DOVER — In the wake of overwhelming public opposition to last year’s proposal to construct and open a restaurant at Cape Henlopen State Park, Sen. Russ Huxtable and Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf filed legislation Wednesday to protect the park’s beauty and natural resources.
Cape Henlopen State Park sits on more than 3,000 acres of coastal land that was first apportioned by William Penn in a 1682 land grant to local businessman Edmund Warner. The courts originally granted this land (the “Warner Grant”) upon the condition that it would always serve the public interest. For more than 300 years, these lands have been maintained as a beloved public park serving three foundational purposes: conservation, nature education, and public recreation.
Because language in the original Warner Grant did not explicitly address parameters for private uses on these public lands, several lawsuits arose and required the General Assembly to intervene in 1979. Lawmakers established the Warner Grant Trust and set the boundaries of the lands in the Trust, known as the Warner Grant Trust Lands.
Senate Bill 6 would require the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, as a trustee of the Warner Grant Trust Lands, to administer the land in the public interest. This legislation specifies “conservation and preservation” of the Warner Grant Trust as its preeminent goal, and directs DNREC to preserve “the scenic, historic, scientific, prehistoric, and wildlife values” of the Warner Grant Trust Lands.
“As Sussex County’s population and economy continue to boom, it is critical that we take steps to maintain our precious open spaces,” said Sen. Huxtable, D-Lewes. “Cape Henlopen is an incredibly peaceful place. Its beaches and trails provide a quiet sanctuary for residents and tourists alike to enjoy nature’s wonders just a few short blocks away from our thriving business corridor all along the Coastal Highway.”
SB 6 makes clear that DNREC must administer these lands so that a private benefit or financial gain to a for-profit enterprise or public-private partnership is not detrimental to the public benefit.
“Last year’s issues surrounding the proposed restaurant made it apparent that we need to establish clear guardrails for how one of Sussex County’s most cherished natural resources is used and preserved,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. “Specifying that ‘conservation and preservation’ of the trust is DNREC’s top goal will provide very clear direction and should give all of us peace of mind that Cape Henlopen will remain a treasure for residents and visitors for generations to come. As state legislators, that is one of our most important duties, and I’m proud to lead this effort with my friend Sen. Huxtable.”
SB 6 also asserts that the Court of Chancery has jurisdiction over disputes about the Lands and directs the Attorney General to represent the Trust on behalf of the People of Delaware in any legal proceedings.
SB 6 has been assigned to the Senate Environment, Energy & Transportation Committee.