The Lewes Planning Commission stepped outside of its normal protocol June 13 to ensure all public comment is received on the controversial Fisher's Cove major subdivision application.
Attorney Bill Rhodunda of Rhodunda Williams & Kondraschow was hired by 28 households of Rodney and Hornkill avenues to make their case against the plan. However, Rhodunda was not able to attend the meeting, and he informed the city of his conflict shortly after the public hearing was scheduled.
Commissioners debated the best course of action, including postponing the meeting until a later date. In the end, commissioners agreed to move forward with the public hearing June 13, then recess it and pick it back up July 23.
City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said the commission’s 90-day window to render a recommendation to mayor and city council will not begin until the hearing concludes in July.
The applicant, Burke & Rutecki LLC, is seeking preliminary consent approval for an 18-unit single family subdivision on 11.08 acres. The parcel is bordered by the University of Delaware on the north side, the Great Marsh on the west and Rodney Avenue homes on the south side. To the east along Pilottown Road is the Fisher House, considered one of the most historic properties in Lewes. The Fisher House was originally included in the Fisher's Cove plan; however, the developers removed it and will seek a lot line adjustment with a 20-foot easement from Pilottown Road to the Fisher's Cove community for pedestrian and emergency access.
In the plan, the developer has included a 15-foot vegetated buffer along the property lines with UD and Rodney Avenue homes. The plan includes 31.2 percent open space, 1.2 of which are wetlands. Along the marsh, the developer plans to use gabion walls instead of a bulkhead. The walls are cages filled with rocks, sand and soil that absorb water rather than block it, providing for better erosion control along wetlands.
The average lot size is 12,800 square feet, 29 percent greater than the minimum requirement under R-2, low-density residential. Vehicular access would be via Rodney Avenue, which is currently about 18 feet wide. The developer presented a 1947 handwritten deed, showing the city has a 50-foot right of way on Rodney Avenue.
“The idea that Rodney shouldn’t be a connection to this property is misguided,” said Tim Willard, attorney for the developer. “The deed really conveys it as a public street.”
He pointed to a section of city code that says stub streets are to be granted for future development of interior parcels. Rodney Avenue dead ends at the Fisher's Cove parcel with a chain connected to two wooden posts to restrict access.
He said the courts have already ruled on similar situations in Judge vs. City of Rehoboth. “The city may not effectively landlock a particular land owner by refusing access to a public street while allowing other landowners access to the public street,” Willard said.
Willard said the developers’ goal has always been to preserve the Fisher House, which dates back to the 18th century. Although it is considered historic, it is not in the city’s historic district and it was never registered with the National Register of Historic Places, and the developer is not required to preserve it.
However, the goal remains to preserve it, Willard said, and there are ready and willing buyers who are waiting on the lot reconfiguration before finalizing the sale.
Some opponents have suggested forcing the developer to access Fisher's Cove directly from Pilottown Road through the Fisher House property, but Willard said it would not leave enough road frontage for the Fisher House property to conform with code. “We think it would also destroy the nature of the property,” he said.
Opponents get their say
Rodney Avenue resident Rick Spitzborg urged the commission to consider the neighbors when making their recommendation to city council. He said he and his neighbors chose Rodney Avenue because they are modest homes in a rural setting.
“So much has changed [in Lewes] in the 40 years I’ve been on Rodney,” he said. “But one thing that has been retained is the character of the street. We still share that same sense of community when we congregate on the street. I like to think the City of Lewes would always support the core values that attracted us here in the first place.”
Rodney Avenue resident Janice Pinto echoed Spitzborg’s feelings about the neighborhood, calling her street quaint with neighbors who care about each other. “Good neighbors wouldn’t put their neighbors at risk of flood,” Pinto said.
Pinto and many area residents have been very vocal at recent meetings that the Fisher's Cove plan will further exacerbate increasing flooding in the area. Many neighbors have testified that the Fisher's Cove parcel is a place for flood water to go, but if the property developed it will be forced somewhere else, possibly into their backyards and homes.
Pinto urged the developer to reconsider and come up with a plan that works for all. “We want Fisher's Cove to be a model community, something for all of us to be proud of,” she said. “Developers who want to be good neighbors would ask where will all the water go?”
Application has support
Lewes resident and real estate agent Carol Pala said she’s had many people contact her about Fisher's Cove. She said people are interested in purchasing a home in a community that does not have a clubhouse, pool or other amenities common to other new communities in Sussex County.
Ralph Scott, next door neighbor to the Fisher House, urged the commission to at least move forward with the minor subdivision so the home can be sold. He said he’s met the family looking to purchase the property and believes they will preserve its historic integrity. “Let them be able to buy that property and rescue it,” he said. “I watch it deteriorate daily. It needs love and care.”
Willard also presented two letters in support of the project from Pilottown Road residents, although each is a half-mile east of the Fisher's Cove site. One letter is from Stephanie Boright of Coastal Cottage Renovations who plans to work with the buyers of the Fisher House to renovate the home.
“The developer could have made that a road to the new development and leveled the home to do so,” she said. “What a shame it would have been and such a loss to the community. Once gone, these historic treasures can never be replaced.”
The other letter is from Jason Burris, who wrote that he is a longtime resident of Lewes with many generations of family ties to the town.
“While I can understand the feelings of not wanting open space developed, it is really the right of the person or people who own the property to do with it what they want to,” he said. “As my mom, who was born and raised in Lewes says, every house in Lewes was at one point a field. One of the basic rights we have in this country are property rights, and we need to protect that at all costs.”
The commission will pick up the hearing Tuesday, July 23. To view plans, reports and public comment to date, go to lewescommissions.wordpress.com/reviews/dev_reviews/.