The sun pours in the windows of the hotel ballroom, flickering as it bounces off nearby sand and water. Those who are crammed into the room can see a small plane whiz by, trailing a sign advertising cheap margaritas. The beach beckons, but its charms are ignored by the irate people gathered here.
Washington lawyer Carl A.S. Coan Jr. is on his feet, yelling at the five volunteers who serve on his neighborhood's board of governors.
"You are not dealing with the ferment in this community!" Coan shouts. His face is red. "I should have stayed in bed! This is a waste of my time. I would like an explanation as to what is going on!"
"Please stop yelling," one of his neighbors begs him.
It is Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff of summer for Washingtonians who own vacation homes in North Shores, a private oceanfront community just north of Rehoboth Beach. In happier days, gearing up for summer in North Shores meant dusting off the grill and signing up for a beach umbrella at the private beach.
This year, however, North Shores's 295 property owners are caught up in an emotional debate over whether to limit the size of new homes being built there. One faction is demanding strict limits. The other doesn't want any limits beyond those already imposed by county zoning and building codes.
It's been ugly. There have been proposals and counterproposals. One lawsuit is pending, others are threatened. Even an arson threat has been made. Members on each side have accused those on the other of employing tactics better suited to their jobs on Capitol Hill and K Street than to a resort community that, until now, has been a welcome summer refuge.
"It is really tearing at the heart of the community. There are a lot of very, very angry, riled-up people here," says Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist with a vacation home in North Shores.
The North Shores board of governors hopes the acrimony will be resolved at this Saturday morning gathering at the Atlantic Sands Hotel. Its members are touting a compromise that would limit homes to 38 feet in height and 6,000 square feet of living space.
But that's still too big for Coan and members of a group that calls itself Concerned Property Owners of North Shores. One of their spokesmen, attorney Mark Gitenstein, stands up and offers a counterproposal. His plan would limit home sizes to 35 feet high and 5,000 to 5,500 square feet, depending on the size of the lot.
Gitenstein, 58, is wearing spectacles and an unbeachy plaid shirt, like a lawyer on casual Friday. As a young chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s, he was a key architect of the defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork. Now Gitenstein is in private practice and says he is fighting a different battle -- to save the small-town charm of the place where he and his family have vacationed for years. His children learned how to cross the street here. They learned to ride a bike here. He wants the same thing for his grandchildren.
Gitenstein frowns at the scribbled-on piece of paper in his hand. "This is a very difficult set of policies," he says. "But I think it's very important we reach a consensus quickly before the situation worsens . . . It's important we do it in a way that will survive a legal challenge."
The attendees pepper him with questions, including an obvious one: Why are size limits needed?
Gitenstein seems surprised. He argues that the reason limits are needed should be clear to anyone who has seen the huge new homes being built among the tiny wood-frame cottages that date to the 1960s. There's a large modernist structure on Ocean Drive that the neighbors have nicknamed "the Twin Towers." And there's another one that's so big it's sniggeringly called "the Red Roof Inn."
"Why?" Gitenstein responds. "To preserve the character of the neighborhood."
"Your character is not my character," someone yells.
Bruce S. Lane, an executive vice president at the Meridian Group, a Bethesda commercial real estate firm, gets up. He's wearing an elegant cuffed shirt and trousers. He warns that strict limits would erode everyone's property values, including his.
"I just bought a house in North Shores that was the most expensive house ever sold on the Delaware coast," he says. "I would have paid 40 percent less if Mark Gitenstein's proposal passed. I'm an example of what we are in danger of destroying -- long-term values on property -- if we impose future restrictions. For many, their beach property has appreciated more than any of their other assets . . . You can kiss that goodbye if you impose 5,000 square feet."
His words are greeted with cheers and applause.
The board finally calls for a vote on its proposed size limits, which are promptly rejected, 115 to 47. Now new ballots with Gitenstein's proposed stricter limits will be mailed to residents for a vote later this summer.
The fight has dragged on for more than a year. Today's shouting match has lasted four hours. Still nothing is resolved. In the meantime, as one furious resident points out, North Shores property owners can continue to build up to 42 feet high and jam as much square footage onto their land as county zoning and building codes will allow.
"We made a decision today not to do a [expletive] thing," the resident scolds his neighbors. "You just screwed yourselves."
THE CONSTRUCTION OF HUGE HOMES in older, established neighborhoods has provoked controversy all over the Washington region, in communities from Arlington to Bethesda. Sometimes these behemoths are shoehorned onto existing lots that had never been developed. Most often, property owners make room for them by tearing down modest bungalows or ranch houses.
The trend is especially pronounced along the Delaware shore, where oceanfront land is scarce and prices have risen at astronomical rates that outpace even Washington's frenzied real estate market. Prices for oceanfront lots have doubled in the last three years, real estate agents say. Stories about the shore's real estate craze have become near legend. Kathie Lee Gifford put her home in the Henlopen Acres community near Rehoboth Beach on the market in February 2003 and sold it for $2.3 million a few days later. In a blizzard.
Land values have tripled in the Delaware coast beach communities in the past decade. But the growth within the last three years has astonished even seasoned realtors. Take the coveted oceanfront lots in Silver Lake in south Rehoboth Beach, on a street near where former Reagan press secretary Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah, now live.
For years, this property was owned by descendants of the du Pont family, who used to summer in their mansion by the sea with glamorous guests like actress Tallulah Bankhead. Over a decade ago, the family put several oceanfront lots up for sale starting at $695,000, according to local real estate agent Melissa Thoroughgood. In 1998, one of the empty lots -- 75 feet wide by 335 feet deep -- sold for $1.2 million. The same lot sold again for $3.8 million last year. These days, even tiny bungalows just a few blocks from the beach are being snapped up for $800,000 to more than $1 million, Thoroughgood says.
Bruce Lane, who spent almost $5 million for a six-bedroom house in North Shores in November, attributes the shore's real estate boom to "a confluence of so many things. People taking their money out of the stock market and putting it in real estate. Baby boomers looking for second houses. People wanting to be near water. I think 9/11 caused people to think about vacationing close to home instead of going to Europe."
Lane is currently renting his property out for $12,000 a week as he contemplates how he wants to renovate.
Home buyers paying so much for land rarely decide to remodel outdated cottages, many of them flimsy three-season houses with no central air. In Rehoboth Beach, demolition permits have nearly doubled in the past year. With the new construction comes new luxury -- homes with high ceilings, Jacuzzi tubs, custom cabinetry, swimming pools.
David Dutton, a Lewes interior designer, calls these new homes "sand castles."
"There is certainly a trend towards much larger, extended family homes," Dutton says. "Many common requests are for elevators, a bathroom for every bedroom, exercise rooms, media rooms. Pretty much what you would see in the high-end market nationwide."
Communities up and down the shore have tried to impose tear-down and building limits with mixed results. Lewes, for example, has created a historic preservation district that establishes some limitations on architectural styles. South Bethany, Bethany and Fenwick Island have all adopted some restrictions on the size of homes.
But a neighborhood preservation ordinance discussed in Rehoboth Beach in 2000 tanked after it was loudly opposed by homeowners who thought their property rights would be threatened. This has made it difficult to save property with any legitimate historic value, says Bill Bahan, the president of the Rehoboth Beach Historical Society. Since 2000, "we have not saved a single house" from demolition.
In today's climate, with the amount of money at stake, even some diehard locals and preservationists are selling out to the big boys. Earlier this summer, the former mayor of Ocean City -- a lifelong resident of the resort town -- made headlines when he sold his home to a condominium developer. Come October, he's moving outside of town.
NORTH SHORES SITS ON A 100-ACRE PIECE OF LAND next to Cape Henlopen State Park, and less than half a mile from the commotion and sun-baked tourists of the Rehoboth boardwalk. Its cottages nestle amid pine trees. Residents ride their bikes on its quiet streets and take their kids crabbing at its tiny marina. On sunny days they lounge poolside at the Bath & Tennis Club or on a 2,200-foot-long sandy beach.
Delaware real estate developer Daniel G. Anderson -- a genial septuagenarian -- purchased the land to develop with a partner in 1956. He still sits on the North Shores board of governors, which has final authority over all construction projects.
His critics frequently point out that Anderson has a big financial stake in the outcome of the ongoing size debate because he still owns 11 undeveloped lots in North Shores. He says he's keeping those lots for his family.
But Anderson -- who grew up in Rehoboth -- says he favors some "reasonable limits" on new construction. He says he's concerned by the increasingly larger homes going up in his community. He and his wife live part time in Chevy Chase, and spend weekends in a modest townhouse in North Shores that they purchased in 1972.
"There is some sort of need people feel to show off their affluence and live the grand life with their families," Anderson says. "They need to have more elaborate stuff. They come from a different generation than I come from. We were raised in the Depression, where every purchase, every meal was tight. It's a miracle to me that anybody would buy a lot for $1 million and then build a $2 million house on it."
Anderson sold the first lots in North Shores for $5,000. Many of the original cottages were built for as little as $15,000. Things were simpler then, he says. There were neighborhood barbecues and sparklers for the kids on the Fourth of July. But as time went on, new owners wanted to improve upon the old cottages or build year-round ramblers. The first house to be set on tall pilings -- at the request of an insurance company concerned about flood damage -- caused a stir when it was built in 1979 because it stood higher than all the homes around it.
The larger homes didn't begin to spark opposition until 2000, when a wealthy Wilmington couple purchased an $800,000 property on Ocean Drive. They hired Bethesda architect Mark McInturff to build them a modernist, four-story beach house with views.
The top design priority? "To see the ocean from as many places as possible from the house," owner Bernard David told an interviewer for Home & Design magazine. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
McInturff built the steel, boxy structure to the maximum height allowed by Sussex County zoning regulations, nearly 42 feet flat across the top, which meant that the home now blocked the views of several of David's neighbors. Critics immediately dubbed the structure "the Twin Towers," and did not soften their tone even after David invited the whole neighborhood over for a barbecue last summer.
Last year two more outsize, showy homes were completed in North Shores, and the murmuring in the community gave way to outright conflict. The debate took a menacing turn last summer, according to the Delaware State Police. One hot August night, a local youth set out with a can of green spray paint in his hand, intent on taking a stand.
The youth stole quietly up to the lot where a Washington couple was building yet another of the big homes, a boxy white structure on tall pilings. He took out the spray paint and wrote "Hubris Demands Arson" in large letters on the garage door, then added a few squiggles and crooked pine trees for good measure.
The couple building the house -- who did not want their names used for fear of becoming a target of other threats -- were in Washington at the time of the incident. The house was empty. A contractor working on the site found the graffiti the following morning.
"I was traumatized," says the wife, a prominent Washington lawyer. "I was extremely upset that somebody wanted to burn the house down and potentially hurt people in it."
To make matters worse, the lawyer says, the youth knew where the couple lived in Washington. Apparently overcome by remorse, he appeared on their doorstep a few days later and confessed. The couple agreed not to press charges if he would pay for the damage, seek counseling and write an anonymous apology. The apology was distributed to homes throughout North Shores.
"There is no avoiding that our community is changing," the youth said in his apology, "but this fact does not justify action that leaves people feeling threatened. Many of us have grown up at the beach, or brought our children here, or enjoyed our retirement here -- there's no questioning that it's a very special place. The irony of my mistake was that an action conceived of as protecting the community (albeit convolutedly and entirely wrong-headedly, I readily admit) resulted in nothing but the opposite in making homeowners and their families frightened and alarmed. For this I am truly remorseful." It was signed "A Remorseful and Apologetic Neighbor."
Some neighbors -- who were appalled by the arson threat -- nonetheless remarked on the quality of the language the young graffiti artist chose. "Erudite," one concluded.
RAY DAVIS AND HIS PARTNER, Martin Huber, are sitting on the front steps of their North Shores home, contemplating the design for their new swimming pool. It will be 20 feet by 40 feet, they say, with a deck landscaped in sea grass. It will sit a few yards from their curving driveway, already lined with crushed seashells.
Davis, 52, and Huber, 60, completed work on their five-bedroom, 5,600-square-foot dream house in March, and say they are thrilled with the results. Nearly four years in the works, the finished home is built tall and white, with a red roof inspired by a New England lighthouse.
Their move to North Shores began in 1998, when they purchased a dilapidated small home on the same lot and discovered renovating it was unrealistic.
"There was nothing architecturally important about it," says Davis, who is tan and blond and the more ebullient of the two. "When they tore it down, you should have seen all the [moldy] growth in the walls. It's a wonder we are still alive."
The pair downsized their home in Washington to a condo with the plan of moving to North Shores full time after Davis retires from his job in information technology for Marriott International. (Huber is already retired.)
Because this house will one day be their full-time residence as they age, they didn't hesitate to add such touches as an elevator, a necessity if climbing stairs becomes too difficult in the future. From the living room on the top floor -- whose centerpiece is a grand piano -- on clear days, "you can see Cape May," says Davis.
The kitchen has a tumbled marble tile backsplash above the sink, granite countertops and creamy glazed cabinets. It also has a butler's pantry off to the side. "We love to entertain," Davis says. "I think the concept of the whole butler's pantry is so cool. You can hide things in here. We congregate in the kitchen all the time, and when dirty dishes pile up, it's unpleasant."
They have filled the house with friends and family almost every weekend since they moved in. This weekend, for example, they are playing host to Huber's sister Barbara, a nun, and three other nuns.
On an upstairs balcony, Davis sweeps open the door and talks about the detailed process he went through in choosing exactly the right color red for his shingled roof. The builder, Davis says, spread out all the samples of roofing on the ground, "so I could make sure it was red enough. I didn't want orange."
Huber has quietly attended some of the neighborhood meetings on the proposed building restrictions, but he and Davis have mostly tried to stay out of the crossfire. Huber points out that only one of their neighbors took the time to review their plans when they were posted for public comment at the North Shores office. They ended up moving the house 20 feet forward on the lot to comply with the neighbor's request.
The couple say they are bewildered by the negative reaction to their home, which is the one some neighbors derisively call "the Red Roof Inn." While no one has been openly hostile to the couple on the beach or on the street, one mailing circulated by the Concerned Property Owners of North Shores complains that their home "looms" over the neighboring houses. Through it all, they've tried to maintain a sense of humor. They joke -- a tad mordantly -- that they ought to call the house "Looming Manor Inn," or "Looming Gate Inn."
"People do seem to be very emotional. They need to take a deep breath," says Davis, who adds, "We just want to get along."
ROY PARKS LIVES ALONE in a modest house about a block from the beach, obscured from the street behind a thick copse of trees.
Parks has a shock of white hair, a beard and the salty air of an avid fisherman. He bought his house in North Shores in 1967 and first used it as a vacation home while he pursued a career in aquaculture, farm-raising oysters and clams on Virginia's Eastern Shore. During the 1990s, he waged a highly public battle with Eastern Shore tomato farmers whose runoff was allegedly polluting local creeks and rivers -- a battle during which he became known as "the clam farmer from hell."
He settled with the tomato growers and retired to live in North Shores full time in 1998, intent on spending as many of his days fishing as he could.
Ask Parks what first drew him to North Shores and he responds with a quote. "The sea is here, my dear," Parks says. "In his book, Norman Maclean wrote, 'Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it . . . I am haunted by waters.' I can't explain it any better than that."
Parks pulls out a thick file with notes, site plans and e-mails from the homeowners' size fight and sits down for an interview in his living room, which is decorated in the same pastel hues and wicker furniture favored by many of his neighbors. Bookshelves line the walls. An enormous rack of fishing rods dominates the front entryway.
It's clear he loves this place.
"I'm out on the beach every day," Parks says. "I fish in the bay, the ocean, the Indian River. As often as I can."
Parks is the only member of the neighborhood governing board who wants the stricter size limits proposed by Gitenstein. He was elected to the board last year after a push by the Concerned Property Owners of North Shores, who felt their worries were not being heeded.
"I was reluctant to do it, but they couldn't find anybody else, and I was on the forefront of the issue," Parks says. "But I've gotten to know a lot more people and made a lot more friends who share my views."
The North Shores community has been changing for a number of years, he says, but many residents think the problem has worsened recently because the last North Shores board was too lenient with property owners and their building plans.
"In my opinion, North Shores is a reflection of society as a whole," he concludes. "Society has coarsened. A few years ago nobody would even think of proposing to build a house that would completely dominate the neighborhood . . . People are working under a different set of values."
One day in June, Parks strolls over to 87 Harbor Rd., the focus of yet another North Shores controversy.
The tiny house and lot were purchased last year by a wealthy Wilmington couple, Kevin Kramer and Laura Hettleman, who want to tear it down and build a 9,600-square-foot house in its place. The six-bedroom, seven-bathroom house would have a swimming pool, a beach equipment room, a drawing room and a "cabana room." Kramer and Hettleman declined comment, but described the proposal as their "dream house" in letters to the board.
The North Shores board has rejected their plans, saying the house would be too large and could cause drainage problems for the rest of the community.
"You have a proposal to build a house that's twice as large as any of its neighbors," Parks says. "That is out of scale by anybody's definition."
The couple are now suing the North Shores board. Their lawyer, David N. Rutt, says they are trying to negotiate a compromise.
Parks points out the tiny house currently on the lot -- a decaying 1960s structure, built for about $15,000 -- and then shows where the "monstrous" house would be built, which he says would crowd up against its neighbors on either side and in the back.
"The way I see it, you have two emotions playing against each other," he explains. "There's fear on one side, fear of being dominated, playing up against greed on the other side."
He ambles down to the little marina in the center of the neighborhood, where residents dock their boats on a canal. He stops, surveying the scene before him. Two little girls in matching pink sundresses are pulling crabs out of crab pots hung off the dock. There are only a few wisps of white in the blue sky. The boats bob in their slips on the gently moving water.
For a moment, everything is as it once was.
"How it will play out, we shall see," Parks continues. "I've noticed one thing in my time. Greed usually wins."
Annie Gowen is a reporter for The Post's Metro section.