February 23, 2021 at 2:05 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Rehoboth theater supporters hopeful for approval of new buildings
Clear Space Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade
Many Rehoboth businesses are posting messages of support for keeping Clear Space Theatre in town. (Blade file photo)

Wesley Paulson, executive director of the Clear Space Theatre Company in Rehoboth Beach, has expressed hope that the popular theater’s plans to expand its operations by building a larger theater and an adjacent rehearsal theater in a new location would be approved on Friday, Feb. 26, when the Rehoboth Planning Commission is expected to rule on the application.

Paulson points out that plans for the two new theater buildings on Rehoboth Avenue near the entrance to the small LGBTQ-friendly resort city have been determined to be in full compliance with all zoning requirements and city codes.

But a group of 21 Rehoboth homeowners and renters whose residences are located directly behind or near where the two theaters are proposed to be built say the two buildings are incompatible with the residential community and single frame houses that the theater buildings’ rear walls will abut. They say the current plans for the two buildings will lead to excessive noise, traffic congestion, parking problems, and decreased property values.

The opponents say they will appeal a decision by the Planning Commission to approve the project to the Rehoboth Board of Commissioners, which serves as the beach city’s legislative and governing body.

If the Planning Commission were to deny the theater’s application to build the two new structures, the Clear Space Theatre was also expected to appeal the action to the Board of Commissioners, which includes among its members newly elected Rehoboth Mayor Stan Mills.

Both sides have said they will take the case to court in a lawsuit if the Board of Commissioners rules against them, a development that most observers say could drag out the case for another two years or longer.

The Clear Space Theatre Company has produced highly acclaimed Broadway-style plays and musicals since its 2004 opening in a former church on Baltimore Avenue near the city’s boardwalk that it rents. It also has operated an arts institute in its current building that teaches theater to students of all ages.

Paulson and the theater’s board members announced in 2018 that the current theater building had become too cramped for rehearsals, classes, and other activities and a new, larger space was needed.

Many in the LGBTQ community, who make up a significant part of Rehoboth’s residents and summer visitors, have rallied in support of the theater’s quest to move into the two new buildings.

But gay D.C. attorney Harvey Shulman, who is one of the nearby Rehoboth homeowners opposed to the location of the two theater buildings, told the Washington Blade a “significant percentage” of the 21 residents opposing the project are gay.

“If anybody tries to tell you that this is a theater that most gays support and very few oppose it, they’re absolutely wrong,” Shulman said. “So, there is definitely no unanimity on this in the gay community.”

Other LGBTQ Rehoboth residents and longtime visitors dispute Shulman’s assertion, saying they believe a clear majority of the LGBTQ community backs the theater’s proposal to move to Rehoboth Avenue, which they note is a commercially zoned street lined with restaurants, bars, retail shops, and hotels.

“Many of the residents who oppose this live on a street that backs up on a commercial street,” said gay longtime Rehoboth resident Wesley Combs. “They knew that when they bought their home,” he said.

“And I think that the statements about property values going down are absolutely not true and not supported by any fact,” he said. “The property values are going up for various reasons because people are always wanting to come to Rehoboth.”

Combs said he lives about five blocks from where the theater buildings would be located and welcomes the theaters to his neighborhood. A theater like Clear Space adds to the vibrancy of Rehoboth and its role as a beach resort town, Combs said.

Rehoboth Mayor Mills was among four of the seven Board of Commissioners members that voted last November to overturn a decision by the Planning Commission in August of last year to approve the theater’s building application. The commissioners acted in response to an appeal by the 21 residents challenging the validity of the Planning Commission’s approval of the theater proposal.

As part of its decision to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision, the Board of Commissioners remanded the case back to the Planning Commission, saying the commission failed to adequately deliberate over the matter and should reopen its public hearing process on the theater.

Gay Commissioner Patrick Gossett joined Mills and fellow Board of Commissioners members Jay Lagree and Susan Gay in voting in favor of overturning the Planning Commission decision to approve the theater project and to send the case back to the Planning Commission.

Gay Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski and lesbian Commissioner Pat Coluzzi joined fellow commissioner Richard Byrne in voting against overturning the Planning Commission decision.

The 4-to-3 vote by the Board of Commissioners followed its decision nearly two years earlier to decline a request by Clear Space to change the Rehoboth zoning law to exempt a performing arts organization like Clear Space from a requirement to provide 128 on-site parking spaces for its original proposal to build one larger theater building at the Rehoboth Avenue site.

The earlier proposal called for a 25,599-square-foot building. Under Rehoboth’s existing zoning law, any building of the type proposed by Clear Space that is 15,000 square feet or greater must provide onsite parking. Paulson told the Blade at the time the earlier building was under consideration that the nonprofit theater company did not have the financial resources to include 100 or more indoor or onsite parking spaces.

So, when the Board of Commissioners declined to change the zoning law, Paulson said Clear Space arranged for its team of architects to design two smaller buildings. The main theater building would consist of 14,948 square feet under the revised Clear Space proposal. The smaller rehearsal theater building, which is being called the Rehoboth Spotlight Theatre, would consist of 9,950 square feet.

Paulson said the square footage of the two theaters includes floor space and additional “air space” that is required to account for the interior height of the two buildings in the area where the orchestra section will be located.

Under the zoning law, the two proposed buildings are each exempt from having to provide any onsite parking.

Attorney Shulman said he and other opponents of the Rehoboth Avenue location consider the two-building proposal to be worse than the original single building plan.

According to Shulman, the two-building project would have a greater negative impact on the nearby residents. Supporters of the theater, such as Combs, dispute claims that the two theaters will cause problems other than possibly making parking somewhat harder to find when performances are being held at the theaters. But Combs and others say parking has always been an issue in the popular beach resort city and most residents and visitors have adapted to the situation.

Paulson, Clear Space’s executive director, said the theater has developed plans to encourage its patrons to park in places away from the residential areas. He said the theater conducted a survey and found that its performances at the Rehoboth Avenue site would not generate more than about 20 cars in addition to the large number of cars entering Rehoboth each day or evening.

Shulman said opponents of the currently designed buildings for the Rehoboth Avenue site are open to negotiations for revisions for the theater that would eliminate or lessen what opponents believe to be its negative impact on the neighborhood. He said Clear Space has spurned those overtures.

Clear Space attorney Eugene Lawson says it has been the opponents who have rejected Clear Space’s numerous efforts to make accommodations to the opponents’ concerns.

“Clear Space is going out of its way to be sensitive to what these people want,” he said. “They haven’t come up with anything that indicates we don’t meet the code,” Lawson said. “And they didn’t like the fact that the theater seems to be going forward.”

Lawson said he is convinced that the law will be on the side of Clear Space if the case goes to court. But some of the theater’s supporters worry that opponents, who so far have waged their opposition without a hired attorney, could drain Clear Space’s financial resources by dragging out their appeal efforts to block the opening at the new site.

Shulman said LGBTQ opponents of the theater have joined other opponents in seeking a possible compromise.

“I think gay people like any other people — they would like to see a theater in town, like any people would,” Shulman told the Blade. “But it’s got to be the right size, in the right location, the right operating standards. And this is not it.”

The Blade will update this story to report on the outcome of the Feb. 26 Planning Commission meeting in which a decision on Clear Space Theatre’s application for the two new buildings was expected to be decided.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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