Dickens owner asks Millville to make theater a use-by-right

A decade after opening his 52-seat theater in Millville, Dickens Parlour Theatre owner Rich Bloch has asked the Town of Millville to add theaters to its list of permitted uses on commercially-zoned properties. Bloch, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has also performed internationally as a magician, petitioned the town council at its Tuesday, June 11, meeting, reading from a prepared statement.

“Since 2010, and for every year thereafter, Dickens Parlour Theatre has operated conditionally,” he said, since theaters are not listed as permitted uses within the town’s zoning code, for areas zoned C-1. “Which means,” he added, “our continued existence is subject not only to our remaining in compliance with any applicable ‘permitted use’ provisions in the town code, but with any other rules and requirements that may be imposed, from time to time” by the council.

“We are requesting tonight that this council take action to modify the code to accommodate theatrical, live theater and cinema productions, so as to clearly incorporate what we have been doing, and what has been approved for us, every day since we opened our doors,” Bloch said.

He added that, not only would such action address the theater’s “twisting in the wind” status, it would also affirm performing arts in general as a desired addition to life in Millville.

Bloch also cited a May 10 letter to the council from attorney Robert Witsil, representing the theater, in which Witsil observed that the theater is consistent with the stated intent of the C-1 district to provide “mixed-use” commercial facilities and is compatible with other permitted uses, which include art galleries, restaurants with beverage service regulated by the Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner, indoor and outdoor amusements, meeting halls and business centers.

Millville Town Solicitor Seth Thompson commented that the way the current code reads, “Conditional-use is for anything not prohibited” under the current code.

Thompson contrasted conditional uses with “uses by right, where it’s been determined that they fit within that area, that … they’re going to work out OK. Conditional uses say, ‘Well, they probably fit within that area, but we need to look and make sure.’”

He explained that conditional uses give the Town a chance to examine the appropriateness of a given use, and if theaters were approved as a permitted use, “You could technically have a row of performing theaters” in the town.

“I imagine, performing arts… Probably a traffic issue is the first thing that comes to mind” as a potential concern for the Town, Thompson said.

“We’re dealing with a legislative question here,” he told the council. He advised the members to “think it over,” adding that the change would be subject to a public hearing, as well as consideration by the Town’s Planning & Zoning Commission.

After the meeting, Bloch told the Coastal Point that “If they decide the answer is no, we are done,” explaining that, in his opinion, the conditional-use requirement hamstrings the business if it wishes to expand in the future.

“Conditional use is troublesome,” he said, “because it’s conditional,” and as such, the theater’s commitments to the community, to its staff and to its audiences is at the whim of the council. He said he is also troubled by a change in the town code that removes a list of approved conditional uses. During the meeting, Bloch had said, “We are not entirely clear as to the legal impact of that change, but for our purposes … it doesn’t matter.”

“After 10 years, the Town is pretty well aware of who we are and what we do,” he said after the meeting, adding that he believes adding theaters to permitted uses would be “a major advantage to the town” because it would essentially be “letting it be known that they do welcome theater arts” as a desirable addition to the town.

 

By Kerin Magill

Staff Reporter