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Bill aims to restrict development at Cape Henlopen

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Cape Henlopen State Park Lewes Delaware Gordon's Pond World War II Towers

A new bill would make any future development of Cape Henlopen State Park prohibitively difficult. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA/

LEWES – Less than six months after widespread public opposition to a proposal to build a new oceanfront restaurant at Cape Henlopen State Park, a recently introduced bill would severely limit such future projects.

Sponsored by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) and State Sen. Russ Huxtable (D-Lewes), Senate Bill 6 would require the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to administer the land in the public interest. It already has 13 other bipartisan sponsors or co-sponsors.

Cape Henlopen State Park sits on more than 3,000 acres of coastal land that was first apportioned by William Penn in a 1682 land grant to local businessman Edmund Warner. The courts originally granted this land (the “Warner Grant”) upon the condition that it would always serve the public interest. For more than 300 years, these lands have been maintained as a public park for conservation, nature education, and public recreation.

Because language in the original Warner Grant did not explicitly address parameters for private uses on these public lands, several lawsuits arose and required the General Assembly to intervene in 1979. Lawmakers established the Warner Grant Trust and set the boundaries of the lands in the Trust, known as the Warner Grant Trust Lands.

SB 6 specifies “conservation and preservation” of the Warner Grant Trust as its preeminent goal, and directs DNREC to preserve “the scenic, historic, scientific, prehistoric, and wildlife values” of the Warner Grant Trust Lands.

La Vida Hospitality and DNREC have dropped their proposal to develop this beachfront restaurant at the Cape Henlopen State Park following local outcry. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DNREC

“As Sussex County’s population and economy continue to boom, it is critical that we take steps to maintain our precious open spaces,” Huxtable said in a statement. “Cape Henlopen is an incredibly peaceful place. Its beaches and trails provide a quiet sanctuary for residents and tourists alike to enjoy nature’s wonders just a few short blocks away from our thriving business corridor all along the Coastal Highway.”

SB 6 makes clear that DNREC must administer these lands so that a private benefit or financial gain to a for-profit enterprise or public-private partnership is not detrimental to the public benefit. Last year, residents staged protests after DNREC proposed to award a long-term lease to La Vida Hospitality Group to build a new restaurant adjacent to the State Sen. David McBride Bathhouse in the state park. In December, the state agency and restaurant group mutually decided to drop the project amid the outcry.

“Last year’s issues surrounding the proposed restaurant made it apparent that we need to establish clear guardrails for how one of Sussex County’s most cherished natural resources is used and preserved,” Schwartzkopf said in a statement. “Specifying that ‘conservation and preservation’ of the trust is DNREC’s top goal will provide very clear direction and should give all of us peace of mind that Cape Henlopen will remain a treasure for residents and visitors for generations to come. As state legislators, that is one of our most important duties, and I’m proud to lead this effort with my friend Sen. Huxtable.”

The new bill also asserts that the Court of Chancery has jurisdiction over disputes about the lands and directs the attorney general to represent the trust on behalf of the state in any legal proceedings.

SB 6 has been assigned to the Senate Environment, Energy & Transportation Committee where it is awaiting a hearing.

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