As the heart of winter hits the area, many residents of the area around the Little Assawoman Bay look out their windows on the natural surroundings and enjoy this quiet time at the shore.
But some of their snowbird neighbors could return to a surprise interruption to their view if the Sussex County Board of Adjustments grants a special exception to Anthony Crivella that would allow him to build a billboard on his property on the north side of Route 54 and adjacent to the Little Assawoman Bay.
The request for the special exception is now set to be heard at the board’s meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m., in County Council chambers on The Circle in Georgetown. And, if the past is to be any hint as to what might happen at that meeting, Crivella is likely to be surrounded by passionate opponents to his plans.
Crivella’s request was last heard by the board in September of 2005, at which time nearly three dozen opponents filled the council chambers, ready to speak volumes regarding their concerns over its potential impact on their views, property values, the environment and the area in general.
In hand they had a petition with more than 200 signatures of opposition, as well as several letters from representatives of area homeowners associations, who in turn represented more than 400 other likely opponents.
Many of those opponents signed in on the board’s attendance list and referenced the case number of Crivella’s request. That appeared to have spooked him, as he signed in for the hearing himself but did not stand to represent his case or even identify himself as present when called by the board.
No one else rose to represent the case either, resulting in a denial by the board of the application for a special exception at that time, simply because no one represented the request in front of them.
It was a triumph for the billboard’s opponents, but they were wary of the circumstances. With their petition and letters of opposition, and a flurry of last-minute work to bring opponents to the hearing in person, would Crivella be able to fly below the radar in the future and renew his request?
Then-Fenwick Island Town Council Member and Beautification Committee Chairwoman Vicki Carmean, who helped organize opposition in 2005, promised to hold onto their documentation, just in case.
More than a year later, on Dec. 11, 2006, at a time when many part-time residents — and even some full-time ones — are out of the area, a letter from Crivella was read to their board at their regular meeting. The letter requested a re-hearing of the previous case, with the special exception for the billboard and the height allowance still being requested. The board approved a re-hearing on a 4-0 vote and the hearing was set for Feb. 5.
Carmean was out of town early this week and couldn’t be reached for comment, but staff at Fenwick Island town hall were working to gather copies from the town’s files of all the paperwork related to the billboard in preparation for the new push of opposition. They confirmed Carmean was aware of the re-hearing would be back in town in time for the Feb. 5 board meeting.
Carmean was joined by most of the town council in opposing the hearing in person in 2005, and though she and then-Council President Peter Frederick have since vacated their seats on the council, both remain staunch opponents of the proposal.
Frederick confirmed this week that he is planning on also attending the Feb. 5 hearing and that he hasn’t changed his mind about the billboard either.
“My understanding is the request is exactly the same as it was the last time the board heard it,” Frederick said. “We’re going to try to get as many folks as we can to show up on Monday night. Our response will be exactly the same as it was last time, and we would hope that the county’s action would be same.”
Depending on whether Crivella has someone to represent the case this time out, the board might actually get a chance this time to consider the case on its merits, of course. But Frederick said he believes the result would be no different: denial.
“He would have a hard time getting it approved if there was no demonstrated need for a modification to the zoning rules,” Frederick said. “He wants something. He doesn’t need it. It would be hard to imagine the board would grant it if there was opposition.”
Fenwick Island Town Council Member and Environmental Commissioner Martha Keller also opposed the billboard in person in 2005, and helped organize the opposition to it at that time.
Keller said this week that she was also surprised that Crivella would try to make the exact same request before the board, knowing the obstacles that would stand in his way.
“My question is how the case can be brought up again when none of the concerns have been addressed,” she said.
Concerns about the project were varied in 2005:
Nearby residents and property owners were concerned about the impact on the view from the East of the Sun condominiums, which are just across Route 54 from the proposed billboard site, as well as the resulting impact on their property values.
Of further concern, Crivella’s request includes not only the allowance of a billboard, but as much as 10 feet in height above the maximum currently allowed in Sussex County for a typical billboard.
Environmentalists were concerned about the impact on the Little Assawoman Bay wetlands from the erection of the billboard right at their edge.
They were also concerned about the potential impact of the lights that would illuminate the billboard on the wildlife that call those wetlands, and the bay area at large, their home and breeding ground.
General aesthetic concern was for many the crux of the argument, with many opponents saying that the location east of the bridge over the Little Assawoman Bay and right on the edge of the natural setting was just inappropriate for a billboard. It would be an eyesore, they said.
Regardless of their individual reasons, there was no shortage of vehement opposition to the billboard from those residing and owning property in the area. And it may have decided the outcome at that 2005 hearing.
“Last time so many of us signed in under that case number that he fled the scene,” Keller recalled. “I think that’s what we have to do again this time.”
Opponents are organizing to do just that. Whether the result will be any different will be known Feb. 5.