Fenwick candidates speak to the issues at FISH forum
The slate of six candidates vying for four spots on the Fenwick Town Council in next month’s election include a mix of incumbents and former council members, as well as two newcomers.
The candidates, Mitchell “Mike” Houser, Eugene Langan, Julie Lee, Richard Mais, William Weistling and Roy Williams, each gave brief presentations during a meeting of the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners (FISH) on Saturday, July 13.
Each candidate was asked to list what their “main priority” would be if elected, what the Town should do to reduce the impacts of commercial development on nearby homeowners while allowing commercial development, and how the Town should address standing water and flooding — particularly on the bay side.
Houser described himself as a longtime FISH member, full-time resident of Fenwick Island and owner of a new home on Cannon Street. He said he is retired, after working for the DuPont Co. and W.L. Gore, and has been active in several organizations, including the Old Swedes Foundation and the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation.
He said the issue of sea-level rise would be a key priority for him if he were elected to the town council.
“Sooner or later — particularly on the bay side — we’re going to have to address how we get people’s feet dry,” Houser said.
He also said dredging projects would be a priority, and that he supports the Town’s hiring of a consultant to “get some recommendations on what a commercial zone should look like,” including architecture and aesthetics, as well as buffers between residential and commercial areas.
Houser also listed public safety as a key issue for the town.
“We have a great police force,” he said, adding that he feels the issue of crosswalks and “how we funnel people into them and marking crosswalks” is important.
He also spoke regarding one of the more contentious recent issues in the town — the construction of a new Hilton hotel on the site of the former Sands Motel. The hotel is set to open in the summer of 2020, and its unprecedented scale and size, for Fenwick Island, have forced the Town to deal with some issues it hadn’t faced before, including the issue of building height and whether mechanical equipment, such as air conditioning units on top of the building, counts toward its official height.
Houser said he believes the height limit should remain 32 feet “throughout the town.”
Eugene Langan has been Fenwick Island’s mayor for the past four years, vice-mayor for three years and has been a member of the town council for 10 years.
Langan said he is “feeling very positive” about Fenwick Island’s future, and is a proponent of the move to hire a consultant to guide its ad-hoc commercial-district planning committee.
Also, like Houser, Langan said he would like the Town to finish dredging projects and sidewalks in order to make it safer from beach to the bay. He also praised the work of town residents who have stepped up to get involved in town government.
“We have 13 committees in this town,” Langan said, adding that “we have some unbelievable brainpower on these committees.”
Current council member Julie Lee said she is “committed to fiscal responsibility” in the Town, adding that improvement projects, such as sidewalks and dredging the ends of the canals, “cost money.
“In some cases, tough choices are going to have to be made.”
Lee said the recent re-evaluation of town property values — the first one in decades — “was necessary, and it was fair.”
Noting that Fenwick has not raised property taxes in 15 years, Lee said, “No one wants to talk about it, but a tax increase is probably coming, and it’s important that we be honest and open about it.”
Lee added that she believes tax relief or tax deferment should be available for citizens for whom such a move would cause hardship.
She said that, as the only current council member and the only candidate running for town council who is not a full-time resident of Fenwick Island, “What I bring to council is a different point of view. … This does not mean an opposing side. What we must work toward is more inclusion and more points of view,” she said.
“Change to our commercial district is something that is important to all of us, and our consultant is presenting some wonderful, wonderful ideas,” Lee said.
Mais, Weistling, Williams have their say
Richard Mais is currently in the midst of his second full term on the town council, having served two terms since 2015, as well as an earlier stint on the council about 15 years ago. He has lived in Fenwick Island since 1986 and in his current home since 1992.
Currently Fenwick Island’s vice-mayor, Mais has also been active in the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company, is past president of the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce and has been active in the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, as well as the River Soccer Club.
Mais said, “Our beaches are our main attraction” and that they’re “in great shape,” thanks to renourishment projects. He also said he feels financial stability is crucial for the Town.
“I hope we don’t have to raise taxes,” Mais said, adding that the recent re-evaluation is a “positive first step” in making sure that any tax increase is fair for everyone.
Mais said he, like Lee, supports Council Member Vicki Carmean in her efforts on sidewalks in the town.
As chair of the town’s Ad Hoc Commercial District Planning Committee, Mais said, “Right now we’re in a gathering-information sort of stage.”
He said the hotel project “made us realize that we didn’t have the answers” to questions that came up, nor did the Town have “the expertise to create the answers to those questions.”
Mais said, “I want a viable, active commercial district. That’s why I live here… That’s part of the package.”
He added that, unlike other candidates who had spoken before him, he might favor increasing building height limits if it would help mitigate flooding.
“I don’t think sea-level rise is going away — I wish it was,” Mais said.
William “Bill” Weistling Jr. has been a resident of Fenwick Island for 28 years and has served the Town in some capacity for 25 of those years. For 10 of those years, he served on the town council, and he is now seeking to return after three years off of the council.
He pointed to several Town projects he has been involved in, including the construction of a new public safety building, along with Langan.
Currently a member of eight town committees, Weistling said he has “walked Route 1 with DelDOT engineers,” as well as an independent engineer the Town hired, and current state estimates are that sidewalks would cost $6 million for eight blocks. Weistling said the Town’s independent consultants estimate the work “could be done for less than half of that.”
As for dredging, Weistling said he and Council Secretary Bernie Merritt are also working together on getting the canal ends dredged. He said has also been investigating ways to improve cell phone coverage in the town, including the possibility of bringing FIOS to the town.
“I sort of take pride in doing the grunt work,” Weistling said. “I get out and actually talk to people.”
As far as the town’s drainage issues, Weistling said Fenwick Island is the only Delaware town that is completely within the flood zone. “There’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it,” he said. “Down here — elevate, elevate, elevate. That’s the only way you can try and stop flooding.”
Roy Williams said his six years on the council have been “quite a learning experience.”
He said he favors maintaining the current building height limits as “the foundation of Fenwick Island is all about.” Williams also said he believes any mechanicals on a roof should be counted as part of that building’s height.
“I don’t’ want to lose my skyline,” he said. “I don’t think anybody does.”
Responding to a question from Carmean about Town finances, Williams said, “I look at where all the money goes.” He said the re-evaluation will help the Town to continue to rely on its real estate transfer tax income for larger projects, such as roads and dredging.
By Kerin Magill