Things are heating up along Delaware's southern coastline, and it's not just the weather.
In such traditionally laid-back beach communities as Dewey Beach, Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach, people are beginning to organize efforts to change the sewer systems and the political structure; file lawsuits to overturn resort rezonings and lower building densities; and agitate for more environmental protections -- anything, in short, that will help them slow down what they see as the "Ocean Citification" of their fragile seashore.
Ever since the resort boom began in the early 1970s, Ocean City, Md., just a few miles south of the Delaware-Maryland border, has been the main focus of high-density resort development for the Delmarva coast. As the resort builders run out of beachfront land in Ocean City, however, they are turning north to the relatively quiet communities of Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth to look for new opportunities.
While the beach towns from Fenwick Island north to Lewes have zoning control over the land within their town limits, builders have found the local county government willing to entertain rezoning proposals for many of the large parcels just outside town boundaries, and willing to increase densities significantly.
In just the past year, the Sussex County Council has approved rezonings in the Fenwick Island area that will allow construction of more than 2,000 new town houses. In the Rehoboth area, the council recently approved rezonings to allow a 70-store shopping mall just off crowded Route 1, along with other strip commercial developments. Outside of Bethany Beach, the county has rezoned a 99-acre parcel to allow up to 1,800 new town houses and is looking at several other proposed developments.
"One thing the developers will tell you is that people who don't want more growth are people with their own piece of land who don't want to share it with anyone else, but that's not exactly true," said Charles Cole, a Sussex councilman representing the shore communities. "It's getting so bad over here there are times you can't get out of your driveway to go to the store because of the traffic. [The developers] are building on speculation, not for people who need a town house."
Consultants looking at the pattern of growth for Sussex County estimate that the coastal regions have grown by 20 percent in the last five years, while the western part of the county has grown only 5 percent.
A recently released report from a state task force studying the environmental health of Delaware's inland bays has recommended that allowable building densities along the southern coast be lowered to protect fragile natural areas and the fishing industry, and slow the intrusion of salt water into deep fresh-water wells.
In response to that recommendation, Sussex County has funded a new study and redrawing of the land-use plan for the coastal areas, but residents of the coastal communities say they are not confident that the county council will approve a plan that reduces zoning densities sufficiently to provide protection from over-eager developers. Zoning densities are generally 18 units per acre along the coast today, and many residents doubt the county council will cut them down to the six to eight dwelling units per acre recommended by the inland bays task force.
"The problem is that the people from the interior of the county control the county council, and they look at the coastal area as the place to put everyone to work and get the tax money," said William S. Green, a Washington lawyer who summers on the Delaware coast. "The way they are going, though, they are going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. It will become another Ocean City up here, and no one will want to come here."
According to the county's tax records, the resort communities stretching from Lewes to Fenwick Island contribute 70 percent of the real property taxes collected by Sussex County, but they have only two representatives on the five-member county council. The imbalance is due to the beach areas' heavy concentration of summer residents, who pay taxes as landowners but keep primary residences elsewhere.
Cole, who has worked in the past to lower building densities in the coastal area, said that many of the people doing the building and development come from the western side of the county, and that their representatives on the council have been strong proponents of increasing resort development.
"The problem I have is that those people, the plumbers, electricians and construction workers, don't live here on the coast, here where all the development pressure is," said Cole. "Most of the votes on development are either 3-to-2 or 4-to-1 in favor of more density. The representatives from the western side have control."
The recent history of Bethany Beach, a town of two-story cottages and bungalows just north of Fenwick Island, illustrates the pressures neighboring development can bring to a small community. As developers have begun to buy and build on the land around Bethany, the town's tiny public beach and two-lane roads have grown increasingly congested, and the town has had to move several wells inland to reduce salt-water intrusion as more houses hook up to its water system.
Last spring, the Freeman Co., a Potomac, Md., development firm, proposed that the town of Bethany annex a 360-acre parcel just north of town known as the Salt Pond tract. Freeman's proposal was based on getting a rezoning from the town that would allow 1,500 housing units in a mixed-commercial and retail development.Potomac, Md., development firm, proposed that the town of Bethany annex a 360-acre parcel just north of town known as the Salt Pond tract. Freeman's proposal was based on getting a rezoning from the town that would allow 1,500 housing units in a mixed-commercial and retail development.
Some of the residents of Bethany, alarmed at a proposal that would have increased the town's area and population roughly by roughly half, fought the proposal it. They said they also were concerned about concessions Freeman was asking for, including a new zoning category that would allow the commercial development on buildings in large, mixed-use developments to be 51 feet high, 20 feet above the town's current height limit, and an arrangement where he would not have to pay property taxes on the $6.5 million parcel until each section was developed.
Freeman's vice president, Michael A. Lynn, indicated at the time that if the town was were unwilling to go along with the concessions, the developer would instead get a rezoning from the county, with even greater at densities that would be even greater.
The town commissioners supported the proposal, saying that it would be better for the town to annex the land and have some control over the project. But Freeman withdrew the proposal the evening it was expected to be approved because of a legal cloud on over the title to the land. Freeman and another developer both claimed they had an option to buy the land, and are now fighting for control of the valuable parcel in the Court of Chancery in Georgetown. The court heard arguments on the case in February and is expected to hand down a decision sometime in the next few weeks.
The annexation proposal split the town and contributed to the defeat of several of the town commissioners when they came up for reelection in the fall. But county rezonings of several other parcels just outside Bethany's borders have refueled consideration of annexing land as a way of controlling neighboring development.
Last fall, the county council rezoned a 99-acre tract south of Bethany for the Freeman Co. to a density that would allow 1,800 units, although Freeman said at the time of the rezoning that the company planned to only build 800 town houses. A 315-unit residential development also has been proposed for an 88-acre parcel to the west of Bethany by a Gaithersburg, Md., firm called Indian River Associates.
What concerns Bethany residents most, said town manager Dean S. Phillips, is the "get-the-foot-in-the-door approach" of some of the developers.
Gerald I. Goldberg, a Chevy Chase developer who has done a number of projects on the eastern shore, has proposed a 77-unit town-house development on 4.2 acres of land in a single-family-house neighborhood to the south of Bethany.
WhileAlthough 4.2 acres is not much to get worried about, said Phillips, Goldberg or other developers could easily add to that parcel by purchasing and applying for rezonings of adjacent parcels. Once the precedent of town houses in a single-family neighborhood is in place established, said Phillips, it is harder to fight subsequent rezonings.
The town commissioners wrote the Sussex County planning commission in February voicing "strong opposition" to the proposal and asking them to turn the project down.
"Under the [medium-density] zoning, only 11 single-family houses could be built in that zoned area," wrote J. Robert Parsons, president of the Bethany board of commissioners. "If adjacent areas are added to the site after rezoning, perhaps as many as 100 town-house units could be built. If you rezone this site, you would be increasing the density by an incredible 600 percent, and if other contiguous lands are rezoned and added . . . you could be taking an action which will result in an 809 percent increase in density in a quiet, stable single-family-home neighborhood."
Roland Derrickson, the former director of Sussex County's planning and zoning department, recommended last fall that the county impose a moratorium on all rezonings in the area east of Route 113 (the coastal region) until the new land-use plan is completed sometime this summer.
Derrickson told the council at that time that talk of lowering the zoning densities would cause a stampede of developers eager to get large, vacant tracts rezoned to the highest density allowed before the county adopted a new plan with lower densities.
The council imposed such a moratorium for the Fenwick Island area in early February, after applications for three large-scale rezonings that would have meant an additional 2,000 housing units were filed in a few months' time. The council has not acted, however, on a request from the Bethany town commissioners for a similar rezoning moratorium in the Bethany area.
"The reason the council approved the moratorium for Fenwick Island was because they had doubts about the capacity of the 12-mile transmission line that connects that area with the sewage treatment plant," said Cole. "There is no similar limit to the sewer capacity in Bethany, so it is unlikely they will support the moratorium for that area."
Citizens from all the coastal communities are beginning to talk about changing the political structure of the county in a way that would give them greater representation on the council, and some residents have even suggested that the coast should secede from the county and set up their its own county government.
Several groups, including the Sussex County Environmental Concerns Association, which is an umbrella group with member organizations from several beach communities, have supported the idea of secession.
"The officials on the [Sussex] county council are not looking out for the health and welfare of the people by continuing to approve these development projects," said John Nevros, chairman of the board of directors of the environmental group. "They are just acting as a rubber-stamp committee for the developers while many of us are becoming very concerned about salt-water intrusion into the fresh water wells, sewer treatment capacity . . . and the rate of development. Something has to change."
While many question whether secession is a serious alternative, coastal residents and property owners are turning up in record numbers at public hearings being held on rezonings and the new land-use plan and at other public meetings.
"Maybe the best thing that has come out of this is that there has been a tremendous change in the populace," said summer resident Green. "When the first hearing was held on one of the early development proposals of the mid-'70s , only four people showed up. Today, hundreds turn out for these meetings and hearings. It has been a tremendous awakening among the local residents."