Commentary: Kings Highway plan preserves vibrance of Lewes

By Joseph A. Pika

First impressions matter. As a destination for visitors, Lewes attracts bikers, birders, history buffs and vacationing families to clean beaches, natural riches and a town steeped in history. These same amenities attract retirees, professionals and telecommuters anxious to live in a vibrant community.

How do we preserve these qualities and keep Lewes growing? Hint: The answer is to avoid decisions that unleash rampant traffic congestion.

Preserving the community character of Lewes is critical to the current and future economy of both Sussex County and the state of Delaware. In 2015, tourism ranked high in the state’s present and future economy and the leisure/hospitality industry employed 24% of all Delawareans, trailing only business and health care in size. Sussex County pumps billions of dollars into the state’s economy each year thanks to the proximity of beaches, fishing and wholesome family vacation options. The same qualities that lure visitors also attract new residents, and population growth in Sussex leads the state.

As a tourist and retirement destination, Lewes is a pleasant, attractive, historic community that appeals to a diversity of interests that enrich the quality of life for visitors and residents alike. People want to be here — for day-trips or weeklong visits or as long-term residents. As the state’s current Historic Preservation Plan explains: “Visitors to Delaware seek the authentic experiences provided by historic sites and attractions, as well as within Delaware’s historic communities and cultural landscapes. Historic communities are not only attractions in and of themselves, (but) they are also where the most desirable restaurants, lodging and shops are located.”

The “viewscape” that thousands of drivers encounter on the gateway to historic Lewes — Kings Highway — is evolving. Residential and commercial development is replacing the farms that lined this artery for generations. And traffic has grown — to and from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, to and from Cape Henlopen State Park, to and from downtown Lewes, to and from the Lewes Public Library and Cape Henlopen High School. The level of service (LOS) on Kings Highway is already rated an “F” many times each year. With the proposed Mitchell Farm development on Kings Highway, the LOS is projected to fail even more frequently and cause several intersections in downtown Lewes to do the same.

Forward-thinking citizens and public officials wrestled with the dilemma of balancing preservation and growth, ultimately producing a Master Plan designed to protect and enhance the character of Kings Highway and Gills Neck Road, while providing room for development. Support from state Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, and state Reps. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, and Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, was critical to this effort. The plan — accepted by the local community, the county and the state — leaves the clutter and congestion of Del. 1 behind and brings the distinctive character of Lewes outward. At the plan’s core is a landscaped boulevard, without failing levels of service, to facilitate easy access to historic downtown Lewes and its attractions, as well as to Lewes Beach, Cape Henlopen State Park and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. These planners did the hard work. Now, we should follow their guidance.

Sussex Countians love to contrast themselves to upstaters, but as relocated upstaters can attest, they now run the risk of transforming Kings Highway into a replica of the notorious Kirkwood Highway in New Castle County, which runs between Wilmington and Newark. The result would diminish the qualities that lie at the heart of Lewes’ attractiveness as a destination for visitors, for potential new residents and for professionals considering a move to a new community.

Avoiding traffic congestion, residential and commercial clutter and cookie-cutter building/landscape designs is critical to the Lewes area’s future and that of the entire county. We have a Kings Highway/Gills Neck Road Master Plan that points the way. Now, we need to follow that plan, not dismantle it with piecemeal rezoning decisions.

Joseph A. Pika is part of Citizens for Responsible Kings Highway Development. He resides in Lewes. More information can be found at sites.google.com/view/mitchellfarmupzoning/home