The fate of West Rehoboth hangs in the balance

August 4, 2011
This is the lot along Dunbar Street causing controversy in West Rehoboth. BY RON MACARTHUR

Sussex County officials have a tough decision facing them concerning a conditional-use application filed by the West Rehoboth Community Land Trust to build a duplex. The land trust’s mission is to preserve the community by providing affordable housing to residents who already live there.

Most people support that mission, but some are vocal in their opposition to the land trust’s plan to build a duplex on Dunbar Street.

Since the price of the land and construction could cost upwards of $350,000, the land trust board has decided that providing two units is the only way to keep the cost of rent or sale in an affordable range. In either case, the land trust would retain ownership of the land.

By doing that residents in land-trust projects sign a lease and pay a small amount for the land, which helps to dramatically reduce the overall price or rent of the house.

Opponents of the plan have some strong points.

1. A duplex would break with a tradition of single-family homes and manufactured homes in the community.

2. It sets a precedent by opening the door to more multifamily housing.

But as well intentioned as some critics of the plan are, no one but the land trust is making an effort to purchase land and provide affordable housing to residents in the community.  The land trust tried once before and received a conditional use for multifamily housing on Burton Avenue, but could not come up with enough money to get the project off the ground. This time, board members say, they have money in hand and can leverage more if the application is approved.

Without the land trust’s efforts to help rehabilitate homes and eventually provide affordable new homes, there is no doubt the current predominately African-American community of West Rehoboth would cease to exist.

It happens all over the place. It happened in Lewes as most of the African American community was squeezed out over a period of decades as demand for land in Lewes grew.

Keep in mind that a big portion of the property in West Rehoboth is not owned by those who live there. It’s owned by those who are speculating that it will worth more than their investment in the near future. Vacant lots are way out of the price range of current residents. To the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of any current landowners who have plans to donate property to the land trust to better the community. I’m not aware of any plans from those who say they support the community to build affordable housing on their lots.

Slum landlords still own property in the community and take advantage of their renters. Several manufactured homes are in such deplorable condition one has to wonder what is keeping them from collapsing.

But it’s becoming a community of stark contrasts as well. For example, on Norwood Street is a new home that would fit in with any development in the Cape Region; across the street is a dilapidated manufactured home that should probably be condemned.

The decline of the community has been taking place for years. County officials have approved several applications turning most of Hebron Road into a commercial area. Large developments of condos, townhomes and single-family homes surround West Rehoboth. Most of the lots in the community are vacant.

There is already a trend developing as newcomers purchase West Rehoboth property and build homes for themselves as a cheaper alternative to Rehoboth Beach property. No one would have dreamed that outsiders would consider owning a summer home in West Rehoboth, but it’s happening.

The only thing standing in the way of this trend is the land trust, but large sums of money are needed to buy land in the community. It’s taken the land trust several years just to get this project off the ground, and time is not on the organization’s side.

Sussex County Council’s decision could be one of the most significant actions in recent years to determine the fate of families who live in West Rehoboth.



  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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