Rehoboth raises concerns about proposed Belhaven Hotel

Planning commission begins site-plan review of block-wide, four-story hotel
April 23, 2023

The team building the proposed Belhaven Hotel in Rehoboth Beach may have received a variance allowing the floor-to-area ratio to be 50% larger than code, but that doesn’t mean city officials don’t have concerns about the project.

The proposed hotel at 2 Rehoboth Ave. was brought forward by John and Alex Papajohn, whose family has owned the property for nearly 100 years. The hotel would be a four-story, 115,000-square-foot structure that includes ground-floor retail, underground parking and more than 110 rooms. The project site stretches the width of the block south to Wilmington Avenue and also fronts the Boardwalk.

The project was granted a FAR variance more than a year ago. For several reasons, there were delays, but the planning commission began its site-plan review April 14.

City Building Inspector Matt Janis began the review by going over a 20-page report that lists issues he and city contractor Wallace Montgomery want the planning commission to consider as it weighs a decision. Examples include a cupola that’s taller than the city’s maximum height, standalone rooftop bar areas not being allowed, accessible parking in the wrong areas, incorrect widths for turning aisles in the underground parking garage, consolidation of lots where the hotel will sit, the location of a Baltimore Avenue parking lot being used to meet parking requirements, the number of loading berths, signage, floodplain permits, emergency service access, stormwater management and building past the coastal building line established by the state. Additionally, Janis recommends the plans go back before the state for another Preliminary Land Use Service review.

Representing the Papajohns was attorney Hal Dukes. He started his presentation by saying there’s no difference in the bulk of the building if there’s a FAR of 2 or 3. The difference, he said, is that the FAR of 3 allows for ground-floor retail instead of a parking lot.

Dukes said the town is in a cycle of change and property owners are getting ready for the next 100 years.

Tweaks need to be made here and issues will be addressed, but it’s nothing that can’t be overcome, said Dukes. If the plan fails, the alternative is residential condominiums, he said.

John Papajohn, who turns 90 in June, said he could make more money if the property was sold and condominiums were built. The motivation is obviously to make money, but he cares about Rehoboth, he said.

Peter Fillat, project architect, said the goal is to have the hotel built and have a drink with John at the bar.

The hotel would have 116 rooms and would be its own identity, but it would also be part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, said Fillat. It would be the finest hotel in the city by far, he said.

Fillat said the goal is to create a net-zero building that includes a green roof. This will be an amazing, high-quality environment that provides a simple and elegant guest experience, he said.

Addressing some of the concerns raised by city staff, Fillat said there’s going to be something built. It’s up to the planning commission if it's really nice, not as nice or not nice at all, he said.

Short notice raises concerns

The main point of contention at the meeting was the city’s submission of the 20-page report to the Belhaven team two days before the meeting.

Fillat said they’re going to continue working with the city to make the project work, but the problem with the report is that it doesn’t match another report by Janis from January; that report concluded that preliminary approval is appropriate. It’s very different information, Fillat said.

“We don’t feel like we’ve been treated fairly,” said Fillat.

Dukes expressed similar concerns. The project can’t move without further guidance because a moving target can’t be hit, he said.

Following the meeting, Planning Commission Chair Michael Bryan said the site-plan review for a project as large and complex as the proposed Belhaven Hotel is a fluid process, and additional information and concerns are identified through a multi-layered review process. He pointed to the second paragraph of the January report that says, “This report is not, and should not be interpreted to be, a final determination by the building and licensing department that the plan is fully compliant with the zoning code and building code.”

Procedurally, the city and planning commission are adhering to city code, said Bryan.

“We feel that we are well postured to continue the review process related to this proposed project, and we look forward to hearing more from the applicants, our various planning professionals and the community,” said Bryan, adding that it’s likely the city’s report will be amended again to consider potential flood-related issues now being studied by Straughan Environmental Consulting Inc., an expert on the topic hired as a sub-consultant by Wallace Montgomery.

Public comment

Despite its size, there are relatively few properties directly affected by the project, but those property owners were in attendance and had comments.

The eastern wall of Alison Blyth’s restaurant Go Fish! is the western edge of the project on Rehoboth Avenue. She listed several concerns specific to her property – loss of income from renting out the second floor; loss of sunlight for the solar panels on the roof of her building; access to the gas tank for her kitchen; emergency exit issues because her kitchen would empty out to a small concrete pad in the back of the building, but be surrounded on all sides; loss of restaurant customers during construction.

Dr. Michael Trahos owns the parcel that fronts the Boardwalk and Wilmington Avenue, which would be surrounded by the proposed hotel. He’s a cousin of the Papajohn family. The family has concerns, but is in support of the project, he said. He then proceeded to explain the finer details of how the hotel’s proposed underground parking could affect the structural integrity of his property because of an increased risk of subterranean hydrostatic pressure. 

Additionally, Trahos said core drillings must be done to make sure the parking garage doesn’t hit the water table below. Once the subterranean water level is hit, it can’t be undone, he said.

Resident Rick Perry said what’s being proposed is something the planning commission should want and should try to make happen. The planning commission should not be setting up roadblocks, said Perry, referencing the city’s new report.

Bryan responded to Perry’s comments, saying the commission is not being obstructionists and those are comments that can’t be let go.

Ultimately, because it was an introduction to the plans and to give the Belhaven team time to process the new report, the planning commission had limited comments and no decision was made. Instead, the project is expected to be back before the group Friday, May 5.


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