A fight over Dewey Beach’s soul and sobriety

The mayor of Dewey Beach knew she’d take some licks, but the dead chicken thrown at her door after a contentious noise-ordinance vote was a little much.

So, too, were the deodorizer cakes decorated with her photo that recently began landing in urinals around this coastal Delaware resort where Washingtonians have long come to let loose — too loose, according to Mayor Diane Hanson, who would prefer more moderation and less late-night woo-hooing.

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The Dewey Beach Running of the Bull is a 16-year old tradition in the small Delaware beach town, but the rowdy partying that accompanies it is a point of contention in the community.

The Dewey Beach Running of the Bull is a 16-year old tradition in the small Delaware beach town, but the rowdy partying that accompanies it is a point of contention in the community.

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“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.

The bar owners are convinced Hanson and Howell want to force them to start closing several hours earlier each night in an effort to transform Dewey from a resort into a retirement community — or at least into Rehoboth Beach, the lower-key community to the north.

They point out that the town, which has no property tax, depends on the multimillion-dollar tourism industry for most of its revenue — from rental and business-license fees to parking permits and fines.

Howell wants the bar owners to cover more of the costs of policing Dewey. The town’s budget is $2.5 million. More than half — $1.3 million — is spent on police, she said. The figure would be lower if people weren’t getting so drunk in the town where one pub recently listed its soup of the day as “carbomb.” (That’s Guinness, Bailey’s and Jameson, for those mixing drinks at home.)

Dewey Beach Police Sgt. Cliff Dempsey has heard the rhetoric about the alcohol-fueled crisis. But it’s not what he’s seeing on the streets — or in the stats. According to the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System, crime in Dewey is down in almost every category since 2006.

“The crowds are behaving themselves,” Dempsey said one recent night, as 26 officers — most of them seasonal hires — patrolled the town. “We don’t have a station full of prisoners anymore.”

Which is not to say there aren’t problems, he said. It’s not the Wild West days of yore, when biker gangs roamed Route 1. But drunk people still do drunk-and-disorderly things in the town, which has more bars (nearly 20) than T-shirt shops.

Last month, on June 16, a man’s jaw was broken and a woman was punched in the face by two men who had been urinating in their yard.

Two days later, Danielle Mehlman, 26, was found dead in a room at the Atlantic Oceanside Motel. Police say she’d been out drinking the night before with Pawan Kumar, who was ejected from the Starboard for harassing another patron. They reconnected on the street and returned to the motel, where Kumar stabbed Mehlman and then fled town in a taxi, according to police. He was found dead of a self-induced drug overdose the following day in New Jersey.

The murder has fueled the demands for a crackdown on the partyers. But nobody is calling for a police state, said Howell, the town commissioner.

“We want to protect and preserve the town — and yet still have it be vibrant,” she said. “We still want live music. I still want to go dancing here.”

Then, noting that she’s been banned from multiple bars by the owners she’s been fighting with, Howell added: “But I might have to do it on the beach.”

Mid-Atlantic Mardi Gras

“I need a beer,” declared Frank Raines, the Dewey Elvis.

It was midday Saturday, and the fenced-in parking lot of the Starboard was loaded with men and women who mostly appeared to be somewhere between the legal limit and blotto.

Raines, who lives in Silver Spring but comes here every summer to do his Elvis bit at bars and restaurants, exhorted the crowd to keep partying. As if they needed a nudge.

It was Running of the Bull, which began 16 years ago as a group house joke and has grown into a town tradition that makes many here uneasy. One former mayor called it the dumbest thing he’s ever seen.

Very loosely modeled on the real running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, Dewey’s version involves two guys in a furry bull costume, a mass jog across the highway and down the beach . . .and copious amounts of alcohol. More toga party than toro, it’s become a Mid-Atlantic Mardi Gras.

The Starboard parking lot was packed with grown men wearing capes, viking helmets, matador suits and Chicago Bulls jerseys. There were also two people in shark costumes and one dressed as Chewbacca. Two Washington Nationals racing presidents were there, too. (Let Teddy drink?)

People guzzled 1.5-liter bottles of cheap champagne that were selling for $25 a pop at the Starboard bars. Advance planners brought oversize cozies to keep their bubbles cool.

YOLO!” somebody yelled.

“Look at the cars driving by,” said Starboard owner Steve “Monty” Montgomery, nodding to Route 1. “People are like, ‘Wow!’ ”

Even Patricia Wright, a former mayor, was incredulous. “Holy moly,” she said. There were 1,200 people on the parking lot and even more lined up down the block.

“Is there an old-folks entrance?” she asked Montgomery. “Can you squeeze me in?”

He escorted her to the space in front of the stage. She nodded as the band played “We Are Young.”

The Starboard, which opened nearly 60 years ago, is older than the town. (Dewey Beach incorporated in 1981.) Montgomery, who also owns the Bottom Line in the District, began working the door at the Starboard 26 years ago, when he was 18; he bought the place in 1999.

The fight over alcohol and noise has been around longer than he has, he said. But it’s taken a turn for the worse. “In 14 years, I never needed an attorney in this town. But I need one now at every council meeting.”

He’ll appear before the council on Friday to try to win approval for a special permit to stage a breast-cancer fundraiser in the Starboard parking lot in October. Dewey being Dewey, the permit request has become a divisive issue in town.

Mindful of the climate, the Starboard added a family component to this year’s Running of the Bull, bringing the costumed creature to the beach to play with the kids. Montgomery also brought in extra security and handed out free bottled water along the route. He recently started a business partnership to pick up trash, sponsor family-friendly events on the beach and buy a town Christmas tree.

“I’m trying hard to do the right thing,” he said. “To know that some people are unhappy with what we’re doing disturbs me.”

Funfest or drunkfest?

At 2 p.m., just as the crowd was beginning to wilt, the running began, across Route 1, to the beach that was recently rated one of the country’s 12 cleanest by the Natural Resources Defense Council. There were orange cones and lifeguards at the ready to keep the hooting, hollering revelers out of the water, because everybody had already had a few.

Near the end of the route, Rick Judge, a fourth-generation Dewey Beach native, stood in front of his house, near a sign that declared: “QUIET! Residential area.”

Dewey is a lovely place to live, he said, except when it turns into a frat party every weekend in the summer. Judge took photos of some bull-runners stumbling past.

“I’m wasted, and I just ran!” one shouted.

Mayor Hanson, who was standing with Judge, shook her head. She liked the family event in the morning, she said, and the adult component — “You mean the drunkfest?” Judge asked — appeared to be going fine.

But it was early yet. How would the day end in Dewey?

Smooth as could be, Montgomery later reported: minimal issues, great feedback from other businesses and nearly $6,000 raised for the volunteer fire department.

Mixed, the mayor said: The running went well, the drunken aftermath not so much. Fights, public urination, at least one alcohol poisoning.

“It’s just something silly and fun, and it’s great for the town,” Montgomery said.

“It’s not the image of the town you’d like to see,” Hanson said.

The fight continues.

A.J. Chavar and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.

 
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