Nearly 250 people gathered on a brisk fall day Nov. 13 to send a message to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control officials that a proposed restaurant in Cape Henlopen State Park would forever change the park.
With chants of “Save our park, keep it dark” and “What the heck, DNREC,” protesters gathered along Cape Henlopen Drive and marched to an area near the entrance of the park to show their opposition to the restaurant. The march was led by members of the Save Our Park Coalition, a grassroots group spearheading an effort to stop the proposal.
Addressing the large group, Lewes wildlife photographer and advocate Kevin Lynam said the natural and untouched beauty is what makes the park so special. “This restaurant will change the landscape of the park forever. We have to make a lot of noise and need to make it right now,” he said.
He urged people to contact Gov. John Carney, DNREC and Division of State Parks officials, and legislators every day if necessary until the park is preserved. “Together we can protect this park,” he added.
In the spring, La Vida Hospitality was awarded a one-year contract to operate the concession area at the Sen. David McBride Bathhouse. That included food service and beach rentals.
The agreement includes an option to negotiate a 24-year amendment to construct a restaurant at the northern end of the bathhouse parking lot, projected to be 6,300 square feet. The current bathhouse, which would remain on the south side of the parking lot, is 6,700 square feet.
Warner Grant unique to area
The Warner Grant Trust, a grant made by William Penn 340 years ago, could ultimately determine the outcome of the proposed restaurant in Cape Henlopen State Park.
In 1682, more than a century before there was a state of Delaware, Penn was deeded the lands of Cape Henlopen and the coastline by England's Duke of York.
Subsequently, Penn granted a petition from Edmond Warner to establish a rabbit warren and build a house on the lands with the stipulation that the Cape and all its lands were to be for common usage by the people of Lewes and Sussex County, giving all of the lands to the public for recreation, conservation and/or nature education uses.
Opponents of the proposed restaurant say a for-profit commercial business in the park is a violation of the grant and state law passed in the late 1970s to clarify the grant's intentions.
The park along the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean has a unique history which includes a military presence for nearly 100 years. It's been selected as one of the best state parks in the nation.
Since its formation, park officials have followed stipulations in the Warner Grant and subsequent legal rulings by providing numerous recreation, educational and conservation opportunities.
But the proposal to construct a restaurant in the park has riled people who say the proposal will change the park by degrading its natural surroundings in violation of the intent of the Warner Grant.
Drawing a line in the sand, the Preserve Our Park Coalition intends to use every avenue available to halt construction of the restaurant. Coalition member Elaine Simmerman said state officials would be breaking state law to construct a restaurant in the park.
During a public comment period at a Nov. 3 Parks and Recreation Council meeting, DNREC officials heard numerous residents voice opposition to the plan. DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin is expected to make a final decision on the proposal by Jan. 1, 2023.
A stand against restaurant
Attorney Richard Abbott, retained by the coalition, researched the Warner Grant and submitted his opinion on behalf of the coalition to DNREC's Parks and Recreation Council.
He wrote, “The restaurant proposal is barred based upon the restrictions imposed upon the land in question by the Legislature in 1979.”
He reiterated that state law states the lands must be administered for the public benefit as areas of recreation, conservation and/or nature education and may not be used for private benefit to the detriment of such public benefit.
“The restaurant proposal would cause the conversion of the trust lands available for recreation, conservation or nature education to a private restaurant use that would prevent the three available public uses,” he wrote.
Simmerman said Delaware State Parks officials have done a good job providing numerous recreation opportunities and various educational opportunities through Fort Miles, Seaside Nature Center and its programming, including the Hawk Watch. And, she said, park staff have been on a campaign to remove invasive species, and plant native plants and trees in the park.
“But the restaurant is not part of their mission. It would disrupt nature all around it, impact the dunes and the nearby Hawk Watch. It works against the Warner Grant on every level,” she said. “The park is deeply personal to a lot of people who appreciate our local history.”
Coalition member Christine Besche said the public has been cut out of the decision. “There is no system of checks and balances. We don't have a voice,” she said. “We look at it as David vs. Goliath.”
“I think DNREC has heard the legal argument against this loud and clear,” Simmerman said.
She said the group plans legal action to stop the restaurant and has established a Go Fund Me page to help with costs.
Plan unveiled on June 13
During a June 13 workshop, DNREC officials unveiled the restaurant plans along with a series of other possible improvements totaling $79.9 million covering nearly every venue the park has to offer. Last year, Cape Henlopen became the most visited park in Delaware with 1.7 million visitors, up from 1.3 million five years ago. Camping nights have increased nearly 90% over the past decade.
See more about the Warner Grant in the Friday, Nov. 18 edition.