The controversial Ruddertowne development project currently underway in Dewey Beach went before all five members of the Delaware Supreme Court Wednesday afternoon.
The arguments between a group of property owners in Dewey Beach, the project developer, and the town has already been heard by the state chancery court twice before the state’s highest court agreed to hear the case.
According to Michael McDermott, attorney for the property owners says the want their voices to be heard. He said the core of the issue is whether or not the Dewey Beach citizens have an adequate remedy of law to challenge a privately negotiated contract entered into by local government that confers zoning related decisions.
Began in 2007
The dispute began in 2007 when developer, Dewey Beach Enterprises (DBE), put forth plans to build a residential and commercial complex on the Ruddertowne property.
The plans included a Hyatt hotel, luxury condos, retail shops, restaurants and a conference center.
The original plan request was to build upwards of 68 feet. According to Shawn Tucker, attorney for DBE, the town’s comprehensive plan specifically called for the development to be a high density relaxed bulk standard redevelopment project, meaning the developer could bypass the standard zoning rules including the town’s height limit of 35 feet for structures.
This ignited litigation between the town council and the developer over whether or not the zoning rules applied to the project.
In 2011, the developer and the town council entered into a private agreement in the form of a resolution.
The resolution was passed by town council allowing the redevelopment project to move forward with a revised plan including a reduced building height of 46 feet.
Shortly after that deal was made, four Dewey Beach property owners then filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of the town to enter into that kind of a contact because it bypassed the procedures set forth in the zoning code.
Under the zoning code procedure the public is given a formal notice of a final public hearing on the project and then a 60-day window to file a formal complaint about a project. If no complaints are filled, the project clears the statue of repose limit, meaning developers can begin construction without the fear of litigation.
According to McDermott, the statue of repose does not apply in this case because the deal between the town and the developer was a private contract. He said the statue of repose only applies when the town makes a zoning decision using formal procedures. He argues the residents were not given a fair chance to formally oppose the project.
McDermott said his clients ultimately want the zoning codes and development playing field to be level for everyone and not just large developers who can muscle their way past the building codes through legal action.
“This is about good government, it’s about incredibly passionate people in a small beach town in a small beach community, ensuring that the processes apply and the zoning code is applicable uniformly to everyone,” he said. “It’s not to stop economic development, it’s not to stop this particular project, they already have the ability to build the project that they are building, it’s what they’ve achieved through this mutual agreement that we believe is unenforceable and they’ve achieved something that nobody else in town can get, ever.”
The Supreme Court has 90 days to make a decision. In the meantime, The Ruddertown construction is well underway with the first phase, Lighthouse Cove, scheduled to open by July 2013.