Lewes residents packed into a Kent County nature center Nov. 3 to urge state park officials to deny a proposed restaurant in Cape Henlopen State Park.
“We do not want to see the serenity degraded,” said John Long, member of a Sussex County bird club, who echoed much of the concerns shared by about 50 attendees at the Killens Pond Nature Center in Felton.
Last spring, La Vida Hospitality group was awarded a one-year contract to operate the concession area at Cape Henlopen State Park. The agreement includes an option to negotiate a 24-year amendment to construct a 6,300-square-foot restaurant at the northern end of the bathhouse parking lot. The current bathhouse is 6,700 square feet.
Improvements to the bathhouse would be included in the project.
Josh Grapski, a managing partner with La Vida Hospitality, said building design is underway. Plans include a restaurant with rooftop seating for 360-degree views, a summer deck area and year-round seating that together would accommodate about 300 diners. “It’s something we’re trying to get right,” he said.
Restaurant hours would be similar to the Big Chill Beach Club, which operates near the Indian River Inlet, and closes about an hour after dusk. The earlier closing lends itself to a crowd that is different from customers who want to stay up all night and “get wild and crazy,” he said.
“We’ve shown a proven track record of working with the parks,” he said.
Members of the Parks and Recreation Council said they welcome the investment from a private company and believe a private/public partnership will benefit the park in the long run.
“I think it’s a good idea. Either that, or the state puts more money into something that’s maybe even subpar,” said Greg Johnson, member of the Parks and Recreation Council, which advises the director of the Division of Parks and Recreation on matters related to the planning, acquisition, development, management, conservation and programming of lands and services under the division’s jurisdiction.
But Lewes residents insist that a restaurant is not a good fit for Cape Henlopen State Park because of the detriment that noise and lighting at night would have on the park’s bird habitat and other nocturnal wildlife. “It would create noise pollution and light pollution,” said John Bracco, president of the Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park.
Gail Van Gilder of the Preserve Our Park Coalition said they oppose the restaurant to protect the natural habitat of the park.
“We need more time to evaluate this,” she said, asking council members to reject the restaurant proposal.
Lewes resident Elaine Simmerman said the opposition group has hired an attorney who says Delaware code prohibits a private restaurant from operating at the park, and the proposal must be denied. “Lands may not be used for private benefit. No private/public partnerships in Cape Henlopen park,” she said.
Ray Bivens, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, said Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin will have the final say on approving a restaurant at Cape Henlopen State Park.
The meeting was held to gather information on the proposed restaurant project, including public comment. “Nothing is set in stone,” Bivens said.