A very big `village' in a very small state

Delaware residents alarmed by prospect of vast development

March 29, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

FENWICK ISLAND, Del. -- Local activists, municipal leaders and Delaware officials are vowing to block a 2,900-unit golf course community straddling the Maryland-Delaware border just north of Ocean City -- the largest development ever proposed for fast-growing Sussex County.

Environmentalists worry about losing Delaware's last remaining coastline on Assawoman Bay. Opponents in the tiny beach town of Fenwick Island and in the "Quiet Resorts" of Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany say the project will overwhelm the already congested Route 54 -- a vital emergency evacuation route for area beach towns, including north Ocean City.

Alarmed by predictions that the population of the coastal area could grow by 60 percent in the next 20 years, state lawmakers have introduced a half-dozen bills aimed at curbing growth.

But officials with Carl M. Freeman Communities, the Virginia-based company that began buying up property three years ago to piece together the 885-acre Americana Bayside site, point to 25 years of experience on the Delaware coast where they have built a reputation for environmental sensitivity and planned development in the spirit of "New Urbanism" village communities such as Seaside on the Florida panhandle and Kentlands in Montgomery County.

Less than a week before a County Council hearing scheduled for April 4, slow-growth advocates fear that solid support from much of the business community and longtime residents of rural farm communities in northern and western Sussex County might hold sway with the five-member board, which has the final say on the Bayside project.

"This seems like an endless battle I've been waging for the past 25 years," said Til (short for Matilda) Purnell, a 78-year-old Rehoboth native who retired to a waterfront home near Millsboro in 1976. "We're the second-smallest state in the union, and we shouldn't have to provide a second home for half the population of the United States."

The project, which would include an 18-hole golf course, 200,000 square feet of retail stores, offices and a grocery store clustered near Route 54, would take 10 years to complete, said Frank M. Kea, the Freeman company's project manager. The company, he said, plans extensive road improvements to key intersections on the two-lane road, and has offered to provide land for a county fire station and a police substation.

"This is not a case of `build it and they will come,' " Kea said. "The market here is for retiree baby boomers moving out of cities. One way or another, the demand is already there."

The sprawling property -- a meandering 1 1/2-mile by 1-mile strip of marsh, farmland and woods -- has been designated a growth area in the county's comprehensive planning for the past 20 years. More than half the land, including 290 acres of wetlands, would be preserved as open space under the Freeman proposal.

Unlike other inland bays in Delaware and Maryland, permanent conservation easements would prevent piers or marinas from being built on wetlands, Kea said. Elaborately designed golf course water hazards, he said, would serve as storm water management ponds for the community, helping to filter runoff into Assawoman Bay.

"Imagine what this would be like if you had 300 homes built by 10 different developers; that's suburban sprawl," Kea said. "Our idea is to create a village feel. The architecture is designed to look pretty much like you'd see in any town on Delmarva, turn-of-the century to maybe the 1930s."

Slow-growth advocates scoff at the notion of Americana Bayside as a village, since it would quickly dwarf most small towns in the state.

"The sheer size of the project will forever change coastal Delaware," said state Rep. Shirley A. Price, who introduced a growth-control bill in the Legislature. "This would be the beginning of another era, different from anything we've known."

Price says she is working on a proposal to create a joint local and state panel to handle long-range planning for areas near Delaware's inland bays. In Delaware, where local officials control zoning but the state provides roads, police and other services, better communication should be a priority, Price says.

State planning officials, along with administrators from 11 state agencies, have gone on record in opposition to the project, at least in its current form. Municipal officials in Fenwick, Bethany and South Bethany beaches also are opposed.

County Councilman Dale R. Dukes, who owns a lumber supply business near Laurel, says that Sussex can expect continued development pressure, especially near beach resorts. Opponents who say they want to preserve the area's slow-paced way of life are years too late, he says.

"We've lost that rural flavor we once had," Dukes said. "I'd like to go back to leaving my doors unlocked, too. But we can't go back unless we shut down the Bay Bridge and the Bay Bridge-Tunnel. We have to deal with what's real."

Peggy J. Baunchalk, president of the Town Council in Fenwick, where the year-round population is about 300, is the last one to argue that the beach towns aren't more popular than ever. She sees that interest translated to a slow crawl of traffic along Route 1, the oceanside thoroughfare, every summer day. "As long as we have the Atlantic Ocean east of Fenwick, people are going to come here," Baunchalk said. "My worst fear is that we'll lose the things everybody comes here for. In the summer, it's already worse than gridlock in our little town."

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