Strategy for Lewes

July 23, 2014

This article is about the effect of local population growth on the future of Lewes and on an evolving strategy to insure the city's long term survival.

We should understand four key definitions at the outset.

Landowner's rights: We have the right to use our land as we wish so long as this use is not illegal and does not adversely affect our neighbors' quality of life or that of the general public.

Zoning: Municipal zoning ordinances establish broad limitations on the use of land. The purchase of land does not confer to the landowner the right to change its zoning classification. One objective of zoning is to afford landowners long term protection against inappropriate or unwelcome land use by others, give guidance on permissible land uses to landowners and to prospective landowners. The process of changing an existing zoning classification should be invoked infrequently, require full public participation and careful deliberation by all involved.

Annexation: Annexation is not a right of land ownership but a privilege that a municipality can either grant or withhold. The terms of an annexation agreement must benefit all parties to it.

Eminent domain: The power of government to take private property for the benefit of the public with just compensation to the original owner.


Along the Sussex County coast and especially around Lewes, lack of coordinated planning at all levels has resulted in overdevelopment, overcrowding, traffic congestion, and dirty, smelly air during times of atmospheric temperature inversions.

The population of Lewes has averaged less than 3,000 full-time residents over a span of 85 years. That number has proven to be sustainable for this city of 4.2 square miles. However, in a few years it is estimated that there will be over 10,000 additional people just outside the city limits within two miles of the center of town, and many of these will want to drive on our City streets and park in our limited spaces. Nobody knows if this number will be sustainable or what change it will bring to our way of life.

We have become inundated by housing developments with no municipal structure or commercial center nearby to sustain their populations. With the exception of the Village of Five Points, no recently completed or planned housing development near Lewes provides suitably located commercial areas with small neighborhood shops. Lewes Beach, in stark contrast, has for many years been well served by a number of small shops—a general store, several small restaurants, bicycle sales and service, and others—they are all thriving.

Since Lewes is not able to accommodate a larger population and cannot therefore become everyone’s “down-town”, residents of outlying bedroom communities will be making frequent trips to stores some distance away—adding to traffic. Since these trips involve driving a car, they add to sprawl which, simply defined, is the number of miles driven per capita over a given span of time. Providing the opportunity to walk or bike or even drive a shorter distance to local stores leads to fewer automobile miles driven and therefore to reduced sprawl.

The most conspicuous growth near Lewes is concentrated south-east of the City along Gills Neck Road. Its impact is revealed by the traffic congestion it produces at the Kings Highway-Route 1 intersection, the Kings Highway-Gills neck Road intersection, and in the increasing Lewes traffic and increasingly limited ability to find a parking place in the City. DelDOT estimates that traffic on Route 1 will double in 20 years. The subdivisions of Governors and Showfield, if completed as planned, will add 638 additional houses to the Gills Neck Road bottleneck.

For Lewes, carrying capacity has a lot to do with retaining the character of the city, keeping it small and supportive of its core values. As to the surging population around us, we should do our best to stop its continuing growth any way we can. And Lewes would be well advised to adopt measures to reduce its traffic, not try to accommodate it.

After studying data gathered by Future Scan, Bruce Gallaway, a land use planner, spoke at the greater Lewes Foundation’s annual board meeting in April 2009. He reported in essence that unless action is taken to reduce traffic, conserve drinking water, and control development around Lewes, city residents should be prepared for a diminished quality of life. He predicted that by 2015 Savannah Road, New Road, and Kings Highway would be at 100 percent capacity at times of peak traffic. Unfortunately they already are!


People are attracted to Lewes not only because it is an interesting, somewhat exclusive small historic beach town, but also because it is situated in a beautiful uncluttered setting. If development were to transform this area into a sea of houses, Lewes would likely suffer rapid decline and eventually become just another bedroom community.

A small town is protected from becoming a metropolis by the open space around it.

In the case of Lewes, that open space includes Delaware Bay, wetlands, and the vanishing vacant land on the south-east and the west of the city. All this land should be preserved in its natural state.

In addition to its timeless beauty, the wetlands play a vital role in moderating the severity of flooding under adverse weather conditions. But wetlands under extreme rain events, or particularly strong winds, will overflow and flood the adjacent land.

In the violent storm of 1962, the marshland overflowed and left much of Lewes under water. Now 52 years later the mean sea level has increased by more than one foot and by 2050 it will increase by at least another foot. In addition, storms like the one in 1962 are expected to be more frequent and more severe. According to a recent estimate by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global sea levels will increase by 1.7 to 3.2 feet by 2100. Other predictions of sea level rise along the mid-Atlantic coast are as high as 4.9 feet by 2100.

No one in Delaware is unaware of these facts. So why would any thinking person want to build houses in a flood plain next to a swamp?

Clearly the City of Lewes should not continue to classify the land north of New Road as "Pursuing Preservation measures but zoned Residential" as it has in its Comprehensive Plan. Warnings of sea level rise should have alerted us long ago that we should be moving our population away from vulnerable areas, taking decisive action to discourage the development of lowlands, and ending the misrepresentation of the flood plain as an acceptable place to build houses.

The proposed 108-acre Harbor Point/Point Farm development near the University of Delaware is a case in point. The land borders on the Great Marsh in the Canary Creek watershed, a FEMA designated Flood Zone. Homeowners on either side—the Canary creek development on one side and residents off Pilottown Road on the other—are already vulnerable to flooding from the marsh and have good reason to fear greater danger if Point Farm land is made impermeable by streets and houses. This proposal should not even have come before the Planning Commission.

The open land off Gills Neck Road and New Road are all that separates Lewes from the advancing wave of architectural sameness that threatens the Lewes skyline on two sides. To understand the need for open space along the borders of Lewes, one only need drive on Kings Highway, day or night, and look in an easterly direction toward Cadbury, Senators, Baybreeze, Breakwater, and beyond.

Sussex County's recognition of the importance of open space is reflected in its Comprehensive Plan where it states that

“The unbuilt environment in Sussex County is a major part of the County’s unique character, scenic appeal, and quality of life. The County will continue to focus on preserving more land … [and] will continue to work with the State and local parties to promote parks … and more usable open space in new developments.”

And in a similar vein, the Lewes Comprehensive Plan assigns its highest priority to

“… permanently protect existing and future open-space ... . ”

Unfortunately, if developments adjacent to Lewes are completed as planned, they will occupy all the surrounding land. There will be no contiguous open space within miles of either Lewes or the nearby housing developments that would be large enough for recreation, family picnics, nature walks, or wildlife habitat.

As of this writing, only the 231 acre Hazel Smith Farm property—the proposed site of the Showfield development—and 635 acres (including the 108 acre Point Farm) off New Road remain undisturbed open space.

Both of these locations have been identified by the City and County as Environmentally Sensitive Development Areas. Much of the Smith Farm qualifies as an Excellent Groundwater Recharge Area. Only 8 percent of Sussex County so qualifies and most of what exists around Lewes has been developed with little thought of protecting its recharge function. In Sussex County, drinking water is obtained exclusively from groundwater sources by means of either private or municipal wells.

In a series of meetings organized in 2008 by the Greater Lewes Foundation, local residents were asked a series of questions. Asked what they thought are the most important assets of Lewes to preserve, 75 percent responded "Natural Features". Asked what they thought were the best reasons for Lewes to annex adjoining land, 85 percent answered "to control the development of nearby property". To the question of which group is the most important to communicate with regarding the future of Lewes, 78 percent answered "County Officials."

Both Gills Neck Road and New Road are under the jurisdiction of Sussex County, and being adjacent to Lewes they are also within what the County has called an Intergovernmental Coordination Zone. Quoting from the Sussex County Plan (01/2003):

"The County and State recognize that planning and zoning decisions around the municipalities will have impact on the economy and the quality of life within the municipalities.

"To further intergovernmental coordination within Sussex County, areas surrounding the County's municipalities have been defined for the purpose of establishing an Intergovernmental Coordination Zone of mutual planning and development concern. This boundary will be utilized for intergovernmental coordination of future planning, zoning, subdivision and related land development decisions, including Municipal annexation."

Through this provision, the County has indicated its willingness to accept compromise when dealing with land use issues around Lewes. The City should avail itself of this opportunity and make very clear to the County that there are compelling reasons to prevent development in the Gills Neck and New Road areas, that these reasons include the sensitive nature of the land, the traffic problems that now exist and that will get worse if the land is developed, and the overwhelming desire of local residents to preserve these last vestiges of open space around Lewes.

Preserving selected parcels of open land is the key to the City's prosperity. Finding the best way to accomplish this should be pursued, including through donations of land, conservation easements, zoning change, NOT changing zoning, negotiated deed restrictions and, as the Canal Park land was acquired, through purchase—possibly in future transactions invoking government's power of eminent domain if need be.


The Lewes Comprehensive Plan states that “New parks, large and small, should be created whenever possible.”

The Smith Farm is an ideal candidate. It dominates the landscape southeast of Lewes and is accessible by foot or bike to people from an eventual 2970 housing units located in Lewes and in seven housing developments along Gills Neck Road.

Its location is one of the most scenic around Lewes. The land includes Whites Pond covering about 12 acres, wooded areas, a large quite impressive barn and smaller buildings centrally located and situated on slightly elevated and partially wooded land. The view from these buildings takes in the pond, woods, and Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and is quite spectacular. The building cluster would be an ideal site for small shops or other commercial ventures. The north-east end of Whites Pond would be a perfect location for a civic center with a possible roof-top restaurant and an unobtrusive parking location nearby along and below the berm formed by Freeman Highway. That the Smith Farm site is quite special has been recognized for years by local residents and was so recognized by the state in its decision to designate Gills Neck Road a Lewes Scenic and Historical Byway.

The Smith Farm flourished for many years, offering reassurance to people in and around Lewes that the area would not be overrun with wall-to-wall houses—at least not on the Smith Farm property. It was an article of faith for many of us that this land would eventually become part of Lewes and that the City would protect it. We were perhaps overconfident but this could yet happen.

The City's decision regarding the Showfield proposal and annexation of the Smith Farm property has been delayed or nullified. But, unfortunately, the County Planning and Zoning Commission has scheduled a public hearing for 24 July to consider an application for the Showfield Subdivision involving 166 lots on 132 acres.

There is, however, still time to influence the purpose to be served by the Smith Farm—private profit or the public good.

With its focus on the need for a community art and culture center, a meeting was held in May, organized by the Rehoboth Film Society. When the subject of land cost came up, Preston Schell of Schell Brothers said, as reported in the Cape Gazette (6/6/14),

"I don't think it would be a problem."

Commenting further, he expressed his belief that developers would respond favorably to a formal request for land.

Why not make the request? After all, most of the developments along Gills Neck Road, a total of 950 acres, involve the same small group of investors and a single realtor. The area of Showfield is less than 25 percent of that total.

In lieu of donation or other negotiated arrangement, the City of Lewes and Sussex County should exercise their full authority to insure that the Smith Farm land is put to its best use as a public park.

As a last resort, the City could preserve a major part of the Smith Farm property through an agreement with Showfield, LLC under which the City would annex Showfield redesigned to a cluster plan that would result in a minimum 150 acres of undeveloped land for use as a future public park. The revised Showfield housing on the remaining 80 acres, not located on the Excellent Recharge Area, could result in up to 280 detached single family houses on quarter acre lots together with the necessary roads and sidewalks but without the need to provide additional open space. The open land would be that portion of the Smith Farm bounded on the north-west by Freeman Highway, the north-east and south-east by Gills Neck Road, and the south-west by the abandoned Pen Central Rail Road right-of-way.

The number of houses allowed by the County's AR-1 zoning if the entire 230 acres of the Smith Farm were to be developed, including the portion of land in Lewes, would be 300 after allowing for Whites Pond, 100-foot buffer around the pond, roads and sidewalks, and 20 percent open space. This is without considering further limits to housing density posed by the County Source Water Protection Ordinance that applies to the Excellent Recharge Area on the lower portion of the Smith Farm land.

Unfortunately, housing designed to cluster standards would not reduce traffic problems, a fact that in itself should limit the number of housing units allowed on the Smith Farm land.


Historical events connecting Lewes, the State of Delaware, and the Constitution of the United States have given us national prominence. We are the conservators of that history, along with the records and artifacts of subsequent years. To honor our past is to respect and preserve the ties that bind Lewes to its heritage—its rural unspoiled landscapes, its buildings and streets, and its small size—the location of its outer boundaries. We should strive to preserve all these things.

Noted land-use planner, Randall Arendt, wrote following his appearance in Lewes' Growth Management Symposium in 2007:

"All new [housing] developments should respect the … City's historic character and treat it as the national treasure it is. In this regard, it is relevant to recall the primary finding of the workshop conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that the economic base of Lewes depends squarely upon the continued protection of its historic character."

The importance of maintaining our historical image is reflected in the City's Comprehensive Plan as one of six core values.

These core values, supported by the City of Lewes, differentiate the City from other communities. Our core values represent the soul of Lewes and are reflected in its vibrant town center, active citizen involvement in government, concerts in the park, facilities for boating excursions and Little League baseball located in the center of the City, varied building architectures and carefully tended gardens, museums, small shops and restaurants, the yearly series of classical performances by world class musicians, and within walking distance of the center of town, our 5-mile long beach bordering protected waters of the Delaware Bay and the opportunity it affords for safe swimming and sailing.

Annexation offers no benefits if the physical and social structures and shared values of the communities to be joined are incompatible. By this test, annexation of large housing developments by the City of Lewes would be unacceptable.

In their final report (10/4/07) the Community Facilities Subcommittee, studying the implications of the proposed Showfield development, observed that while Showfield residents will come to Lewes to shop and sightsee,

"The business community sees this as a mixed blessing, in that the boost in commerce is welcomed, but they are worried that the relaxed atmosphere of the City will be lost because of the high volume of shoppers. Parking is a critical issue, and if parking is too difficult, this could be a deterrent to visitors.

With the explosion in the areas population, it is reasonable to expect that, if nothing is done to prevent it, there will be a further corresponding increase in the number of Lewes visitors and that this inflow could ultimately lead to the expansion of our commercial district and with it the destruction of historic houses. Parking lots or a parking garage would displace or depreciate more houses, and streets and intersections would require "improvements" to accommodate the increasing traffic. These events, if they were to occur, would result in the destruction of historic small town Lewes, and disrupt the lives of longtime residents who would decide to sell their homes, probably at a loss, and leave town.

Clearly some means of limiting traffic in Lewes will ultimately be necessary. One approach is "Congestion Pricing", a charge to drive in the City. A more familiar approach is to require a permit or charge a fee to park. The challenge is that the traffic control policy be effective without imposing undue burdens of inconvenience or expense on residents of Lewes.

To meet this challenge, the imposed restrictions must apply primarily to visitors from outlying communities, not Old Town Lewes residents. Making this distinction would be very difficult if these communities became part of Lewes through annexation.

In a democracy the ballot box gives us power over our government. Old Town Lewes voters now cast 100 percent of the votes in local elections. Annexation would give the new Lewes residents equal voice with the residents of Old Town Lewes, effectively reducing our influence in local elections.

If Lewes, with 1600 housing units, were to annex a community of 166 units, only 90.6 percent of the total votes cast would come from Old Town Lewes voters, the remaining 9.4 percent coming from voters in the annexed community. This would be enough to swing a close election, a serious problem if the annexed population leans less toward small town charm and more toward an enlarged commercial district, or if parking restrictions in Lewes became a contentious issue.

Lewes taxes are also adversely affected by annexation. Lewes City services such as trash pickup, street maintenance, and police are paid for largely, but not entirely, by real-estate taxes paid by City residents. In addition to these taxes, the City also receives income from BPW rent, gross receipts rental tax, Intergovernmental grants, and other sources not available to bedroom communities. In addition, the city receives revenue from visitors drawn to Lewes by our recreational and intellectual attractions, our shops and businesses. These visitors stuff our parking meters, patronize tourist housing, and rent dock space, adding to the income received from local residents. This additional revenue is significantly greater than the city's cost of producing it, and so the excess is used to cover part of the cost of services provided to City residents. That is, Lewes residents receive more services than they pay for.

The bedroom communities springing up near Lewes have little if any income other than that from resident fees. They have no center of town, no shops, and no tourist attractions other than those in the surrounding area. Residents pay the full cost of services.

If Lewes were to annex one of these communities, the real estate tax of Old Town Lewes residents would increase and the annexed community's fees/taxes would decrease. As an example, annexation of 166 single family houses, would add an estimated 5.6 to 8.4 percent to the pre-annexation real-estate taxes of Lewes residents.


Lewes is for Lewes residents. If Lewes is to retain the qualities attributed to it by its most fervent supporters, its carrying capacity has reached its limit.

We should be moving our population away from flood prone areas, taking decisive action to discourage the development of vulnerable lowlands, and ending the misrepresentation of the flood plain as an acceptable place to build houses. Lewes should not continue to classify the land north of New Road as "Pursuing Preservation measures but zoned Residential" as it has in its Comprehensive Plan. This land should be preserved and residential use not allowed.

The open land off Gills Neck Road and New Road are all that separates Lewes from the advancing wave of architectural sameness that threatens the Lewes skyline on two sides. Sussex County and the City of Lewes recognize the importance of open space as reflected in their respective Comprehensive Plans.

All of the remaining open land bordering Lewes should be preserved in its natural state.

Sussex County has created what it calls Intergovernmental Coordination Zones around municipalities in which County land use decisions can be coordinated with the municipalities. The City should avail itself of this opportunity and make very clear to the County that there are compelling reasons to prevent development in the Gills Neck and New Road areas.

Government has the authority to acquire land or restrict its use through several means: accepting donations of land, conservation easements, zoning, and through purchase—involving use of its power of eminent domain if need be.

The Lewes Comprehensive Plan states that new parks should be created whenever possible and the Smith Farm is an ideal candidate. Negotiations should proceed between the City, County, and Smith Farm owners to acquire the land for use as a public park. In this endeavor, the City and County should exercise their full authority.

As a compromise, the City could preserve 150 acres of the Smith Farm property through an agreement with the owners under which the City would annex Showfield redesigned to a cluster plan involving not more than 280 houses on 80 acres.

Annexation of large housing developments offers no advantages to Lewes or its residents. The physical structures and shared values of housing developments are incompatible with those of Lewes and annexation would reduce our influence in local elections and increase the real estate tax of Old Town Lewes residents.

Annexation should be limited to permanently protected open space.

Lewes should adopt a traffic limiting policy, not try to accommodate increasing traffic.

Limiting traffic in Lewes will involve either a charge to drive in the City or a permit or fee to park. To be effective, such a policy must apply primarily to visitors without imposing inconvenience or expense on residents of Old Town Lewes. This would be a difficult achievement if these visitors became residents of Lewes through annexation.

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