The Sussex County Council, by a 2-2 vote, denied a request by Carl M. Freeman Companies to build a hotel and restaurant on Route 54 near Fenwick Island.

Councilman John Rieley and Council President Michael Vincent voted against approving the request and Councilman Mark Schaeffer and Councilwoman Cynthia Green voted in favor during the Old Business portion of the Tuesday, Oct. 12 meeting.

Councilman Doug Hudson abstained and left the Council chamber during discussion of the matter because he has family members that have a related business interest, so the final vote was 2-2. Three or more votes were needed to approve the request to build an 8,500-square-foot restaurant and 70-room hotel on 9.2 acres.

Rieley, giving his reasons for voting against the project, said the 2018 Comprehensive Plan designated the site as a Coastal Area with “ecologically important and sensitive characteristics as well as other coastal lands which help to absorb floodwaters and provide extensive habitat for native flora and fauna.”

The area has significant impact upon water quality and is environmentally sensitive, he said, and establishing a hotel and restaurant there would be too intensive and inappropriate for the site. The request was not for a residential project, but for a commercial enterprise “in the middle of a predominantly residential area,” Rieley said.

“The proposed hotel is unlike any other commercial uses in this area of the Route 54 corridor and, therefore, the entire project is incompatible. The surrounding commercial uses are small businesses on relatively small tracts of land,” he said, adding the application is “not essential or desirable for the general convenience and welfare of the area where it is located.”

“This project will result in significant increases in traffic congestion in an area that is already congested and has bumper-to-bumper traffic on weekends and many days throughout in the summer. It would be irresponsible to vote in favor of such a large-scale commercial project that will result in significantly increased traffic on an already overly congested roadway,” he said.

While DelDOT addressed traffic concerns, Rieley said from a land use perspective, not all were fully addressed.

Opposition to the development was strong from the time it was first announced, with the county receiving 386 letters and e-mails in opposition, with some being duplicates, plus extensive spoken opposition at both the Planning & Zoning Commission and County Council public hearings.

Schaffer voted in favor, saying the project was compatible with the county’s Comprehensive Plan but neither he nor Councilwoman Cynthia Green, who also voted in favor, could not be reached for further comment following the meeting. Calls to both of them were not returned.

Joshua M. Mastrangelo, Senior Vice President of Carl M. Freeman Companies, issued a statement after the meeting, thanking everything interested and saying the company was disappointed in Council’s denial “particularly since the proposal was in accordance with Sussex County’s comprehensive land use plan and zoning codes.”

“We are currently considering all our options for the development of the property. We are proud of our history and track record of creating beautiful, award-winning communities and elevating lifestyles in southeastern Sussex County, and we look forward to continuing that legacy,” Mastrangelo wrote.

Outspoken opponent Samantha Danaher, who helped organize the Fenwick Protection Project, told Coastal Point this week she was “very thankful to John Rieley and Michael Vincent for voting ‘No’ and for really taking into consideration the huge impact it would have had on all aspects of the community on Route 54, the community’s wellbeing, traffic and all the concerns that everybody brought up at the public hearings.”

While she was concerned Freeman will appeal the decision, she said she is “very willing to do whatever I have to do to stop it.”

Kirsten McGuigan-Kleinstuber, who also helped form the Fenwick Protection Project, said she was “thrilled by the vote.”

Council’s decision came nearly three months after a public hearing on the matter at the July 27 Council meeting and more than three months following the July 8 Planning & Zoning hearing. P&Z Commission members recommended denial, due to a tie vote of 2-2, with one Commission member abstaining.

“Everybody who is opposed is on the same page. We are all hoping the Council votes in favor of what the constituents want and whatever we can do if they make a decision in favor, we will do,” McGuigan-Kleinstuber said before Council voted.

“So many home owners along Route 54, from my experience, are against it. Some of them have spoken to lawyers … I understand the Council can’t tell private land owners what they can do with their land but this doesn’t fit in with the character of that area. We will fight it any way we can … We all live here because it’s The Quiet Resorts. We enjoy the natural beauty, the kind of a slower way of life. In Fenwick, we only have a few hotels. This is not a big hotel town. I think that’s why people live here and like it here. Wetlands are in that whole area. I’m sure a buffer zone will be required before they can build, but even just putting in impervious surfaces — pavement — and developing that area will have a major impact on the whole,” she said.

Others, at the public hearings, spoke against overdevelopment that, they feared, would force them out of their homes and said when rescuing the injured by airlifting them to a hospital, the property proposed for the hotel and restaurant has been one of the safest places for medical helicopters to land because other locations have too many poles, wires, people and vehicles.

But Attorney James Fuqua, representing Freeman, told the County Council at the July public hearing a land use decision is not a popularity contest and shouldn’t be made based on objections.

He assured Council there would be 237 parking spaces at the hotel, more than required, with parking areas lit and that the restaurant would be upscale and not a fast food establishment. The outdoor dining area would be on the west side of the building with a view of wetlands and the bay. Dining outdoors would end by 10 p.m. and music and entertainment prohibited outdoors to be sure it wasn’t noisy.

Fuqua said Freeman is asking for a conditional use and not a change of zone, allowing Council to impose conditions.

Staff Reporter

Veteran news reporter Susan Canfora has written for many newspapers and held positions ranging from managing editor to her favorite, news reporter. She joined the Coastal Point in June 2019. She teaches college writing, tutors and professionally edits.