DNREC, La Vida scrap Cape Henlopen restaurant plan
LEWES – After a significant amount of local opposition, the state and the La Vida Hospitality Group announced Monday night that they will drop a proposal to build a new beachfront restaurant at Cape Henlopen State Park.
The proposal grew out of a multi-year planning period for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which owns and operates the state park, that saw it solicit bids for operation of a concession area at the state park.
La Vida Hospitality, best known for its Crooked Hammock Brewery and Big Chill Cantina concepts at Delaware’s beaches, was awarded a one-year contract on April 24 to manage the Cape Henlopen main beach area concession. It also allowed the restaurant group to conduct due diligence evaluations for permitting with the option to negotiate a 24-year amendment with updated terms and conditions for a proposed beach restaurant.
La Vida Hospitality, led by managing partners Josh Grapski, Mitch Rosenfeld and Rich Garrahan, designed $4 million, 6,300-square-foot restaurant near the northern beach access point at the walk on beach area adjacent to the State Sen. David McBride Bathhouse. The project would have been a public-private partnership with DNREC owning the land and La Vida leasing it for operations.
For the restaurant group, it wasn’t their first such project as they built Big Chill Cantina within Delaware Seashore State Park near the Indian River Inlet Bridge north of Bethany Beach more than seven years ago. Today, it is a popular tourist destination with access to the state park’s public beaches and a panoramic view of the bridge and ocean.
Nearly as soon as word spread of the Cape Henlopen proposal, however, backlash from local residents, environmentalists and visiting beachgoers ensued, prompting marches in opposition outside the park and a slew of letters to the local Cape Gazette newspaper.
Led in part by a grassroots opposition called the Preserve Our Park Coalition, opponents cited restrictions in the Warner Land Grant Trust that would prevent a for-profit business locating within the park and concerns about development impacts to beach dunes and light, sound and litter effects on local ecosystems.
In a response posted to the La Vida Hospitality website, Grapski said they believe a restaurant was desired by park visitors but unable to be developed by limited state funds, hence the need for such a public-private partnership.
“For a park that receives over 1.7 million visitors a year, it is offering a form of public recreation. There are many examples of restaurants in both state and national parks throughout the country. From what I have been able to surmise, they are typically placed in popular parks in previously high volume areas of human activity, as is the case here,” he wrote. “From the Shenandoah’s to Yosemite, restaurants are commonplace in the parks’ systems. That is the case with this situation and the area that Delaware State Parks has considered for the location of this project is already a heavily trafficked area for humans.”
A public feedback session was held Monday night at Cape Henlopen High School, where state officials surprisingly announced instead that La Vida Hospitality and DNREC mutually agreed to scrap the plan.
DNREC determined that the necessary environmental review and contract negotiation could not be completed by the contract’s expiration date of Dec. 31 and, with La Vida Hospitality in agreement, has chosen to the end the project, Division of Parks and Recreation Director Ray Bivens said.
DNREC also announced Monday that additional visitor surveys and site reviews will be conducted prior to future RFPs for visitor enhancements to the area.
The division will reportedly continue to gather data regarding natural and cultural resources in the area and to seek public input regarding the levels of service provided at the site as it proceeds with planning improvements to amenities at the main beach area.
Needed improvements for Cape Henlopen State Park include expanded food service, ADA-accessible restrooms and beach crossings. Location, hours of operation, traffic, lighting and noise restrictions will remain key considerations with any improvements.