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Fifty-two years ago, scores of Lewes and Sussex residents protested the U.S. Army’s bulldozing of the dunes at Cape Henlopen.
Sunday, another group marched to stop dune and habitat threats yet again. Hundreds of supporters of the Preserve Our Park Coalition held a protest rally along Cape Henlopen Drive to block construction of a restaurant and bar on the dunes.
In 1970, the protest on Earth Day prevented the U.S. Army from leveling dunes in order to make way for additional recreational housing. At that time, the military used the beaches to provide summer fun for service families. It was so popular that more housing was needed. But the dunes were in the way.
A group that grew to nearly 150 protesters halted the work. Gov. Russell Peterson and the congressional delegation complained to Defense Department and Army officials. No one had heard of these plans beforehand, and there had been no environmental impact study.
History has a way of repeating itself. Few knew about the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s plans that endanger the dunes and its wildlife in a protected area where the public is not allowed to tread. Department officials relied on their website to alert the public. Most learned only after an article appeared in the local newspaper.
The proposed 6,750-square-foot restaurant and bar modeled after the Big Chill Beach Club at Indian River Inlet would provide a sweeping ocean vista from its perch on the dunes. As many letters to a local publication have argued, it would endanger wildlife and create noise, light and trash pollution in a largely undeveloped natural area. It also violates the law. Legislation approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pete du Pont in 1979 expressly forbids any use of the parkland for private benefit to the detriment of public recreation, conservation and/or nature education. Modifications of this statute require action by the General Assembly and approval by the Court of Chancery, neither of which has happened.
DNREC is the steward of Cape Henlopen State Park, which is uniquely linked to the Warner Grant Trust, dating to the Penn family. The department is responsible for pursuing the priorities established in the 1979 legislation, which reflected that unique heritage. Its consideration of the restaurant proposal elevates one current priority (promoting tourism) at the cost of another priority, that of conserving and protecting the natural environment for future generations. In this instance, expanding services and amenities for visitors collides with preservation.
It falls to residents of Lewes and Sussex County and other supporters to remind today’s stewards of their fundamental charge and prevent them from doing permanent damage to a natural treasure. The governor and General Assembly should demonstrate the same good sense as their predecessors and direct DNREC to halt this undertaking now.
Joseph A. Pika