Fins Hospitality Group is eyeing the clubhouse of the former Rookery North golf course for a new restaurant/brewpub.
Fins owner Jeff Hamer revealed his intentions at a Feb. 21 meeting of the Milford Planning Commission. Developer Oak Forest Park LLC is seeking to rezone a 3.93-acre portion of the golf course property from R-2 residential to C-1 neighborhood commercial.
Tim and Matt Johnson of Oak Forest Park LLC purchased the former Shawnee Country Club property in December 2022.
Reading from a prepared statement, Tim Johnson said a restaurant/brewpub is essential to making their plan work.
“The future success of this property depends on the establishment of a new restaurant, which will be our anchor and create an attraction for the golf course,” he wrote. “We would hate to see the golf course fail once again and houses take its place.”
The planning commission voted unanimously with one recusal to recommend approval of the rezoning application. Milford City Council will consider the matter at its Monday, Feb. 27 meeting.
Fins Hospitality Group operates several restaurants in the Delaware resort area, including Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes, Fins Fish House and Raw Bar and Claws in downtown Rehoboth Beach, and Fins Ale House and Raw Bar on Route 1 north of Rehoboth Beach. The group also has restaurants in Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island.
Hamer said he’s been trying to open a brewpub in Milford for the last four years, but for many reasons, nothing has worked out. He’s confident his latest plan will be successful.
“This is the perfect opportunity to provide what I think will be a great amenity to the city,” he said.
He said he’s had friends say they can’t find a venue in Milford to host a wedding or a party. He said the Rookery’s former clubhouse is big enough to allow for those things.
He’s seeking a rezoning to ensure the restaurant/brewpub can survive if the golf course is unsuccessful. A restaurant/brewpub is not a permitted use within the existing R-2 zoning. The developers could seek a conditional use, which would allow a restaurant as long as the golf course is operational. Hamer said he wants assurance he can continue to operate well into the future.
“It’s going to take a substantial amount of money to fix this building,” he said, noting he estimates it will take about $2 million. “Brewpubs aren’t cheap. I’m basically starting from scratch.”
Although no one spoke in opposition to the application at the meeting, Hamer said he wants the community to know he’s proven to be a good neighbor at his other restaurants. He specifically mentioned Big Oyster Brewery, which was built next to a Baptist church on Kings Highway in Lewes.
He said the church was adamantly against his restaurant and fought approval of a liquor license. Once it was approved, he sat down with the pastor and asked what he could do to relieve any concerns. He said he built a 6-foot fence, limited hours on Sundays to open after the church services concluded and promised he wouldn’t be open too late the rest of the week. Two years later, the church sold him 7/10ths of an acre, including the church’s rec center and pastor’s home. The church is using the funds to build a new church on the other end of its property.
“I have a good working relationship in all my restaurants,” Hamer said.
He said Fins employs 250 to 275 people year-round, with about 500 in the summer. The developers estimate the Milford restaurant/brewpub will employ 75 to 100 people. The golf course will have 15 to 25 employees.
Tim Johnson said work is already underway to clean up the existing landscaping at the golf course.
“We plan to have the first nine holes, driving range and pro shop open by Sept. 1, 2023, to coincide with the opening of the restaurant,” Tim wrote.
The final nine holes should be open by June 1, 2024, he said.
“Since the existing course layout will remain the same, all of our concentration will be on landscaping and refurbishing the greens, fairways, bunkers and irrigation systems,” he wrote.
The former pool house will be remodeled into the new pro shop, which will provide services to both golf and pickleball activities.
City staff analysis
To rezone the 3.93-acre portion, the property would have to be subdivided. Staff would review the minor subdivision administratively. In a report to city council, staff said the rezoning request is consistent with Milford’s future land-use map in its 2018 comprehensive plan. The property is designated as low-density residential, in which C-1, neighborhood commercial, is a suitable zoning designation.
The purpose of the C-1 district is provide for limited commercial and professional services that are compatible to a neighborhood setting. Restaurants, excluding fast-food service or franchised restaurants, are permitted in the C-1 district.
Additionally, staff noted there is adequate off-street parking. Although zoning code does not provide a specific parking calculation for a golf course, the existing property has 81 spaces.
No members of the public spoke in opposition to the application during the public hearing portion of the meeting. Gerard Esposito read a letter from the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee in support of the application. The group said this project is exactly the type of project the county needs and that it will become a destination.
Esposito, a former member of Shawnee and current member of The Rookery, also read a personal letter in favor of the rezoning. He was joined in support by resident Bruce Herman, who said the developers and Hamer each have a track record of success.