Council grants conditional use request for eatery/pub in former Belltown church

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Sussex County Councilwoman Joan Deaver, left, gives her reasons for opposing a conditional use request to turn a Belltown church building into a family restaurant/brewery pub.

LEWES – Sussex County Council March 8 tapped the go-ahead button for developers’ plans to turn a deteriorating Belltown church into a family restaurant/pub brewery operation.

By 3-1 vote, county councilmen George Cole, R-Ocean View, Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, and Michael Vincent, R-Seaford, granted Beachfire Brewery LLC’s conditional-use request for a restaurant/brewery along Rt. 9 near Beaver Dam Road.

Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, was not allowed to participate or vote due to his absence from county council’s public hearing on the matter last December.

Approval of a modified motion – that eliminates county involvement in state Alcohol, Beverage Control law enforcement – followed District 3 councilwoman Joan Deaver’s non-alcoholic plea.

“Please … don’t let people drink beer in the church,” said Ms. Deaver.

The former John Wesley United Methodist Church structure is on a parcel zoned AR-1, located near Five Points. Belltown is a historic African-American community founded by “free colored man” Jacob Bell in 1840.

Ms. Deaver said locating a pub/restaurant there “will eliminate the historical significance of the church and change the character of this historical area.”

Mr. Cole disagreed, noting commercialization of the Rt. 9 corridor and proximity to Coastal Highway.

“I think the character of Belltown as an unincorporated community has changed over recent years. I believe it is no longer an area that is more advantageous to residential development,” said Mr. Cole. “Also I think the property was on the market for many years. There was very little interest in it. This applicant has intended and we have made it part of the conditions to preserve the exterior of the church.”

“There is a lot of emotions involved with this decision,” said Mr. Arlett. “I think the concern that all of us have is how to be sensitive to those concerns. You have a building that has had a lot of history in this community of Belltown. We have to remind everybody that the seller of this property is the church itself. They themselves have evolved and grown and consolidated their efforts their efforts into another building, which is why they were attempting to sell this property for a number of years.  This is an opportunity to preserve this building.”

Mr. Arlett said he understood Ms. Deaver’s concern.

“And I think from another perspective as many of us perhaps in this room and in this county are followers of Christ and have faith, I understand the concern from those that that don’t want a brewery based in church; I do,” said Mr. Arlett. “But in the end it is a building. The ‘church’ is not a building; the ‘church’ is from within.”

Mr. Vincent cast the third affirmative vote, sealing the deal.

“What I heard at the public hearing was the church is selling this structure because they can no longer afford to keep it up,” Mr. Vincent said. “I think at least the opportunity here is that someone is going to purchase it … and preserve the exterior of the church and things inside the church.”

Mr. Vincent said he understands Ms. Deaver’s concerns. He also noted that if the property is not sold “then at some point in time the church becomes just a pile of lumber. I don’t think that is what the community wants or needs.”

Minutes from the Dec. 10, 2015 Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission meeting state that the “applicants have proposed a use that preserves much of the church, which is an important aspect of the history of Belltown. This application is unique in its efforts to preserve the church, since any other redevelopment of the property would certainly involve the demolition of the structure.”

Testimony at the planning and zoning meeting revealed regular church services have not been held in the church building since 2007.

Council’s Republican majority voted down Ms. Deaver’s motion to prohibit alcoholic beverages being served or consumed in the church, 3-1.

Majority ruled again by 3-1 vote in supporting Mr. Cole’s motion to strike conditions in Planning & Zoning’s recommendation that “as stated by the applicant there shall be no brewery operations within the former church structure, nor shall there be any patron or service bar serving alcoholic beverages located within the church structure. The kitchen facilities will also be situated in an addition to the structure.”

“I need to remind everybody that we are in the land-use business, not the liquor business,” Mr. Cole said. “The ABC Commission, they will have public hearings. They will have a time and a place for these kinds of issues. We have trouble with enforcement already. My concern is, let the ABC deal with those issues. I don’t want us trying to enforce ABC laws.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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