A week after the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission recommended denying a proposal by the Carl M. Freeman Companies to build a hotel and restaurant on Route 54 near Lighthouse Road, opponents were eager to hear the final decision from the Sussex County Council. The matter is expected to be on the agenda at the Tuesday, July 27, county council meeting.

The hotel and restaurant are proposed for construction in the unincorporated area west of Fenwick Island off Route 54, in the vicinity of Treasure Beach RV Park & Campground and Papa Grande’s and Catch 24 restaurants.

At the Thursday, July 8, Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, the commission’s recommendation was for denial, due to a tie vote of 2-2, with Commissioner Holly Wingate abstaining because of a conflict of interest.

Commissioners Bruce Mears and R. Keller Hopkins voted to deny the request. Commissioner Kim Hoey Stevenson and Commission President Robert Wheatley voted to recommend approval.

Mears read several reasons to support his motion to deny, including that the area is listed as coastal in the County’s Comprehensive Plan, making a hotel and restaurant, he said, too intensive of a use, incompatible and out-of-character with surrounding properties. It would not promote the orderly growth of the County, Mears asserted.

The applicant wants to build a 70-room hotel and 8,500-square-foot restaurant on a 9.2-acre parcel that is heavily wetlands and just west of the ditch that connects Little Assawoman Bay to the Big Assawoman Bay, per Mears.

He said the proposed usage is too intensive in an environmentally sensitive area. The parcel contains 4.9 acres of federal and state wetlands, and DNREC noted those wetlands would be significantly impacted. The area is also within the 100-year floodplain, Mears said.

The proposed development is a commercial enterprise in the middle of a residential area and not in character with surrounding uses, Mears continued, adding that he feels the application is not desirable for the general welfare of the area and would cause increased traffic and congestion on already congested roadways. It would not promote the health and general welfare of the public, but would increase emergency response times, he said.

Outdoor recreational space with music would cause an increase in noise, disrupting residents in the area, he argued.

The applicant had asked to be permitted to provide fewer parking spaces than required by County code — a move that, if allowed, would negatively affect the character of the neighborhood, Mears said, adding that the commission received 160 letters and e-mails, with some possibly being duplicates, from those opposed. A total of 26 opponents spoke at the public hearing.

Keller said local residents “want to be able to look out and see the sky or the water … and I wonder if they would have the same perspective if it were their land and they were trying to do something with it.”

“I don’t think it’s a healthy direction to move in,” Hopkins said.

Wheatley said he thought the fact that there wasn’t a hotel in the area “was a reason to have one.”

“It’s essentially an infill project, and what it gets infilled with is what we’re discussing. I understand there are differences of opinion. That certainly is not a bad thing,” he said.

Mears called the proposed project “a great idea in the wrong location.”

At the June 10 public hearing, many of the opponents cited traffic concerns.

Samantha Danaher — who, with friend Kirsten McGuigan-Kleinstuber, formed the Fenwick Protection Project — objected during the meeting, saying, “How disappointed our loyal tourists will be when they are driving east and that beautiful land is gone that welcomed them to the beach.”

Adding a hotel and restaurant goes against the character of “The Quiet Resorts,” she said.

The location is close to the Delaware-Maryland border. “It would sadden me to see Delaware become as populated as Ocean City is, with all the hotels and high-rises,” she said.

What she grew up with “is being stripped up from us faster than we can keep up with it,” she said. “Being able to run through marshlands as kids, run through all the woods that have been torn down. Now this piece of land is the last piece of picturesque land on Route 54,” she added, asking for the land to be preserved.

After the commission recommended denial, McGuigan-Kleinstuber told the Coastal Point she was pleased.

“Mr. Mears perfectly summed up all the issues with this conditional use in his motion to deny. I believe that the commission made the right decision and sincerely hope that the County Council will vote with this recommendation. I hope that they will consider all of the reasons Mr. Mears listed in his motion, and vote in a way that supports the people who live, work and vacation in the area,” McGuigan-Kleinstuber said.

Before the commission meeting, she had said she was concerned “about the impact on the community, the general quality of life. 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,” she said.

“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.

Also during the public hearing, one woman suggested Michelle Freeman, CEO of Carl M. Freeman Companies, should instead post a sign saying the company has decided to preserve the land.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Everybody knows how important that land is,” she said.

“That’s a terrific idea, probably the best idea I’ve heard,” said a man who called in to speak to commissioners.

“Route 54 connects Fenwick to the rest of Sussex County. It’s been clogged for years, like a dying man about ready to have a heart attack and every summer it has that heart attack. So why not shove some more cholesterol in there? It just doesn’t make sense,” one man said.

Mark Tingle said the proposed hotel and restaurant would be within walking or biking distance to the beach.

“The shoulders in no way can accommodate this kind of thing now, and if you add this many more people, that is going to be that much worse. I don’t come to these meetings because most of the county is zoned one way and all you ever talk about is taking — you’re taking somebody’s rights — but now you are taking a piece of property and, instead of building town houses on it, you are allowing them to build a hotel and a restaurant.

“This isn’t a conditional use. This is a permanent structure. This thing isn’t going away. It’s there. … Every time you guys take something like this you are taking from us. You are taking my life. It’s getting to the point where I can’t take it anymore. And I’m really getting to the point where I’m thinking about selling and moving,” he said.

Sharon Feeney called traffic “horrendous” and said she worried about how emergency crews would be able to get through bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks.

“It’s dangerous. It would be nice … if we could have a four-lane road there, because it’s only two lanes and it’s dangerous.”

Local, sixth-generation farmer Henry Bennett, who spoke to commission members by phone, said opponents didn’t want Bayside — a Freeman community as well — “and you didn’t listen.”

“This company has, and will continue to, pave over Delmarva if they are allowed,” he said.

Bennett said Route 54 cannot handle more traffic and was concerned about nutrient management. Farmers take courses on nutrient management and know turf is hazardous to the environment and pollutes water, he said.

“Nobody will catch a crab in the Fenwick Ditch for generations. Agriculture is well and thriving in this area. Leave it as the last piece of land in that area for future generations to enjoy,” he said.

“I don’t understand why you would even entertain this when there are so many people who oppose it. I would like to know why you wouldn’t represent your constituents. I don’t see anything positive about it,” one caller said.

But Joshua M. Mastrangelo, senior vice president at Freeman, in a statement sent to the Coastal Point, said the proposed hotel and restaurant will be “a beautiful addition to the existing commercialized area.”

“Carl M. Freeman Companies is recognized for our attention to both the environment and design aesthetics. That said, here are a few key characteristics of the project” including that the company has more than 120 acres of land but only plans to develop 30 to 40 acres.

“Always cognizant and respectful of the environment, we are clustering the development toward the road and preserving the most sensitive areas of the site. The total preserved wetlands on this site is more than 82 acres. The hotel will have 70 rooms. The proposed restaurant and hotel will be adjacent to existing commercially developed areas,” he stated.

“Our company is making significant investments in the infrastructure in the immediate area, specifically aligning the intersection and making it safer for pedestrians, cyclists and all vehicles. We are also installing a traffic signal,” he stated.

He and those who run Freeman understand, he said, “that sometimes growth and change can be tough for people to embrace, so we appreciate the opportunity to share information about this exciting project.”

“We have been standard-bearers of innovation and excellence in real estate development since 1947. Today we are guided by our CEO Michelle Freeman’s philosophy that the well-being of society is as important as the success of development itself. The impact our company has made on Southeast Sussex County fills us with pride.”

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.