Concerns about Rehoboth’s imperiled character have long been spurred by large houses. Now there’s a related point of conflict, and this argument holds water.

By Mary Ann Benyo and Tom Kavanagh | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
From the Holiday 2014 issue

SplashofControversy

Rosemarie and Bill Bahan fell in love with Rehoboth for its quainter aspects. After renting “forever,” they bought a cottage on Hickman Street 25 years ago, coming from Washington, D.C., on weekends and summers until they retired and moved there full time a decade ago. Bill notes that he and his wife didn’t even discuss retiring there; it just went without saying.

Rosemarie describes being friends with everybody on their block, having parties that closed part of the street. Bill adds that “this was a family community, staying in family homes. We didn’t rent them. Families all came and stayed for the summer.”

Their small three-bedroom cottage, built in 1932, is flanked by similar homes. But Rosemarie points toward two others that are to be torn down and replaced by a much larger, eight-bedroom house. Yet another large home is going up at the other end of the street. Still reeling from a big rental house constructed last year that has brought noise and parking issues to their neighborhood, the couple fear more changes ahead, and more problems. “We lost the community-type atmosphere,” Bill says.

It’s not an unfamiliar lament. For years, debate has ebbed and flowed over the changing character of Rehoboth, and whether the very qualities that drew so many people here are being harmed, if not destroyed, by the scale of growth and new development. Through zoning regulations, the building code and other ordinances, officials try to balance the competing interests of older and newer residents, of neighborhoods and businesses, and yet the conflict persists, sometimes morphing to an unlikely new form.

The latest fight in this divide is being waged over pools, primarily those constructed at large rental homes — dubbed derisively by opponents as “mini-hotels” — where the day-long (and sometimes late-night) din of splashing, squeals and shouts disturbs the peace of those who could do without it.

The latest fight in this divide is being waged over pools, primarily those constructed at large rental homes — dubbed derisively by opponents as “mini-hotels” — where the day-long (and sometimes late-night) din of splashing, squeals and shouts disturbs the peace of those who could do without it.

In October, the outcry over this issue reached a crescendo, resulting in a six-month moratorium — unanimously passed by city commissioners — on permitting and constructing new pools while the matter is studied further. A consultant and the city leaders will also consider related calls for a “quiet time” ordinance and limits on parking and building size. The hearing that preceded the vote carried echoes of previously voiced arguments for and against restrictions.

On the one side are people like Sharon Palmer-Stauffer, vice president and manager of rental operations at Coldwell Banker Resort Realty, who has 27 years of experience with rental properties. “I don’t think the problem is a pool issue,” she says. “The problem is a noise issue. They’re penalizing people and taking away property rights because of an issue that has nothing to do with a pool.” What’s more, she adds, is that complaints are relatively rare: “We write about 3,000 leases a year, and maybe get 20 calls a year. That’s, like, nothing. And it’s usually [a neighbor] protecting the rental property owner,” alerting the agency about renters who, say, have a dog in a no-pet home, or are parking on the lawn or are exceeding the occupancy limit.

Palmer-Stauffer, who worries that too much regulation will turn off would-be renters, was the lone person speaking against a moratorium at a September hearing held by Rehoboth commissioners and the city planning commission. But others share her opposition. Dave McCarthy of Rehoboth Property Development is a builder, and he’s hired to create what his clients want. These days, they want a lot more than past generations did. As a result, McCarthy feels defensive. Amid the fear and suspicion that all big houses going up now will be rentals with pools, he cites a nine-bedroom house that he built recently for a client: “They have a huge family, an extended family,” with whom they want to share that amenity.

And there are people like Fay Jacobs, the Delaware Beach Life columnist and former executive director of Rehoboth Beach Main Street — a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the town as a unique seaside community. She believes that “if you have a beautiful home in downtown Rehoboth and you want a pool, you should be able to have one.” As for noise complaints, she says, a solution already exists: “If somebody is being obnoxious and noisy, call the police.”

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