Surf Fishermen, Homeowners in Conflict Over Fenwick Beach Access - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Surf Fishermen, Homeowners in Conflict Over Fenwick Beach Access

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(Photo: WBOC) (Photo: WBOC)

FENWICK ISLAND, Del. - A group of homeowners in Sussex County is asking the state to restrict where surf fishing vehicles may park on the beach.

The Beach Access Coalition requests that no vehicle be allowed to park within 100 yards of pedestrian dune crossings on some public beaches in the Fenwick Island Area, including Fenwick Island State Park. Mike Mathisen, the president of his condominium association, says in the summer there are so many trucks that people struggle just to find a place to sit. Mathisen says the coalition has no problem with legitimate surf fishermen, but more often than not, people are abusing the privileges the tags provide, using it for convenience and to party. 

"It's like a tailgate at a NFL stadium," he says.

Delaware Surf Fishing creator Rich King agrees that many people abuse the privileges, but says the proposed restrictions would hurt those properly using the tags as well.

"We don't like the fact that people come out here and don't fish and bend or break the rules. But that's something the parks have to address," he says. "These beaches are public lands that are paid for by Delaware taxpayers."

According to Mathisen, the proposed dune crossing restrictions only make up 900 yards out of five miles of beach, but King says the layout of those dune crossings would make other areas impossible to reach.

"You wouldn't be able to drive into sections you could actually access that wouldn't be a part of this proposed cutoff," he says. "It's just chopping the beach up."

Mathisen points out that pedestrians would still be able to access those parts of the beach, but King argues that the closest walk-on lot is too far a distance and non-residents aren't allowed to park in the communities with the pedestrian dune crossings.

"The people that park [at the closest parking lot] are not going to walk here. Essentially, these people are creating a private beach within a public park and that just can't happen," King says.

According to Mathisen, the sheer number of vehicles with surf fishing tags negatively impacts tourism in the area, as they've gotten feedback from renters saying the cars ruined their experience. They're also concerned with safety. 

"There are trucks that go over the speed limit on the beach, so our kids who are walking around the beach could be possibly hit by a car," he says. "People have been hooked by fishing hooks and it's not a pretty sight. All in all, there needs to be a separation."

Delaware State Parks Director Ray Bivens says there's never been a report of someone being hit by a vehicle on a multi-use beach. Bivens says they've denied the coalition's request, saying any such restriction would eliminate access to about 35 percent of multi-use beach at Fenwick Island State Park.

"Certainly we want people to access state parks as much as possible," he tells WBOC. "We see multi-use beaches as first come first serve."

Bivens says they sold fewer surf tags this year and plan on increasing enforcement to cut down on those misusing the surf-fishing tags. But he also says they hope the homeowners are more explicit with potential renters on where the home is located. Bivens says there have been incidents where tourists renting a home were under the impression they were staying on a quiet beach, not a multi-use one.

"We want better advertisement for the people coming so there's not that user conflict," he says.

Bivens also says they'll be requiring pedestrian signs at all the dune crossings informing pedestrians they are entering a state park. 

While DNREC has denied the coalition's request, Mathisen says it's far from over, as they've reached out to the governor. The coalition has also hired past Sussex County politician Joe Conaway as a "government relations expert" for their cause, in case they decide to effort legislation.

"When we look at the statutes and regulations in Delaware where DNREC's job is to preserve the natural history of the beach, we're not so sure they're doing that, because everyone is taking advantage of driving on the beach. " says coalition attorney Tim Willard. "As the statutes and regulations stand now, it seems like there's a little bit of an imbalance."

While it's not clear yet what the next steps are, King says if surf-fishing is impacted, it will impact a way of life for some in Sussex County.

"It's a big part of being on the beach down here," he says. "These beaches are for everybody." 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article identified Mathisen as the president of the Beach Access Coalition. He is the president of his condominium association. The text has been updated to reflect that change. 

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