Beach towns face a growing 'nightmare'

DEWEY BEACH, DEL. — DEWEY BEACH, DEL. - For Mayor Robert G. Frederick, the debate about the breakneck pace of development in Sussex County becomes clear in a 20-minute drive from his little beach town up through the commercial smorgasbord of 200 outlet stores, strip centers, big-box retailers and fast-food restaurants that is Route 1.

Ten years ago, when he bought a house at the Delaware shore, the same trip took "seven, eight minutes tops," says Frederick. "Route 1 is a nightmare, but that's just part of it. From the environment to our highways, anybody with common sense can see that something has to be done."


Jolted by a growth rate that makes Sussex one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, Frederick and other leaders in the "quiet resorts" north of Ocean City are pushing a stopgap measure to provide time to plan for development that is predicted to boost the population by nearly 60 percent in 20 years. A County Council vote today on a new project just west of Fenwick Island is bringing the issue to the forefront.

Sussex has seen a 27 percent increase in population, to about 140,000, since 1990. And with the timeless lure of the Atlantic and perhaps the lowest property tax rate in the country, people on both sides of the issue know the trend will continue as aging baby boomers look toward retirement.


Frederick and his counterparts in Rehoboth, Fenwick Island and other beach towns are proposing a limit on rezoning requests from developers who are snapping up farmland west of Delaware's fragile inland bays, then asking the county to allow much greater density than the current zoning plan.

Facing a deadline of 2002 to revise the county's comprehensive land use plan, Frederick and others say Sussex should put on the brakes for the next 18 months, until a forward-looking plan can be hammered out.

"What we're seeing is developers buying up land, then going to the county to change it to six, 10, 12 units per acre," Frederick says. "We're talking about something in the middle, like maybe four units an acre - something to hold the line until the county can get better prepared. We're talking about a pause, a time out, not a moratorium."

Slow-growth advocates might not be calling it a moratorium, but that's how land-owners and developers are reading it.

The county's planning and zoning office, which normally handles 100 to 120 rezoning applications a year, has been flooded in recent months by those seeking zoning changes ahead of any new restraints.

The proposal, which would need County Council approval, has angered many in the business community who point out that the current land-use plan was adopted in 1997 after an exhaustive series of more than 100 public meetings.

"We spent hundreds of hours on the comprehensive plan in 1997, and now they want to change the rules," says Dale P. Dukes, a county councilman who owns a lumber business in Laurel, about 20 miles west of Bethany Beach. "We haven't had a tax increase in 11 years, and we've had a growth rate of about 3 percent a year during that time. You can't have it both ways, you can't keep your taxes down if you don't increase your tax base."

Sussex's peculiar property tax structure continues to draw new residents, full-time and those looking for second homes. At 44.5 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value, the average property owner pays $84.71 a year, according to county administrator William Stickels. That's possible, Stickels says, because all county property assessments have been frozen at 1974 construction values.


Talk of growth limits also has sharpened a split between the coastal towns and the small agricultural communities in western Sussex that embrace development as a much-needed source of revenue.

"From a development standpoint, once you set the rules, everybody has to play by the same rules," says Joseph T. Conaway, a former county administrator whose land-use consulting firm has helped steer many large developments into the county.

As the mayor of Bridgeville, an inland town of 1,900 residents that is now by-passed by beach-bound motorists, Conaway says small towns like his often struggle to make payroll or to provide water and sewer or other services. Growth inside their borders or on nearby land that can be annexed is usually welcomed.

"There's a lot of land around Bridgeville that would be suitable for development, but you can't smell that salt sea breeze," Conaway says. "That's what's pushing development; everybody wants to be near the beach. That's what will continue to push development."

Slow-growth proponents were alarmed last summer when more than 5 million dead menhaden were found in shallow tidal waters of inland bays from nearly a dozen fish kills. They say it's a clear sign more needs to be done to limit development near those areas. Further environmental problems, they say, could hurt tourism.

Samuel R. Cooper, mayor of Rehoboth Beach, acknowledges that the western towns have different needs from heavily-developed coastal municipalities, but he cautions his rural neighbors to be careful what they wish for.


"We understand that the inland towns want to grow, but they ought to take a hard look at what's happened to the coastal towns," Cooper says. "It's happening so fast, you can't just sit back and watch."

Leaders of the beach towns insist they are not citing any particular development, but many say that Americana Bayside, a 2,200-unit planned community just west of Fenwick Island, has focused attention on the growth issue. After more than a year of hearings and debate, the project is scheduled for a final vote before the County Council today.

Others have praised it as the best-planned project ever proposed for Sussex.

"If Americana Bayside isn't acceptable here, then we'll get the same thing everybody else gets - row after row, lot after lot of typical sprawl development," says Conaway, who firm is representing the Virginia-based developer of the 885-acre community.

Growth continues to underline almost every public debate in Sussex.

Last week the county commissioners heard proposals for a 70-unit development and another for 234 new houses. They also heard proposals from the Sussex sheriff who wants to expand his department to become a countywide force and a state senator who wants to beef up state police presence.


Meanwhile, state highway officials are urging Sussex to restrict development in areas that could be routes for new or expanded roads while they complete an 18-month study of transportation needs.

"We've been a lazy laid-back county [in regard to] the growth of the last few years," says state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., who is considering legislation for a tax on beach house rentals that would fund a land conservation program for wetland areas bordering the inland bays.