Fenwick Islanders hope future will look like its past and present

Date Published: 
September 2013
THe Fenwick Island Community park

As with everything that’s yet to be, the future for the town of Fenwick Island is uncertain. No one can predict when the next storm might roll in or what ordinances future town councils might pass, but, for now, many Fenwick Islanders are hoping the town stays relatively unchanged.

“I hope it stays the same and keeps the same small-town atmosphere and welcomes people who want to be in a quiet resort,” said Edward “Buzz” Henifin, a resident who has also served on the town council.

Henifin said that, during his years in Fenwick, homes have increased in size, and he hopes that in the future the 30-foot height restriction will remain in effect, to keep development from changing the character of the town.

“That’s very important to those of us who live here, that we don’t allow houses higher than that, like the County does.”

Councilman Gene Langan said that he does not anticipate an increase in the height restriction.

“The only thing that could change that is if there are changes with the flood zones. Someone else would have to mandate it. I don’t see the Town changing that.”

“The Town has been very conservative on building codes. I think that’s a good thing,” said John Kleinstuber of John F. Kleinstuber Real Estate in Fenwick Island.

Councilman Roy Williams said he believes the residential areas of the town will most likely stay the same in the future but he is unsure about how the commercial zone will change.

“That’s kind of hard to say,” he said. “Everything right now has been pretty quiet. The changes will be up and down. It’s been light because of the down economy.”

As for annexation in the future, the chance of that is highly unlikely.

“You have to remember that the more governments you have to deal with, the more interference,” said Bill Hall, owner of Fisher’s Popcorn, located just outside of the town limits, adding he’s against annexation of those unincorporated areas into the town. “[It’s] only a drain on your ability to function.”

“I’m fine out of town,” added Kenny Roughton, owner of the Fenwick Island Surf Shop. “There are just a couple small regulations we would have to follow that we don’t pay any attention to. [But] I don’t see myself going anywhere. I’ve been here a long time. Like any business, there’s challenges year-to-year, weather, economy, competition, but … if you want to do it, you just keep moving forward. I can squeeze out a living here.”

Councilman Gardner Bunting, who has lived in the town as a part-time and full-time resident for 60 years, said that annexation could only occur for properties immediately adjacent to properties in town. Although he said he doubts the town will grow in such a way, he said he believes the town would have plenty to offer.

“Eventually it’ll become more expensive to live here, because of our inability to expand. It’s kind of like playing cards — it’s the hand you’re dealt. If they want to join us, I don’t think anybody would complain,” he said. “There could be some issues of existing buildings not meeting our criteria, but that’s a zoning issue. You can always create a zone to handle something like that, so that they’re not really in violation, because they would be zoned for that.”

West Fenwick extends growth inland

Just over the Route 54 bridge — in the unincorporated part of Sussex County that some call “West Fenwick” — the Delaware Department of Transportation recently completed its State Route 54 Mainline Improvements project, which widened the road, allowing for a center left-turn lane. The improvements were designed to improve the safety of the roadway for vehicular traffic, as well as bicycles and pedestrians.

“This area was identified as a high priority by Sussex County Council, due to high development growth in the corridor over the last several years,” DelDOT representatives explained.

Much of that growth is due to the construction of Bayside, a residential community with its own golf course, as well as the open-air Freeman Stage venue, and a restaurant and event venue. Like many of the area’s planned residential communities, it offers a place for people to invest in real estate, or to visit part-time, or retire, and sometimes all three — all near Fenwick Island.

Along with Bayside, the Bayside Village Center opened, bringing a Harris Teeter grocery store and numerous other shops. A new Food Lion, the Bayville Shopping Center and various other businesses are also among the commercial establishments forming the backbone of the West Fenwick area along Route 54.

Downtown commercial district targeted for revitalization

While Fenwick’s surrounding areas are growing in population and in service, the town itself has remained relatively unchanged. However, the town’s population of both part-time and year-round residents has been on the rise and may continue in that fashion in future years.

“Let me put it this way: I moved to Fenwick when I got married. There were 10 people living here,” said Bunting. “Since that time, we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 390 people year-round, and that is still continuing to grow. We have more people retiring here. And, in general, we’re seeing more people of all ages living here… We’d like to have more year-round residents,” he added.

Those in Fenwick now do see change coming to the town’s commercial district, but there’s a general consensus that that change will not affect the overall look or feel of the town.

“I also see, in accordance with our Comprehensive Plan, the revitalization of our commercial area in town. My feeling is there will be some redevelopment in the commercial areas. There are a few empty lots on Route 1 that in the next several years will be developed, and I’m sure they’ll be successful,” said Langan. “The new businesses that have opened up in town are doing very well.”

With the redevelopment of the commercial district, the Town hopes to work on a problem that plagues all beach communities: parking.

“We know the issue that every little beach town has, and that’s called parking, and we’re working on that,” said Bunting. “We’d like to see shared parking wherever possible. It’ll help everyone in the long run.”

Currently, the Town has a committee looking into how to help alleviate some of the parking issues the town faces.

“We just initiated a parking committee so we can make sure there’s enough parking for residents, visitors, and also for the commercial properties,” said Langan.

“Down the road, as the properties redevelop, as we know will happen, we want to move the buildings closer to the highway and put parking in the rear,” Bunting added. “We think that’ll be more attractive, and we think we can do a better job managing it. It’ll create a different look for the people passing through and might make the town a little more inviting.”

Bunting said that when the town was originally laid out, the streets were very narrow, and they still are.

“There’s not much we can do about that, because the town is pretty much built out. Now, everything that’s built is a teardown-rebuild. There’s very little open space left. So we’re dealing with a problem that, all of a sudden, we have more people who want to park than we have spaces. We’re looking for ways to provide additional parking.”

Williams noted that he could see some of the town’s current parking issues change with commercial properties being renovated in the future.

“There may be more two-story, because of the price of the land and the cost of the building. They need to utilize the space,” he said. “The commercial property was never quite right. I don’t think there’s enough parking for what is there. It does create some problems, and if it gets developed more, it’s going to create even more trouble.”

Along with future parking solutions, the Town hopes to provide residents and visitors with sidewalks along Route 1. The idea had been discussed in previous years; however, the Town could not afford the cost.

The big thing — I hope to have sidewalks on both sides of Route 1, up and down Fenwick, so that people don’t have to walk in the street,” Langan said. “It’s so expensive that it’s an undertaking that we as a Town can’t undertake by ourselves.”

Langan said the Town would need financial help from the State or the federal government in order to bring sidewalks to the town, and he hopes that, in the future, sidewalks will be a feature in Fenwick.

“We have the engineering drawings to do it, but it’s just a question of funding. The Town just couldn’t afford to do it themselves.”

Parks and beaches remain the town’s crowning jewels

Allowing residents and visitors to enjoy Fenwick’s beautiful outdoor scenery is something they all want to preserve for future generations.

The town currently features the Fenwick Island Community Park, which includes a playground and a gazebo, and it is in the process of completing the Cannon Street Park, which will have a basketball court and a rain garden.

“The Cannon Street Park is a Delaware Greenway Trailhead from the town of Fenwick Island to the Little Assawoman State Wildlife area,” shared Town Manager Merritt Burke.

The new park will also feature an ADA-approved kayak launch for those who are handicapped and want to enjoy the Little Assawoman Bay.

“I think it’s the only one in the state,” said Bunting. “That was a major feeling of accomplishment. We wanted to develop it, and it was one of the things the State suggested we might build. We gladly thought that would be a great start. That piece of property will be completed soon.”

The Town currently participates in the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s annual Coastal Cleanup but also holds their own cleanup effort every spring before the summer season kicks off.

Langan said that he believes the Town will continue with the cleanups and be proactive in maintaining its natural environment.

“I also see the town continuing to keep the bay and beaches clean. That’s a really important thing for the people who live in this town and everyone who visits it, too. I want it for my grandchildren. We want it for ourselves. We just have to save that,” he said.

“One of the things the Town did this year was pass the smoking ban on beaches. It was very successful. This last clean-up, we didn’t have many cigarette butts or anything like that. So it worked.”

As the town’s beaches are controlled by the State, Langan said that, even though the Town can’t touch the dunes or crosswalks, it will be vigilant in keeping the State informed of the town’s needs regarding its beaches.

Fenwick looks into the future, with technology and storm safety

Technology has grown in a big way in the town over the past year, and will continue to grow in the years to come.

“The future is going to be maintaining a strong technology process with social media,” said Burke, “keeping the website updated in the future, using technology to engage the community, like Facebook, Twitter and our website. Look at all those venues and see what we’ve done in the last year. I’m very proud of that aspect of our town. I think that we, as a staff, put out a lot of good information.”

“We want to keep the town in the forefront of technology as technology changes,” Langan added.

Langan said that he hopes the Town will eventually offer wi-fi throughout the downtown area and on its beaches.

Along with the Town moving ahead with technology now and in the future, with its new Public Works building, there is more opportunity to do streaming video calls with emergency personnel during events such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

“We used that as a staging point for personnel during Sandy,” explained Langan of the public works building. “That building is hurricane-proof. We met there — the people on the emergency committee — and participated in the bridge calls. We did that — the National Guard was there, the state police were there. Our chief of police actually set up cots and had food there for people who couldn’t get home.

“It really worked well and, hopefully, we won’t have to go through that again. But if we do someday, I think we’re really well prepared, because we have a place for people to meet and a place for people to make decisions.”

Langan also said he sees town hall going paperless in the future, with most everything being electronic, including meeting agendas that would be projected on a screen.

Burke agreed, adding that the Town is already utilizing tablets, computers, smartphones and projection equipment to try to limit paper use.

For the past two years, the Town, along with the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, has been using that technology to draw summer visitors to its beaches for the weekly Fenwick Flicks.

“The Chamber has been working with us, having the movies on the beach. Those nights, we’re forgiving the parking violations, to allow more places for people to park. That’s been a good thing for two years and, with our approval, it’s probably going to continue next year.

“It seems to be drawing people in and benefitting the businesses. That’s always good, because they can’t survive without customers,” said Bunting. “New customers are great. They come in and go to one place and are happy. Maybe they’ll come back and visit again. We’re trying to make it positive.”

Fenwick’s small-town feel a core value heading into the future

No matter what the future has to offer for Fenwick, its residents hope it will retain the unique small-town charm that they’ve fallen in love with.

“I hope it’s not going to be vastly different,” said former mayor Peg Baunchaulk, who’s been a fulltime resident for 20 years. “I think Fenwick is still one of the few towns along this coast that still has a lot of its charm and a lot of the things that people who live here like to see.

“It’s a quiet place to live and it’s a good place to live. I wouldn’t want to see us changing vastly. I don’t want to see us change to the point that some of the other coastal towns have. I just hope that the future councils realize the jewel we have here and work to keep it as much like this as it can.”

“I think we all hope it still maintains its small-town, family atmosphere,” said Langan. “I think that’s one of the key things that we want. I know that’s what I want, personally, to see happen in the future.”

“The town was established long before it was incorporated,” he noted. “The people that incorporated the town, that was one of their visions: to keep it a quiet place. They did not want the commercialization that we have in Ocean City. “There’s nothing wrong with it — we just don’t want all that here.

“We want to keep Fenwick as near the small-town atmosphere as we can. It’s worked for us since 1953, and it’s worked pretty well, and we’d kind of like to keep it that way.”