“It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” said Hanson, who became the unpaid mayor in 2010. “Dewey Beach is a great little place, very beautiful. But it’s like paradise lost. It can get quite nasty.”
The fight over the soul — and sobriety — of Dewey Beach has been underway for decades. But the battle has been especially heated lately, with the town council butting heads with bar and restaurant owners over everything from acceptable nighttime noise levels to what Hanson calls “our oversaturation-of-alcohol problem.”
Adding an extra layer of angst: A bar-connected murder last month — the first homicide in Dewey’s history — and a long-running brawl over a proposed luxury hotel and condominium complex.
“There’s a viciousness to the debate now that didn’t exist years ago,” said Jim Baeurle, whose Dewey Beach Enterprises is behind the controversial development plan.
Baeurle was wearing flip-flops and shorts in his office one recent afternoon (every day is casual Friday here). Downstairs, drinks flowed at the Lighthouse, Que Pasa and the Cove.
“People are here to have fun and relax,” Baeurle said. “They don’t want to be bothered with all this controversy. They want to get in and have a cold beer.”
Or maybe several.
Taming a party town
Dewey Beach is about a mile long and two blocks wide — a sliver of land that separates Rehoboth Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It has 341 year-round residents, according to the Census Bureau, but swells to 30,000 or more on summer weekends, according to the mayor.
On Memorial Day weekend, there were an estimated 60,000 people packed into the town on Sunday alone.
Oh, the humanity! Oh, all those overtaxed livers!
“It’s no mystery what goes on here,” said Kristian Schmidt, one of the year-rounders. “People come here to have some fun, meet some different people and release some stress.”
He sees it every night as a bartender at Hammerhead’s. It’s visible, too, during the day in Dewey, where restaurants advertise happy hours that begin at 9 a.m. (Beer — it’s what’s for breakfast.)
College kids who used to spend their days on the beach and their nights out on the town now skip the beach, Schmidt said. “The kids are boozing at 10 o’clock in the morning, and they’re inebriated by 2. And some of them don’t know how to handle the moment.”
The problem is pervasive, said Joy Howell, who was elected to the five-member council in September despite heavy opposition from the business community.
“The town has become dominated by alcohol; we just want to rebalance it a little bit,” said Howell, who owns multiple properties here but lives in the District, where she once worked as public affairs director for the Federal Communications Commission.