IR Inlet campground closes for major winter upgrade
Construction of the new Indian River Inlet Bridge shook things up for its neighbor, Delaware Seashore State Park. Half of the inlet park became a construction zone for several years, but the Delaware Department of Transportation is now plowing forward with improvements and upgrades to the park itself, closing in November to make the long-needed upgrades.
State officials know how special the inlet is, especially to people who have been camping there for 50 years, even before the 1967 establishment of the state park.
“This is a special place. And — P.S. — make sure you don’t screw it up,” is the basic message park superintendent Doug Long said he received.
So the camping, beach and fishing zones will remain at the heart of the park, with amenities to improve the experiences.
“The upgrades and enhancements replace what was taken away during construction and are designed to modernize park amenities to today’s outdoor recreation standards,” wrote Sandy Roumillat, chief of Community Relations for DelDOT.
Visitors can look forward to new and improved bathhouses, more parking, a nature walk, outdoor pavilions/atrium areas for education outreach, playground and a new DART bus stop.
“This is a big deal for the area,” said Gov. Jack Markell at a Dec. 16 park tour. “I think it’s an incredible upgrade — certainly an upgrade from when my family and I came here back in the ’60s.”
The southern improvements should be ready for Memorial Day of 2014, and the northern RV lot will be completed the following autumn.
In the south, improvements are being made to the existing 140 RV spots (plus six more), two bathhouses and the “Old Camp” for 94 traditional tent camping sites.
The popular oceanside bathhouse parking lot will be expanded to accommodate 627 total vehicles.
The south side’s Turn Point Road will be moved slightly northward, toward the inlet. By adding a roundabout and eliminating a sharp turn, RVs will have better maneuverability. Plus, those large vehicles can queue up in the campground without affecting residents driving through.
For the first time, the northern overflow campground, which was used for self-contained RV units (usually while campers waited for space in the south), will become a destination in itself, with about 80 hook-up sites with water and electric, a shower building, a laundry building and a bathhouse with outside showers.
During years of bridge construction, the angler parking lot was moved slightly inland, which was handy. However, the 221 northern day-use parking spots will return to their rightful spot beside the bridge, with RV camping behind.
Anglers will have direct access to the shoreline, but behind them, a separate waterfront promenade will allow walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers to enjoy the coast. Eventually, the park will install a pedestrian-friendly trail back to Burton Island Nature Preserve.
“This is a remarkable investment for this area. … These are things that affect real people,” said DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara. He praised the “diversity of experiences that are integrated” into the improved park, which he said will drive new tourism and boost business to the state. “We’ve got 30 million people looking for something different to do, and here’s another thing,” he said, referencing vacationers who live within a four-hour drive of the beach.
During the improvement process, diehard fishermen and surfers still have some access to their beloved inlet. Access is not guaranteed, but fishers can often bypass south-side construction to reach the waterside rail. The surfers’ northern parking lot next to the Coast Guard station is “basically open,” officials said, and when the new lot opens, they’ll just switch over.
“This is Ground Zero — some of the best fishing in the region,” said Long. “That’s the main draw there.”
Indian River Marina is still operating, as are the rental cottages there. Typically, RV camping is allowed in winter, but water and electricity are not available.
The original bridge project was split into three contracts to improve timing: bridge, road approach-ways and park construction.
A thorn in DelDOT’s side was the original earthen embankments leading up to the new bridge. Due to possible contractor miscalculations, the mass of soil had to be removed, construction began again, and DelDOT just recently received a $5.25 million settlement for damages.
Fortunately, much of the soil found second life in park construction. It actually allowed DelDOT to raise the north campground to create a better vantage-point of the inlet, said Craig Stevens, project manager for DelDOT Bridge Design.
When asked about a proposed wind turbine at the inlet, O’Mara said migratory birds were a concern and that the numbers “didn’t quite work out.” However, the sand bypass system (moving sand from the south to north beaches, without getting caught on the jetty) is now working correctly, he said.
The park staff is trying to improve lifeguard recruitment for next year, even considering offering lifeguard housing.
Reservations for camping will open again in early spring, when the online registration system is activated.
Construction should not impact Coastal Highway (Route 1), officials said. The road to South Shore Marina residences behind the state park will remain open in some capacity, but it will be relocated around the campground as part of the work this winter.
Although DNREC will contribute to funding for sewer enhancements, DelDOT is paying $9.87 million, and the Federal Highway Administration will pay approximately $7 million.
For more information about the park enhancement project, contact DelDOT Public Affairs at (302) 760-2080 or visit www.deldot.gov/information/projects/sr1/irib_parks. The Delaware Seashore Park office can be reached at (302) 227-2800.