Nearly two decades ago, Rehoboth Beach businessman Tony Crivella went into partnership with Dick Catts, owner of a successful beach umbrella and chair rental business. Together, the two bought several properties throughout Sussex County.
Today, Dick Catts no longer runs Catts Beach Service and is no longer actively involved in the business, said his wife, Connie. The day-to-day operations of his business have been left to Dick's sons, Richard and Rusty, she said.
Dick Catts name, however, remains on eight property deeds shared with Crivella – and Crivella wants out.
“Right now I'd like to get out of all of them,” Crivella said.
The property he is most concerned about is an unassuming two-story warehouse on Hebron Road. No one took much notice of the West Rehoboth building until a few months ago when Richard Catts put up a sign announcing Delaware Firearms at a facility shared by Catts beach rental storage on one side and a group of local photographers on the other.
“I had understood Rick would operate the business discreetly, but then he put up the sign,” Crivella said.
Since then, the prospect of a gun shop has drawn protest from the West Rehoboth community, which is working to revitalize homes and eliminate drug traffic. In September, a group presented a petition to Sussex County Council signed by about 200 people opposed to the gun shop. Their petition, however, went nowhere because the gun shop is a permitted use.
Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Lawrence Lank said the building has been zoned commercial – specifically C1 – since 1971.
“A gun shop falls under sporting goods sales. It's a permitted use,” Lank said.
In January, Crivella said, he signed off on the gun shop with the ATF agent after pressure from the Catts family. Crivella said his approval as part owner of the building was needed for Richard Catts to proceed with his gun license application.
Crivella said the ATF is not concerned about building security; it monitors only that gun-buyer background checks are conducted and a log is kept on who purchases weapons. Security is left to the discretion of the business owner.
Ken Ryan, a public information officer for the ATF, said as a rule, federal gun laws are not as restrictive as state and local laws.
The ATF offers security and safety guidelines for gun shop owners, but as long as the business is compliant with state and local laws, Ryan said, the gun shop is permitted to operate.
“The ATF works hand in hand with the licensee to make sure they are compliant,” he said.
Security of the simple frame building – or lack of it to be precise – concerns Crivella the most, he said.
“What if someone steals the guns, and then someone else comes back and tries to sue me?” Crivella said.
He said he also worries about his liability in the event someone broke into his side of the building to gain access to the gun shop. Right now the two storefronts share a bathroom and are divided by drywall, he said.
Even if no one breaks into his side of the building to gain entry to the gun shop, Crivella said, if someone breaks into the gun shop side, there is a chance burglars could easily damage his side of the building. Property belonging to his tenants could be stolen or damaged as well, he said.
Crivella said he believes his current tenants want to move to another location.
“I think they're saying we just want to get away,” he said.
Not worth the risk
Crivella said he and Dick Catts bought the property in 1998. They built the current building in 2006, and Crivella used to store his beach-cleaning equipment on his side. Shortly after moving into the building, Crivella said, vandals damaged several warehouses built along Hebron Road. He said he believes someone was making a point that the businesses were not welcome.
“There were drug dealers across the street. It was sort of scary,” he said. “It's not as bad now, but there are two problem properties.”
Crivella works daily down the street from the warehouse. He moved his equipment to another facility in 2010.
“I chose not to be there at night and didn't want to run day-to-day operations there,” he said.
With possible crime problems, Crivella said, co-owning a property in West Rehoboth that houses a gun shop is not worth the risk.
He said he spoke with Dick Catts in December about dissolving the partnership; that was the last time they communicated.
“He looked at me like he wanted to kill me and said you're interfering with my son,” Crivella said. “We should've had a buy-out agreement for the properties, but nothing's spelled out.”
An email exchange with Richard Catts throughout December shows the declining relationship. In one email dated Dec. 20, Richard wrote Crivella “maliciously interfered with economic expectancy” by asking an ATF agent questions about the gun shop. Richard could not be reached for comment.
Richard then threatened to close down Crivella's side of the building, now leased by a group of photographers, because it is not up to business or retail code.
“I will get the county to shut down the photo studio since that is what the law says. It might not be the most popular thing to do, but it is the right and legal thing,” Richard wrote in the email.
Similar to the gun shop, a photo studio is an approved use under the commercial zoning, said Sussex County's Lank.
“They are all permitted uses,” he said.
In August, Crivella said, he met with the Catts family about dissolving his property partnerships with Dick Catts. Nothing came of the meeting, he said, so in mid-September his lawyer offered a plan to outright buy some properties and sign over ownership of other properties to the family.
Rusty Catts would not comment on the property situation.
“I'm not going to share any information with the newspaper,” he said. “Let's drop the gun shop and move on. Find something that is positive.”