The Rehoboth Beach Planning Commission on Feb. 26 voted 5-3 to approve plans by the Clear Space Theatre Company to expand its operations by building a larger theater and an adjacent rehearsal theater in a new location in the Delaware beach resort city.
Supporters of the theater project, including many of Rehoboth’s LGBTQ residents and summer visitors, hailed the decision as an important next step in the theater’s two-and-a-half year effort to gain approval for the two buildings on Rehoboth Avenue, which serves as the city’s main commercial street.
But the decision to approve the project was immediately criticized by four nearby residents who are among a group of 21 residents that has campaigned against the project on grounds that it is unsuitable in its proposed location that borders on a residential neighborhood. Members of the group say the two proposed theaters will generate excessive noise, traffic, and parking problems among other adverse effects.
At least some of their members were expected to appeal the Planning Commission’s Feb. 26 decision to the Rehoboth Board of Commissioners, which acts as the city’s legislative and governing body.
The group successfully appealed a decision by the Planning Commission last August to approve the two buildings, prompting the Board of Commissioners to overturn the August approval and to send the proposal back to the Planning Commission for another hearing and further deliberations. The Planning Commission held a second hearing on the building proposal on Jan. 29.
“We thank the Planning Commission for its careful deliberations leading to a second approval of the site plans for Clear Space Theatre and Rehoboth Spotlight,” said Clear Space Executive Director Wesley Paulson. Rehoboth Spotlight is the name of the smaller of the two proposed theaters which Clears Space says will be used for rehearsals.
“Clear Space looks forward to being a good neighbor in our new location and providing live theater at the beach for decades to come,” Paulson said in a statement.
Paulson and Clear Space attorney Eugene Lawson have pointed out that plans for the two new theater buildings are in full compliance with the city’s zoning requirements and building codes.
However, at least one of the Planning Commission members who voted against approval the Clear Space proposal, Brian Patterson, said information has surfaced to indicate the larger of the two proposed buildings may have a larger square footage space than permitted under the zoning law for that location.
Lee Webber, one of the members who voted to approve the project, said the theaters’ plans appeared to be in compliance with the codes and theater officials were committed to correct any part of their plans found not to be in compliance.
Two of four Rehoboth residents who spoke at the Feb. 26 Planning Commission meeting after the vote of approval during a period reserved for public comment were gay men. The two, John Swift and Harvey Shulman, and the other two members of the public that spoke expressed opposition to the project.
“The record is full of many legal and factual errors, as the three dissenting Planning Commissioners laid out,” Shulman told the Washington Blade after the meeting. “Last time they approved by a vote of 7-2 in summer of 2020, and it was reversed on appeal,” Shulman said.
“We’re confident an appeal here will also succeed. It’s only the 4th inning in a 9-inning baseball event,” said Shulman, who was referring to the expectation that either of the opposing sides have indicated they may take the case to court if they lose in the appeal before the Board of Commissioners.
It could not immediately be determined when the Board of Commissioners, which includes Rehoboth Mayor Stan Mills, would take up an appeal if one or more members of the group of 21 residents files such an appeal.
One member of the nine-member Planning Commission, Rachel Macha, recused herself from participating in the Feb. 26 meeting. She declined to disclose a reason for her recusal, but opponents of the building project said it came after they objected to her decision on her own to contact a sound engineer retained by the opponents to assess the potential noise generated by the two theaters. Opponents said her action raised questions about her impartiality over the project.
“Clear Space Theatre has stated on the official record that ongoing communication with the nearby neighbors about sound, light and parking concerns was on their list of priorities throughout the phases of building and subsequent openings of the new theaters,” Clear Space said in a statement released after the Planning Commission’s vote of approval on Feb. 26.
“Upon completion of the building Clear Space will conduct sound emission tests to ensure any sound coming from the buildings will not go over the City code for noise pollution,” the statement says. “In addition, Clear Space will maintain close contact with the Rehoboth Beach Police Department to ensure any traffic or safety concerns are handled promptly,” the statement says.
Clear Space has produced highly acclaimed Broadway-style plays and musicals since its opening in 2004 at its current location in a former church that it rents on Baltimore Avenue near the city’s boardwalk. Supporters of the theater say it’s an important cultural asset to Rehoboth and it would be a major loss to the beach city if opponents force the theater to move out of town.
D.C. gay activist Peter Rosenstein, who has a residence just outside Rehoboth, said he believes the Rehoboth City Commission will uphold the Planning Commission’s decision if an appeal is filed.
“It would be patently absurd for them to have sent it back for review and not approve the outcome,” he said.