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The Issue: Still Crazy After All These Years

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Dewey Beach’s party culture will be hotly debated, again, as the town approaches a council election next month. Some candidates would like Dewey to be a tad quieter. Others support bar owners. “I can tell you this: No matter who decides to run, it will be controversial,” Mayor Dell Tush says. “Dewey Beach always is.”
all photographs courtesy of godewey.com

The Grinch That Stole Dewey!” emblazoned on his chest, Jeff Reed and 200 of his closest friends took to the streets of Dewey Beach.

The so-called Grinch who inspired such a demonstration was Dewey mayor Courtney Riordan. In case anyone was unsure, a caricature of Riordan, depicted wearing black shades and smiling, was screen printed on the T-shirt.

Reed’s group made tracks up and down the highway, starting at The Starboard, then stopping at Gary’s Dewey Beach Grill and Northbeach restaurant, to spread the message that Riordan was a big-time party pooper.

Throughout the year, Reed, who runs the social network website GoDewey.com, had seen his beloved Dewey events systematically picked apart. The state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control said he couldn’t use beer in the annual beer pong tournament. He couldn’t use scorecards during the yearly round of bar golf. The list of offenses and insults went on.

The force behind the actions, many believed, was the Grinch.

“I’ve been running events in Dewey for years, and last year was the first time I’ve had problems,” Reed says. “Everything we did last year was a nightmare.”

Enough time has passed to permit Starboard owner Steve Montgomery a faint chuckle at the Save Dewey Beach campaign of 2006. Though he’s tried to forget, he recalls the Grinch-shirted protesters stumbling onto The Starboard deck. He recalls the fliers distributed daily, the signs, placards, banners and website updates, urging townspeople to reclaim their burg from a tyrannical mayor. He remembers the big businesses sending tourists into a panic by falsely claiming Dewey would turn into a retirement community. And he remembers personal vendettas, as well as town meetings punctuated by name-calling, like the time Riordan called a prominent local business owner a weasel.

“It was practically a daily battle,” Montgomery says. “It got mean, and early.”

Yes, things in Dewey had gotten just a bit out of hand.

Last year Dewey’s usual animosity was so intense because the old fault line between businesses and town officials was perfectly clear. Thanks to the antics, high jinx and epithets, the town upheld its reputation as the most hotly debated strip of land not named Gaza.

All the while the party raged on. Weekend warriors and retirees—both groups occupying the town in mixed numbers at any given time—continued to coexist like baking soda and vinegar. With Dewey’s notorious party culture in full force, residents were just as likely to see a civil town meeting as a punch-drunk sophomore relieving himself all over Crabber’s Cove. The mood around town was gnarlier than a back-alley dogfight.

“It was, like, we’re only a mile long,” says town commissioner Claire Walsh. “How hard can this be?”

Eighteen blocks of land constantly tangled in political strife and beer-soaked mayhem? As they say in Dewey, it’s a way of life.

Things have quieted down this year. In May a task force comprised of council members, chamber of commerce members, and business owners like Montgomery, Jim Baeurle of the Highway One Limited Partnership (which owns the Bottle & Cork and the Ruddertowne complex) and Rob Marshall of Atlantic View Hotel met to hash out a few issues. Some were minor, like cigarette butts in the sand. Some were major, like the newly revamped business license fees. It wasn’t exactly Berlin, 1989, but it was a start. Folks on both sides seemed happy that the lines of communication were open.

Steering the Good Ship Mediation was Mayor Dell Tush, who first laid eyes on Dewey during her honeymoon there 36 years ago. Tush ran her campaign in 2005, along with fellow commissioners Mike Eisenhauer and Bob Fitzgerald, saying she’d stand up to Highway One. All three were Riordan supporters. Tush, a first-time candidate, wanted to rehab property values while maintaining zoning laws. Like Riordan, she was also a fierce opponent of the town’s decision to let hotels convert rooms into condominiums. Being a tourist town, she says, Dewey needed to keep its hotels intact. Plus, she said, the conversion would be a direct favor to Highway One, which owns Dewey Beach Suites.

Today Tush holds steadfast that even big businesses need to operate by town rules. She also readily commends the bars for the revenue and attention they bring to the town. After all, Tush is a businesswoman herself. She rents out three rooms in her beachside property on Rodney Street. She also operated a traveling antique jewelry business called the Delaware Antiques and Provisions Company that trekked from New York to Florida on a regular basis during the ’90s.

“I really am pro-business, because without them, Dewey is not Dewey,” Tush says. “I can relate to their situations because I know what it’s like to be self-employed and the trials and tribulations and costs.”

Highway One, the 800-pound gorilla that owns 19 Dewey Beach hot spots, is like any other business, Tush says. If the group wants to build a hotel in Dewey, too bad—a town ordinance says no more hotels. Want to raise an existing building higher into the salty stratosphere? Tough luck, she says. The town has a 35-foot height restriction.

“I’m getting tons of phone calls from citizens, saying they don’t want us to be like Ocean City,” Tush says. “They want the small-town atmosphere. The people elected me to do what they wanted. It doesn’t matter what I want or what Highway One wants.”

Tush is up for reelection in September. Though she was in late June still undecided about whether or not to run again, a few specks of mud had already been slung. Thanks to her camaraderie with the businesses, some accused Tush of flip-flopping.

So it isn’t all sunshine and bodyshots in Dewey this year. Two issues on the docket have stirred up unease among leaders on both sides. The first involves business license fees, a major source of income for Dewey. For most businesses, fees were lowered. A few went up. The new system is based on the business, number of occupants and a few other factors. Alcohol-based businesses now pay $1,000, plus another $5 per occupant. So a place like the Lighthouse, which for years has only been paying $700, will dole out $4,600 next year.

The Lighthouse is not happy.

The Lighthouse is also a pivotal cog in the second major issue: the fate of the Ruddertowne complex. Owned by Highway One, the complex encompasses the Rusty Rudder, the Baycenter, the Lighthouse and Crabber’s Cove. In April Highway One filed a plan to tear down Ruddertowne and build townhouses, but that raised another tangle of zoning issues. In May, Tush says, Wilmington-based Harvey-Hannah Associates signed an agreement to purchase Ruddertowne. If everything goes according to plan, the site will be left as commercial.

A decision so big has left businesses around town feeling tense. Though relationships with the council have improved, some think bad old feelings will bubble back up again once town elections get underway.

“I’m not sure how much of those feelings really went away,” Walsh says. “Maybe it’s just a quiet season. Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

Last year’s storm is still fresh in everybody’s mind. At the center of the maelstrom was Riordan, a 70-year-old environmental protection agent who had made a habit of voting against bar owners’ wishes. Surely there were philosophical differences at hand, but personal issues also got in the way. Riordan and Alex Pires, a leading partner with Highway One, just plain didn’t like each other. In 2003 Riordan called Pires a weasel and a crazy man during a special town meeting.

Then Riordan helped sue his own town in 2004. Twice. First he challenged the condo conversion law, arguing that it violated zoning codes by increasing density. Later he helped residents sue the town over expansion of the Rainbow Cove site (owned by Highway One) for similar reasons.

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