commission and applicant; and prepare planning and land-use studies in a proactive way for specific properties or areas of town that could be incorporated into future CDP updates.
Commissioner Michael Strange said the city needed a planner 10 years ago. Right now, by the time an applicant comes to the planning commission, it’s too late and then it turns into a fight, he said.
Projects are coming forward with an applicant quoting one chapter of code or the comprehensive development plan showing the project fits, while members of the public are quoting other areas of the same code and plan that show the project doesn’t fit, said Strange. Neither is being done in the context of the entire city, he said.
Lake Avenue subdivision approved
Before all those discussions, the planning commission unanimously approved the minor subdivision application for 63, 65 and 67 Lake Ave.
The area is zoned C3 commercial, but the owners, Seattle-based PNSDE - Lake LLC, have plans to build two residential structures in place of the three residential structures that were demolished months ago. As approved, the middle lot, 65 Lake Ave., will be split, making the other two lots, 63 and 67 Lake Ave., larger.