“Preserve Our Parks” Views on DNREC’s Bar/Restaurant in Cape Henlopen State Park
The Preserve Our Park Coalition is a group of concerned Delawareans who have organized a march, written letters to state and federal officials, and shared both opinions and research with the broader public in an effort to halt construction and operation of the bar and restaurant proposed by La Vida Hospitality Group. The decision deadline, set by DNREC and La Vida, is January 1, 2023, which provides remarkably little time for a full public debate. (La Vida Hospitality Group includes Big Chill Beach Club, Crooked Hammock Brewery, Taco Reho, Fork and Flask, Big Chill Surf Cantina.)
The decision deadline should be extended. The La Vida bar/restaurant proposal represents a significant break with the past and has enormous implications for the park's future. Preserve Our Park believes that DNREC is obligated, as the steward of Cape Henlopen, to provide more time for a full public debate.
Our position remains unchanged: A full service, year-round bar and restaurant offering nighttime service should not be built in Cape Henlopen State Park. Although La Vida released a statement on December 1, 2022, to the Cape Gazette (also posted on the company’s website), their plan did not change significantly. (https://lavidahospitality.com/capehenlopenstatement).
Why does Preserve Our Park plan to use every available avenue, including protest and litigation, to halt this plan? Cape Henlopen State Park (CHSP) is unique in the state park system and has long been managed to maximize nature-based outdoor recreation. Delaware Seashore State Park’s Big Chill restaurant located near the Indian River Bridge lights up the night sky, lacks diverse wildlife and associated nature programs, and cannot be compared to CHSP which has always closed at sunset, protecting its many sensitive habitats.
Cape Henlopen is the only state park governed by the Warner Grant, giving it a 340-year history dating back to William Penn. The General Assembly passed S.B. 315 in 1979 which defined the boundaries of the Warner Grant Trust Lands and ensured that the park would only be “administered for the public benefit as areas of public recreation, conservation, and/or nature education and may not be used for private benefit to the detriment of such public benefit.” Moreover, “Any modification of the laws governing the Warner Grant Trust Lands shall require action by the General Assembly of the State of Delaware and approval of the Court of Chancery.” (https://legis.delaware.gov/SessionLaws/Chapter?id=24330) In this way, Delaware’s elected leaders reaffirmed the lands’ long history and spelled out DNREC’s responsibilities. Neither La Vida nor DNREC appear to understand the full importance of that historical legacy and responsibility.
La Vida and DNREC now propose to replicate the Big Chill in a setting where it simply does not fit. Restaurants with indoor seating that are proposed for parks that have received National Park Service grants undergo particularly close scrutiny. Their primary purpose must be to serve the recreating public. We do not believe that will be the case with a year-round bar/restaurant in Cape Henlopen that remains open well past the time that most swimmers, bikers, hikers, and kayakers have gone home or returned to their rentals. Supporters of this money-making scheme even try to redefine the meaning of the word recreation to get around this problem.
DNREC has not demonstrated the need for a bar/restaurant at Cape Henlopen State Park. The evidence against the proposal is compelling: Even without a bar/restaurant, CHSP attracted 1.7 million visitors in 2021, more than any other park in the state. These visitors did not avoid the park because there was no bar/restaurant. DNREC officials claim that visitors complain about the food choices, as also reflected in surveys. La Vida says their experience tells them that visitors want this amenity, hardly a disinterested assessment. The DNREC survey completed during June 2022 (released under FOIA) does not demonstrate strong demand for a restaurant. Other needs are far more frequently mentioned. If this is typical of DNREC’s surveys, it is clear they are far from scientific. Nor is it best practice to use complaint data to gauge customer demand. DNREC, quite simply, has not made the case.
Other parks around the country that have restaurants are dramatically larger than Cape Henlopen State Park. DNREC points to Olympic, Sequoia, and Shenandoah National Parks. La Vida adds Yosemite. Cape Henlopen is 5,193 acres. Olympic has 876,800 acres; Yosemite 759,620 acres; Sequoia 404,604 acres; Shenandoah 79,579 acres. One can understand the need for a restaurant amidst vast expanses of land where towns and their amenities are far away. That is not the case at Cape Henlopen where Lewes and Route 1 are just around the corner. DNREC could find better ways to help the local economy than to partner with a single business.
Is DNREC primarily interested in the bar/restaurant to meet public needs or to generate more revenue? DNREC claims its budget shortfall is in the millions. Yet, La Vida estimates that rent and the state’s share of its partner’s revenue will total only $200,000 per year. That provides minimal relief from budget pressures. DNREC’s budget is far beyond our capacity to analyze, but we are surprised DNREC places such a low value on what is a truly priceless asset, a sweeping view of a relatively pristine land- and seascape. This modest financial progress also comes at potential costs to nature education, conservation, and wildlife. And this was all because the public needs additional bathrooms? DNREC would authorize a bar/restaurant in exchange for two women’s stalls, one men’s, and one urinal.
Several other new ventures in the park seem designed to launch new revenue streams. The Great Dune was paved over and is now being used as a wedding venue. Does a wedding business fit under public recreation, conservation, or nature education? The Overlook is advertised as “Coastal Delaware’s unique Oceanfront Wedding Venue,” taking advantage of the “spectacular natural beauty of Cape Henlopen State Park.” (http://youroverlookwedding.com) And the Biden Environmental Center is being converted into a hotel and conference center with twenty-three guest rooms, each with a private bath, that DNREC acknowledged in its 2022 Park Improvement Update will also support the wedding business. DNREC can afford hotel-like upgrades but not new public restrooms? What process was followed in launching these new enterprises? (https://delawaregreenways.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/CHSP_Park_Improvement_Update_2022.pdf, slide 18)
It’s time for the Delaware public and elected officials to reject building a year-round night-time restaurant that will forever change Cape Henlopen Park. DNREC needs closer oversight. What ideas will DNREC officials come up with next to close their budget gap? If State Parks is in such dire need of more resources, there are better ways to raise funds.
DNREC should preserve Delaware’s natural heritage, not exploit it for as much money as it can. Cape Henlopen State Park is not an ATM. The original legislative vision sought to prevent spoiling one of the state’s natural treasures—perhaps the foremost—and to preserve it for future generations. DNREC has strayed from that charge and, so far as we can tell, has done so without the required permission from the General Assembly and the Court of Chancery.