To many, Save Our City seems to have just emerged around June of 2005. The fact is that this grassroots citizens group actually came together in the fall of 2002, when about twenty concerned people began showing up at both the Planning and City Commission hearings to express strongly-held views urging the rezoning of the northwestern end of Columbia Avenue from commercial to residential to match its decades-long use. The threat of zoning that would allow an eighty-room motel in this residential area contrasted with the traditional cottages on Henlopen, Grove, and Columbia Avenues at the entrance to the city had driven neighbors into action. The Planning Commission had earlier recognized the long-standing zoning incongruity, and proposed the rezoning of Columbia Avenue in its new Comprehensive Development Plan for the city. The public comment process on the rezoning was contentious and acrimonious, but the rezoning was approved in February, 2003, by the required supermajority, six out of seven votes on the city commission. The citizens who had shown up, spoken up, and supported the commissioners felt they had made a difference.
The newer Rehoboth neighbors in the group then began to educate themselves more broadly about all aspects of the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan, and to support this blueprint for shaping the future of Rehoboth Beach. Much was learned from residents who had long been active in community issues. The group grew in numbers and in the 2003 election provided organized support for Henry DeWitt, a candidate for city commissioner who made his commitment to managing density and preserving the character of Rehoboth Beach. DeWitt won election on that platform, and this informal but coordinated group of interested citizens believed that it made a difference in the outcome. Then in the 2004 election the same group strongly backed the successful city commission candidacies of incumbent Richard Sargent and Planning Commissioner Patrick Gossett. In both elections the group met with the candidates, supported campaign events, wrote letters to the editors, wrote letters to voters, displayed yard signs, and participated in public forums sponsored by the Homeowners Association and the Chamber of Commerce to show support for the candidates.
Throughout these campaigns and throughout the year, the group communicated through a periodic newsletter list launched in 2002, designed simply to inform and educate citizens in a timely manner on land-use planning, zoning, and density issues being addressed by the Planning Commission, the City Commission, and the Board of Adjustment, including the passage and the implementation of the Comprehensive Development Plan. The newsletter also became a call to action — urging more people to step forward and take part in the affairs of the community, to express their views, and to support their commissioners in the tough decisions they make on the future of Rehoboth Beach. This included the critical subdivision petition for the Joseph Cottages townhouse development, the State Road townhouse development on the canal, the Surf Avenue subdivisions and demolitions, the 111 Columbia Avenue subdivision, and other density controversies. Alarmed by these aggressive development proposals, but now better informed by experience and a flow of information, citizens came to the meetings and forums in greater numbers and stronger positions to present their views for the record, and they wrote more letters to the editors for the benefit of citizens who were not in attendance.
This increased interest and activity by a growing group of concerned citizens was basically driven by the realization of what we all have in Rehoboth. Our tiny, one-mile square Rehoboth Beach, home to l,495 year-round residents and many times that number in part-time residents, is regarded as one of the premier beach communities on the Mid-Atlantic shore. It is treasured as largely traditional in terms of its history, defined neighborhoods, attractive and wooded appearance with old stately oaks and tall pines reaching almost to the ocean, and low-key and diverse lifestyle. Residential lots are small, and the typical housing is the Rehoboth Beach cottage of modest scale, averaging approximately 2,200 square feet, with mature landscaping. Likewise, our business district is composed of small independent shops and restaurants, all contributing to a small-town feel, with a diverse range of activities, from the beach and Boardwalk to many shopping, dining, and entertainment choices. These elements combine with the excitement of a lively beach community in what is increasingly evolving toward a year-round event center. An increasing number of second-home owners and others have recognized these values by making decisions to become permanent residents in retirement. For all these reasons, property values have consistently gone up, over the past decade in particular, based largely on the value of the land on which traditional Rehoboth Beach is built.
In spite of the rising property values, these characteristics of our small town had remained more or less unchanged until the last few years. But by May of 2005 very visible threats to this nearly ideal community heightened the passion of this informal citizens group. Most concluded that our city had become endangered. Quite quickly, as land values soared, residential development became the first priority for developers positioning themselves to exploit the demand for beach houses. Just outside our city, over the canal or across Route One, townhouse developments sprang up under permissive Sussex County regulations and pressed toward Rehoboth and other ocean- or bay-front communities. In the same time frame, the outside development and real estate speculators increasingly began to focus on Rehoboth Beach itself.
Developers and some in the real estate industry had begun to work together in two principal ways: first, by purchasing small cottages on conventional lots, tearing them down and replacing them with houses built to the maximum size allowed under the codes; and, second, by converting commercially-zoned and -used properties to high density residential projects (townhouses) under the more liberal commercial rules for setbacks, floor area ratio, and other regulations. Both of these techniques were viewed as maxing out building for a one-time profit, and without consideration of the surrounding community or neighborhood. The sheer shock of these out-of-scale, out-of-character buildings in Rehoboth’s neighborhoods and, even worse, the sight of the new townhouse clusters endangering Rehoboth’s tiny downtown commercial district, focused and ignited the passion of the informal group of like-minded activists to do even more. An energized citizens’ movement to preserve the character of Rehoboth Beach was launched and faced an immediate test.
On May 16, 2005, our mayor and commissioners responded to these growing development concerns by proposing code amendments to reduce the maximum size of buildings (the floor area ratio or FAR) in both our residential and commercial districts, and to restrict townhouse development in our small commercial district. The citizens group showed up at the May l6 hearing to support these code amendments, which became known as the density code amendments, and to support our commissioners who had the courage to take this action. On the other side, a substantial number of citizens opposed the proposed action, claiming, among other things, that their property values would plummet and that the rulemaking process was unfair. The hearing was another in the series of contentious public hearings that have characterized the transition to what appears to be a new era of concern about unlimited growth and speculation in our city, but the weight of public comment favored the new density code. The Mayor and three commissioners moved forward and voted to pass the density code amendments four to three.
Immediately following the Commission action, real estate and development interests who had opposed the new FAR provision responded by sending out an alarmist letter concerning the process and impact of the new density code amendments passed May l6, and followed up with further action by promoting a petition for a referendum to overturn the new code amendments. In response, a core group of about a dozen people in the informal citizens group met and determined it was urgent for them to do even more, and in a substantially more coordinated way, to support our commissioners, and to respond to the referendum petition. The citizens group met several times, with more and more people attending these informal meetings. Ultimately, it was decided to organize formally, with a name, “Save Our City” or “SOC,” a mission statement, a plan to educate the public and defend the actions of the City Commissioners, and a commitment to stay in the effort for the long term.
Following the first letters which publicly confirmed Save Our City’s existence, the counter-attack began, and an event occurred that nicely defined Save Our City’s character. One of the first charges leveled was that this citizens group was somehow secret, and carried a dangerous agenda for the city. The public response of Save Our City to these charges was simple but telling. Save Our City developed a consensus Statement of Purpose and published it in both newspapers, along with the names of over l50 voters in Rehoboth Beach proud to be associated with the purpose and the organization. The statement and the names were first published on July 8, 2005, and within a month, the list of public supporters asking that their names and addresses be published as part of the campaign grew to over 260. What they supported was an idea, and a vision, for Rehoboth Beach.
The existence and effectiveness of this new citizens group was not lost on those who opposed rules which would limit the runaway development of real estate in Rehoboth Beach. With an election looming for Mayor and two commission seats, and a referendum challenging the new density code coming, it was not surprising that the opposition would create its own organization. It was called “Citizens for Rehoboth Beach,” formed in June, and principally funded, judged by the State’s required campaign funding disclosure report, by small group of non-resident real estate brokers and developers. The group sought to build opposition to the new density code amendments by focusing on a “property rights” theme. The group recruited candidates for mayor and commissioners who opposed the FAR amendment and then funded their campaigns. A prime issue in the campaign was opposition to any new controls to manage development and density in the city.
The stage was set for a summer showdown on the issues defining the future character of Rehoboth Beach, and the elections would confirm the public will.
The newly-named Save Our City group determined it would vigorously support the candidacies of incumbent Mayor Sam Cooper and the candidacies of Ron Paterson, then chair of the Planning Commission, and Dennis Barbour, each of whom espoused the values and publicly-defined goals concerning density and development embraced by the citizens group. Because Save Our City would be endorsing candidates and would be seeking donations to help pay for ads, the group registered with the State of Delaware Elections Commission as a political action group.
During the summer campaign leading to the 2005 election, those active in Save Our City met informally as they had done in the 2003 and 2004 and communicated with citizens through the expanded newsletter and other emails. They supported the three candidates, again by showing up at their public events, raising money for them, placing campaign signs on lawns, writing letters to the newspapers, and sending out several mailings to all eligible voters. But for 2005 the group added one major new element: Participants in Save Our City prepared and funded seven full-page ads published in the two newspapers clearly stating Save Our City’s views on maintaining the character of Rehoboth Beach. The ads generated even more grassroots support for Save Our City, and they created both a political stir and a winning campaign.
The mayor and commission candidates supported by Save Our City all won election August 13 by margins of nearly two to one. SOC celebrated with the winners, then immediately launched into the next action, the campaign to encourage citizens to uphold the density code amendments — the FAR reduction and the townhouse development restrictions — in the referendum set for just one month later, on September 10. Again the group sent letters to the newspapers and to all registered voters and produced a full-page ad showing an architectural rendering of what a residential block could look like under the old FAR code and what a block would look like under the protections of the new density code. Save Our City once again felt the group helped make a difference in the election. The voters soundly defeated the referendum by 58 per cent to 42 per cent, thus clearing the way for the Mayor and City Commission to continue moving forward on implementing the Comprehensive Development Plan.
There was no denying that the result of the two votes provided an unmistakable mandate for the city. Turnout in these two elections was remarkable, 90 per cent and 70 percent respectively, leaving no doubt of the general public view. Rehoboth’s citizens had made it resoundingly clear that they agreed with the broad community values that were simply articulated by Save Our City. What’s more, we all learned that Rehoboth Beach is not alone. The problems of density and so-called “McMansionization” in small towns and resort communities are national in scope, adversely affecting communities everywhere. Our own small-town elections, because of timing and intensity, even became a sort of positive symbol that was reported not just locally but in The Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and even on the Paul Harvey radio show. Save Our City’s success in Rehoboth Beach has two key elements: First is the fact that the full-time residents and dedicated second-home residents made the choice they did, which was to preserve the character of our town. Second is the fact that over the course of about three years, the fledgling citizens’ advocacy group that eventually became Save Our City prevailed in confirming a broad community consensus about the nature of the city and its aspirations. As an informal but active group, Save Our City played an effective role to help elect a group of officeholders and to support policy changes that provide the strong base that is essential for sustaining this vision into the future.
So far, for four elections and for several important city decisions, the Save Our City group of volunteers has proven to be a remarkably effective political and community action force. That is history, however, and going forward, SOC is reaching out to an even broader spectrum of the community. A priority in this effort is to provide focused support for Rehoboth’s unique small business community, which is constantly threatened by rising rents and the Route One outlet malls. Save Our City will also continue working in a complimentary manner with the Rehoboth Beach Homeowners Association and Main Street on their projects and priorities. Organizationally, Save Our City continues as a unique group, without a formal structure or hierarchy, no officers except for a treasurer, no membership dues, no big financial backers, and no regular meetings. SOC is made up simply of citizen volunteers, willing and eager to work hard and attach their names, over 260 of them, to published political ads and events. These volunteers are eager to take on specific tasks to work to support our mayor and commissioners and to further community values. They will continue to attend Planning Commission and City Commission meetings, workshops, and hearings and Board of Adjustment hearings to lend support.
For SOC volunteers, being continually informed, acting in concert with like-minded citizens, and carrying out defined plans seem to produce results. So far, these good results have built continually increased participation and support for SOC. The plan of Save Our City is to work as a team to support residents, businesses, and the mayor and commissioners to preserve the character of our Rehoboth Beach — to save our city.