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Lots of ways to look at beach-cottage charm

February 14, 2020

I appreciate that the “Rehoboth, take closer look at demolitions” Feb. 10 editorial is encouraging our commissioners and residents to think about the influence Rehoboth’s building regulations have on property owners’ decisions.

I hope the closer look includes a comprehensive review of the current regulations, which are extensive and complex, and produce unintended as well as intended consequences. Most of all, I hope the review includes an open and thoughtful discussion of what we want our city to be and what we mean by terms like “beach-cottage charm.”

I spent 62 glorious summers in an old Rehoboth cottage that was one of the original camp-meeting houses, moved in the early 1900s from Baltimore Avenue to the first block of Wilmington Avenue. During most of my life the street had a variety of homes that the same families, whether owners or renters, occupied every summer for decades. We called all of these homes “beach cottages,” but they were very different - many were large and tall such as where Green Man is located now, others were wood-framed, three-story beach houses that contained multiple apartments, and there were small cottages “no bigger than a postage stamp.”

Porches abounded, balconies and decks were layered on houses, foundations were often high, and front steps frequently reached the sidewalk. People talked across the porches, kids inhabited each other’s houses as if they were their own, and bare feet, wet suits, and sandy floors were of no concern. Together the houses and lifestyle created an atmosphere that fostered friendships between generations of families as they played, relaxed, and grew to know each other’s real stories. This is what I remember as Rehoboth’s beach-cottage charm.

I recognize that everyone has their own view of what constitutes beach-cottage charm worth saving. Every old cottage (or even mid-century modern ranch!) isn’t charming. Many are in poor shape or were only constructed for summer use. Many have no historic or architectural features that make the expense of renovation worth it. Others cannot be reasonably changed to meet the needs or desires of the family who will live there. And, after all, none of us want to be told we cannot use the property we buy or inherit in the way we think is best for ourselves and our family, especially when the property itself is so valuable.

As we consider the reasons for demolitions and what the city could do to help the property owners who want to restore older homes, we should also consider how current regulations may be discouraging people who would like to live year-round in Rehoboth from building a home. The regulations meant to thwart overbuilding and high-capacity rental properties may also be keeping families from building a home meant for a lifetime of living.

Stephanie Smith
Rehoboth Beach

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