As the developer of Bethany West, the Villas of Bethany and Lake Bethany communities here, Ernest Raskauskas contends that he has been responsible for molding one-third of the Bethany Beach of today.
But in so doing, Raskauskas frequently has rubbed Bethany Beach town fathers the wrong way.
Vernon Dibler, president of the town's board of commissioners, says the quietly growing resort town has had recurring problems with Raskauskas over zoning variances, house sittings and a drainage ditch, but refuses to go into detail.
Dibler does concede, however, that Bethany Beach thus far has been able to solve its problems with the developer without resorting to legal action or fines.
He added that owners of homes in the Raskauskas-built communities contribute a substantial share to the town's tax income. Among those taxpayers are a number of Washington area families who have bought summer houses from Raskaukas' East Coast Resorts Inc. over the past 13 years.
Bethany West is an orderly, family-oriented community, developed by ERC Inc. -- the initials match Raskauskas' own -- on farmland a quarter of a mile from the ocean on Rte. 26, the main east-west artery into Bethany Beach.
Reskauskas says he became interested in the area years ago "because I wasn't satisfied to buy a small beach house on a small lot nearer the ocean. We learned there are other families, like ours, who find this to their liking."
His former partners, Robert Harris and William Julian, departed long ago and some of the original Bethway West mainstays have split off to go their own ways in real estate sales and construction.
But Raskauskas stays on. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound developer has a custom-built summer home here in a secluded, wooded area near a canal. After getting Bethany West well under way in the 1970s, he acquired land nearby on which he built a section of stucco town houses he calls Villas of Bethany. He also built other houses in a group called Lake Bethany.
Bethany West "is for moderately affluent families who like tennis and swimming but can't afford a big place right on the ocean," Raskauskas said.
The community has sold a total of 600 lots and now has 360 houses. Most of the units are reselling now for $55,000 to $62,000.
Because Bethany West is connected to a Sussex County sewage treatment plant that has proved to be expensive, Raskaukas says he has started a group he calls "SUFFER -- which means Sewer Service Federation For Equitable Rates."
He maintains that the county overbuilt the sewage disposal system and that efforts to get rates reduced slightly have been unsuccessful. He says the fight is being funded with $27,000 raised by the group.
Formerly a practicing attorney, Raskauskas says he is tired of development and often talks about returning to law. His son Frank now is general manager of ERC and "ready to take over for me if I decide to go back to law practice," Raskauskas said.
But the developer also talks about plans to build a group of cluster houses on an off-ocean tract bordering the Indian River inlet. And he is also opening a furniture store in Bethany.
Raskauskas says his developments have had to weather at least three economic downturns and two gasoline-short periods in the 1970s. "It's never really been easy but we managed to keep going and now this year the market has bounced back strongly," he said. "Vacationers can get gas but the high price tends to keep them closer to home."
Bethany Beach brokers Joseph R. Tansey, Thomas Crowley and Susan Conner, all of whom are involved in general real estate, agree that the local market has been strong this year.
But agreement with Raskauskas seems to end there. Tansey, who formerly worked for Raskauskas, conceded that the developer has a "controversial" reputation in Bethany Beach, but declined to expand on that comment.
Crowley, also a former Raskausas employe, refused to be quoted as criticizing the developer, and added "Ernie is a great idea man and a prime mover. He created a good community where resales are much more than double original prices (in the low $20s)."
Barbara Cutler, who runs the small Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce, termed Raskaukas smart but not dishonest: "He likes to keep a hornet's nest going but he also does a lot to help people."
Raskauskas himself tends to slough off references to his controversial reputation as a developer, contending merely that his free-wheeling nature and desire to do things his own way frequently alienates others.
The three Raskauskas developments at Bethany Beach probably are better liked than the developer himself.
Don and Jo Hanning live in a Raskauskas-built house near the small lake. They retired to Bethany West a few years ago after living in Chevy Chase. They had formerly rented in Bethany for more than 20 years.
"We have a growing group of permanent residents here," said Don Hanning who runs the Bethany West recreation association responsible for upkeep of the pools and tennis courts and twice-a-year cutting of grass on undeveloped lots. "The summers are fine but we really enjoy the off-seasons -- plenty of friends and social life in a quiet way."