Homes line the beach in South Bethany, the bays outside of Ocean View. Central Avenue barely resembles what it was a decade ago, and houses and multi-family units have recently begun to sprout on Route 54 and the area’s back roads.
Development is a presence nearly everywhere in the area now, and most call it inevitable. Comfortable beaches, a “quaintness” that locals and retirees alike cling to despite the “boom,” and low property taxes have made southeastern Sussex County and its “quiet resorts” a prime place to be.
Many enjoy the life in the winter, if not the increasing congestion on Route 26, but others are disturbed by the pace of the growth. Travis White, a 27-year-old Selbyville native and electrician who admittedly benefits from development, is a member of the latter group.
“It used to be a small county,” White said, “Now it’s like a small city. I wire the houses. I see it all. Some places I’ve seen a lot of trees. Now it’s all gone because of development. Now, everywhere you look, it’s all development. It just feels like it’s getting big and outrageous.”
Sussex officials have issued at least 10,000 home building permits in the Coastal Point’s coverage area since 1990, according to county records. The area extends from Bethany Beach west to Dagsboro, south to Selbyville and east to Fenwick Island. From 2000 to 2006, at least 6,300 homes were given the go-ahead to build in that area, a number that represents nearly 30 percent of total county permits issued in that time.
At least 5,700 homes in Bethany, Ocean View, Millville, South Bethany, Fenwick and the adjacent areas have been permitted to build since 1990, more than 3,000 since 2000 alone. Since 1990, more homes have been permitted in the county district comprising those areas than any other county district. Across this newspaper’s coverage area, more homes were permitted in 2005, at the peak of the building rush, than were permitted county-wide a decade earlier, in 1995.
Area permitting numbers represent nearly 1,000 homes on Central Avenue built in the last six years, hundreds on the formerly sparse-populated Cedar Neck. And the latest housing boom is on the Route-54 corridor, led by Carl M. Freeman Communities’ 1,600-home Bayside, which has only received roughly a quarter of its total planned building permits.
Gulfstream developer Bob Harris — whose father developed Bethany West on Route 26 four decades ago — called the area a “great” place to do business, citing the area’s friendly nature and unmatchable amenities. He and his company have built or are in the process of building more than 1,200 homes in more than 20 communities in the area, with another roughly 3,000 slated for Millville by the Sea.
“My dad was here just before Carl Freeman came down and did Sea Colony. We worked in a parallel with those guys for a long time,” Harris said. “It’s a beautiful area and undiscovered until very recently. That’s part of what made it so nice. More and more people are discovering the area, which has to be expected.”
That discovery and development has stressed the area’s natural resources, greatly impacted emergency services operations and congested roads — some of which have needed expansion since the late 1970s, according to state officials. The State of Delaware pays the bill for many of those local decisions.
The boom has also, though, added millions to local and county revenues and added a layer of leadership to the area. A newly-elected Millville mayor is not originally from the area nor is longtime Ocean View Mayor Gary Meredith. They are each flanked by many other non-natives on their respective town councils, and there are no natives among Bethany Beach’s council members, some of whom are longtime visitors but most of whom came to the area to retire from the Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia areas.
The area has grown to such extent, though, that even natives, such as Shirley Price, 57 — a Realtor and former state representative for the 38th District — hardly recognize the area that was once enveloped in farmland.
“I can remember, after Labor Day all the stores closed,” Price said. “We made friends over the summer and they went home at the end of the season. It did look much different,” she added. “There has been a tremendous amount of changes. My biggest regret is I don’t feel enough planning was put into it.”
Retirees flock to local areas
Jim Cahill moved from Staten Island, N.Y., in the late-1990s to permanently occupy a home outside of Ocean View and enjoy retired life near the beach. Cahill and his wife, Liz, now live in their Cedar Neck house, he a retired businessman working odd jobs out of their home, she a local school secretary.
According to local real estate agents who cite simply what has become well-known fact, they are just two of the likely thousands of retirees who have come from major metropolitan areas to retiree or buy a second, vacation, home here.
With development — much of it in southeastern Sussex — the county’s population increased from a Census Bureau estimated 113,229 in 1990 to more than 180,000 in 2006, according to the Delaware Population Consortium.
According to the 2005 Census report, nearly 33,000 county residents are 65 or older.
In its primary service area in eastern Sussex, Beebe Medical Center reported that 23,000 residents were older than 65, and officials expected that number to increase to 28,000 by 2008.
Vickie York, a Millville Realtor, said second-home buyers made up the large majority of her customer base through the housing boom, which she said started five years ago and saw at least some properties triple in value.
Mark Grimes, one of the original sales representatives at the Village of Bear Trap Dunes — an Ocean View community of 700 homes that sold out in 2005 — said that up to 90 percent of his customers were second-home buyers or retirees. Local statistics seem to support those perceptions.
Roughly 70 percent of the nearly 300 buyers who purchased homes in Ocean View in 2005 at the peak of the development boom came from suburbs of major metro areas, including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., according to town transfer tax records.
“Folks purchase here for the amenity package,” Grimes said, mentioning the area’s low property tax rates and its proximity to the coast. “People like the quaintness of the beach towns here.”
Transplants denounce booming development
Cahill, at least eight or nine years ago, was one of those who enjoyed the quiet resort atmosphere, the “quaintness” of the coastal area. But, now, he seems to represent a growing number of retirees who, after migrating to the area seem to resent local sprawl and many of whom frequently protest new developments in Georgetown.
“I think they should go very slowly,” Cahill said of local planners when asked about area growth, expressing concern with the congestion of local roads. “The number of homes built on Cedar Neck Road, where we live, is phenomenal. I wish they would go a little bit slower.”
Bill Wichmann, an Ocean View councilman who moved to the town in 2002 from northern New Jersey to retire, disagreed. If he could settle here in his retirement, others should be offered the same courtesy, he said.
“I’m very happy here,” said Wichmann, who bought his home on a trip to visit his daughter and grandchildren in June of 2002. “I can’t say, ‘I should be able to come here and you shouldn’t.’ It’s a beautiful place.”
Liz Cahill sided with her husband, seconding that development in the area needs a check.
“I just feel like it’s just getting crowded,” she said. “It was lonely in the beginning. “When I moved down here, I wanted people around. Now there’s too many.”
Schools brace for growth impact
Despite overwhelming numbers that might indicate to the contrary, retirees are not the only new residents stressing the area’s infrastructure. Jenny Smith, who moved to Bethany Beach in 1995 to be with her soon-to-be husband and later started a family in the area, now has two 5-year-olds enrolled in Lord Baltimore Elementary School’s kindergarten program.
“I don’t mind (the growth),” she said. “I feel like, 12 years ago, the winters were really depressing here. Now it’s not so much. We like the idea the idea of having more families and year-rounders here.”
The Indian River School District’s student population has increased with the growth, by more than 1,000 in a decade, and the district added 56 new teachers from 1998 to 2005, according to the latest numbers available from the state Department of Education. The increase in teachers cost more than $7 million, of which the district contributed roughly 35 percent, according to district Financial Director Patrick Miller.
Growth in taxable assessment value of district properties from $768 million to $1.13 billion between 2000 and 2007 — numbers that represent both development and rise in property values — has added $5.8 million in district revenues, helping cover those costs, as well as losses in state and federal funds.
“(Growth) has certainly brought us more money,” Miller said. “It has also brought us more students, which requires more staff, etcetera. The growth in assessment truthfully is not bringing new projects or initiatives. It’s just allowing us to maintain those (already in place).”
Government leans on development
The school district’s reliance on development-related funds is not unique.
Local and county officials have made it a habit of leaning on growth-related funds to cover costs — some precipitated by growth itself — and to build infrastructure, not vice versa.
On the back of considerable transfer tax revenues — which are collected after the sale and resale of a home, and which skyrocketed on the whole as developers quickly built homes to meet demand in the past decade — the town of Ocean View built a fund reserve of roughly $5.3 million.
That money has been used to place a down-payment on a police station costing more than $2 million, cover growing operational budgets, fix town streets and assist with drainage projects.
It has also been used to avoid a property tax increase. But a 9 percent increase is proposed to set in next fiscal year as the tax reserve dwindles. Decreases of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in the town’s revenue are due, in part, to a lagging real estate market and the fact that most town developments — including Bear Trap, and neighboring Avon Park and Wedgefield, with 180 homes combined — have already sold out.
“The transfer taxes (have) accounted for close to 40 percent of every dollar received,” said Roy Thomas, a town councilman and member of the town’s financial planning committee.
“If (the transfer tax) wasn’t here, the town would be an entirely different town. In order to equal the same amount of dollars, you would have to have had a 100 percent tax increase.”
Sussex County government received $3.09 million from transfer taxes in 1997, before the housing boom took hold. In 2005, it received $36.33 million from the tax, a number that equated to more than 40 percent of the county’s total government-related revenues and dwarfed the $11 million received from property tax.
County transfer taxes have been used to grow a $13 million “rainy day fund” and budgeted as grants for sewer expansion to protect the environment — and raise funds for the county through fees — and to expand emergency services officials call necessary to serve the influx in residents. Sussex, though, is expecting a 20 percent decrease in the tax this year.
Emergency services suffer impact
More than $3.5 million in county funds has been spent since the 2003 fiscal year alone to pay for a portion of 32 state police troopers’ salaries as those officers cover ever-expanding Sussex, which has no county-level law enforcement branch. That Sussex County and Delaware State Police partnership will end this fiscal year, but negotiations to embark on a new one are pending and it would continue to serve the growing area, County Administrator Dave Baker said. County growth has required more police protection and stressed emergency services personnel in the coastal area and county-wide.
The county paramedics program budget has increased, for instance, from $3.5 million in the 1997 fiscal year to $12.3 million this year, on the back of inconsistent real estate funds. From 2000 to 2006, the department’s annual emergency calls increased by roughly 5,000 annually, from 11,492 to 16,272. In that time, the county added 16 medics to fill to two additional response units and a supervisory unit.
“You’re talking about people that move here and bring their problems here,” said Glenn Luedtke, director of Sussex County Emergency Services. “The numbers of people that move in is one factor. The likelihood that they’ll use the system is another factor that really makes a difference,” he added, referencing the faster-growing number of older residents.
Millville Volunteer Fire Company’s EMS calls have increased by nearly 700 since 2000 to 1,770 in 2006. The company’s personnel are also serving a booming elderly population in need of quicker response times despite area development — which itself works against speedy response.
Millville’s fire company added a substation on Omar Road late last year, to help improve response times in what officials refer to as their “western district,” and they have lobbied local governments for more funding to help cope with growth.
“This area is growing so rapidly that we’ve had to change our methods of protection,” said Walt Johnson, chief of the private company, who would not disclose budget numbers. “We’re doing different things, trying to get more membership, trying to get more apparatus, trying to get more funding from the state to get advanced training. More retirees are moving down here, so it’s a lot for us to handle.”
This is the first of a five-part series on development in eastern Sussex County. The next installment will be in next week’s Coastal Point.