A proposed land-use plan and zoning ordinance for Delaware's southern coast could bring increased development to the Rehoboth and Bethany Beach areas, despite efforts by residents to pressure the Sussex County Council to limit growth along the shore.
While some residents and environmentalists say that some of the environmental features in the plan would be worth adopting, many residents of the coastal communities say that the plan would unfairly burden the coast areas with more traffic, congestion and houses.
The proposed plan, written by a Baltimore engineering and consulting firm, calls for concentrating growth near existing coastal communities on the grounds that the county will have to build new sewer capacity in those areas in the future anyway. It also would open up relatively undeveloped areas around the two large inland bays west of Rehoboth to future development, a proposal environmentalists say could seriously harm the delicate natural areas that attract tourists in the first place.
Inland areas of the county west of Route 113 would see much less growth under the plan.
Ironically, most of the beach communities that would feel the pressure of increased development -- such as Bethany and Rehoboth -- are independent political entities and have no real control over the decisions made by the Sussex County Council concerning land just outside their borders, including the proposed plan.
"The plan doesn't question whether we want to continue having fast growth," said Bethany Beach Town Commissioner Margaret Zitzmann. "It accommodates growth instead. That is the major problem with it. We need to be talking about whether we want this much growth and how to limit it if we don't."
According to the report, if Sussex County continues to grow as it has during the past five years, the summer population and number of houses in the coastal area will double in the next 20 years.
A special governor's task force studying the health of the state's inland bays suggested the county draw a new plan to find ways of protecting the natural areas around the bays and the fishing industry, and slowing the intrusion of saltwater into deep freshwater wells that is increasing along with development.
But environmentalists are concerned that the plan actually would hurt many of the natural resources it is designed to protect.
"They have taken the approach that development is going to occur, and that's probably realistic because, let's face it, money talks down here," said Chip Gibson, president of the Sussex County Environmental Concerns Association. "We don't know who we're up against here, big money from out of state or a local good-ole-boy network, but on every little thing the developers are trying to push to the limits. It's taking its toll."
Specifically, the plan calls for funneling growth during the next five years to the part of the county around Bethany, to make use of available sewer capacity in that area. That proposal would include extending sewer lines into the North Bethany, Ocean View and Cedar Neck areas.
Within the next 10 years, the county should consider financing a new sewage treatment plant in the Route 1 area west of Rehoboth to accommodate growth in the Lewes and Rehoboth area, according to the plan.
After that, in the next 15 to 20 years, the county should consider building a road from Route 113 east across the Long Neck area, across the inlet between Rehoboth Bay and Indian River Bay and connecting with the ocean beach. Such a road, if accompanied by additional sewer capacity in that area, would allow for development all around the inland bays.
Components of the plan that would help protect the environmentally fragile areas are proposals for mandatory setbacks from coastal and tidal waters, increasing the minimum lot size for allowing a septic sewer system and reducing allowable zoning densities slightly to 12 apartments, 8 town houses or 5 single-family homes per acre. Current county zoning allows up to 18 units per acre. The inland bays task force recommended zoning be reduced to eight units per acre, and environmentalists in the county had hoped for a number at least as low as 10.
Another proposal fueling the fight between developers and the slow-growth advocates is a draft new zoning ordinance that would allow developers to increase building densities through bonus rewards for providing public amenities such as sewers, water, landscaping and storm-water maintenance.
That proposal, which has been pushed by the Coalition for Survival, an organization of builders, developers and real estate agents, has been denounced by a number of community groups and coastal residents who say that such "amenities" should be provided as part of any development, and not as something for which developers should be rewarded.
"To give a bonus for furnishing water and sewer? That's ridiculous," Zitzmann said. "No one would build a house that didn't have those, so why should developers get extra densities for providing them?"
The developers and builders, however, say that such a system has been used to ensure quality development in some coastal areas of Florida and that the development industry is a necessary part of the Sussex County economy.
The county planning and zoning division is compiling comments from a group of citizens, developers and builders who have worked for several months on the proposed new zoning ordinance, and the county planning and zoning commission is expected to take up the proposal this fall.
Thomas Shafer, a partner of the firm that wrote the proposed land-use plan, said he hopes the plan will be brought to a public hearing before the county council some time in the next six weeks and voted on this fall.