Judy Rolfe,
Environmentally Focused
and Filmmaker

Lewes, Delaware

Judy Rolfe.jpeg

Briefly describe the situation in your area.

Lewes, Delaware, is where I call home. It is one of the principal cities of Delaware’s rapidly growing Cape Region. Lewes proudly claims to be “the first town in the first state." Lewes was the site of the first European settlement in Delaware, a whaling and trading post that Dutch settlers founded in 1631. We are surrounded by water: the Atlantic to the east, Delaware Bay to the north, and Assawoman Bay to the west.

We have a growth problem and we haven’t acknowledged what is required to solve it. We have small historic houses being torn down, or unreasonably expanded, and there always looms the possibility of these homes being replaced by mega-mansions. The most egregious offense is the gobbling up of beautiful and tranquil open space to shoehorn in housing developments in an area that is home to wildlife and aquifers. In addition, this space would become one big impervious surface when science has proven that we need this land to help protect us from the flooding we continue to see from sea level rise and storm surge. Not good news, since Delaware is not only experiencing escalating sea level rise but also subsidence.

What are you working to protect?

There is a real push—and locals feel it—to build, build, build larger and larger houses, mostly seasonal, and many being vacation rentals. The rural and historical character of our town (population a little over 3,000 at last count) and surrounding area within Sussex County is our most valuable asset.

What is the biggest obstacle you face?

Our biggest obstacle is developers with unlimited amounts of cash, and the farmers who want to unload their land, farms, and forest. Then there’s the problem of leadership and no one in the state capital, county council, or city council who wants to lead. Some county council members actually benefit from this development. For example, one member owns a lumberyard. We didn’t even have a Sussex County planning manager to present land acquisitions before the county council until three years ago. We need leaders and planning managers to begin to say “no,” especially to home and development proposals that are at flood risk.

Smarter choices today can make for a better tomorrow.

Is there a leader of your group or is it led by committee?

We have some small smart-growth groups who tend to be grievously understaffed and budgeted. Their efforts always seem to be derailed or lead to arguing or, worse, hostility. We also have some land preservation nonprofits, but most times the developer has already inked a deal before the nonprofit can even do its pitch.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned since you started working on this issue?

Be strong, and don’t give up.

It's exhausting but you need to educate the public through continued efforts. Make it personal, and also emphasize the impacts of climate change. We’re moving into a new climate, and our communities are scaled and built for a climate that no longer exists.

I also believe that One Big Home and documentaries to follow are a great educational resource.