Skip to content

Navigating the Controversy of Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act

Bombay Hook vs Marcus Hook / both via Flickr

A tale of two Hooks: Bombay Hook, DE (l), protected by Coastal Zone Act. Marcus Hook, PA (r), no environmental regulation.

The Coastal Zone Act of 1971 remains a controversial piece of legislation in Delaware. The law encapsulates the ongoing struggle between environmental preservation and economic growth, serving as a landmark case that influenced subsequent environmental policies across the United States. Governor Russell W. Peterson, who was the driving force behind the act, seized upon a historical moment ripe for environmental activism to secure the bill’s passage.  

The early 1970s were a watershed moment for environmental activism, fueled by broader social movements such as civil rights and protests against the Vietnam War. Peterson harnessed that public sentiment, framing the act as a choice between industry and recreation. He led the campaign for the Coastal Zone Act on the theme of “To hell with Shell,” a reference to the global oil company that had sought a refinery site on Delaware Bay.  

Governor Peterson’s Vision

Governor Peterson argued that only a robust state-level framework could protect the environment effectively. He believed industries would exploit local zoning boards to change rules in their favor, so he pushed for strict state laws as a safeguard. 

Advocates for the Act, such as the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, praise its efficacy in safeguarding sensitive coastal areas. According to the department, “The Coastal Zone Act has stopped the spread of heavy industry activities along the coast.” Furthermore, a research paper from the University of Delaware’s Environmental Research Division bolsters this view by revealing, “Species diversity in designated areas has shown a 20% increase since the Act’s implementation.” 

Critics find the Act overly restrictive. The now-or-never thinking that Peterson supporters credited with passage of the act became a target of critics such as the Delaware Tomorrow Commission (DTC), who cited what they saw as the governor’s unreasonableness or lack of logic. Wilmington lawyer and DTC member Bernard Hessler Jr. argued that proponents of the coastal zone operated under the sweeping generalization that “if some refineries pollute, then all refineries must be polluters and therefore, must be banned.” The Coastal Zone Act institutionalized unreasonableness and Peterson’s detractors see this as his legacy to the state. 

Governor Russell Peterson holds a horseshoe crab along Delaware coast weeks before signing the Coastal Zone Act in June 1971.
Governor Russell Peterson holds a horseshoe crab along Delaware coast weeks before signing the Coastal Zone Act in June 1971.

The commission concluded just five years into the law’s existence that the time had come to replace the initial Coastal Zone Act with a comprehensive statewide land-use planning act. 

State Planner David Keifer gave Governor Sherman W. Tribbitt draft legislation in 1976 to implement such a land-use plan. Tribbitt turned it over to Biondi’s group for study and hearings before sending it to the General Assembly. Peterson and his original supporters, however, maintained that the law must remain in place to stave off “polluting industries waiting for an opportune moment to enter Delaware.” The General Assembly declared the Coastal Zone Act did not “contravene the existing authorities of counties and local governments with respect to planning.” The Delaware Tomorrow Commision’s proposed changes went nowhere. In fact, the law stood as originally framed for 46 years.  

Unintended Consequences

The Coastal Zone Act’s original intention—preserving Delaware’s coastline—appears to have been met. But questions have arisen ever since passage about its unintended consequences. “Why don’t manufacturing jobs come to Delaware?  Maybe it’s because Delaware shares a large portion of its boundary with the coastline, subjecting it to the requirements of the state’s Coastal Zone Act,” said David Baker, a member of United Steel Workers Union, Local 12886 in a 2016 ‘News Journal’ editorial. 

Critics argue that the state’s economic growth faces hindrance, although no conclusive evidence links the Act directly to a decrease in industrial interest in the state. “In the long run,” observed ‘News Journal’ columnist Ralph Moyed in 2000, “Delaware’s action to protect the Coastal Zone seems to have had no liability and sometimes is an asset in efforts — largely successful — to attract ‘the right kind’ of industry to Delaware.” 

The Act’s naming of specific prohibited industries–steel and paper mills, petrochemical complexes and oil refineries–remains a point of tension. Critics question whether these blanket prohibitions are the most effective or fair means of environmental protection. They argue that the law, without ongoing revisions, might not adapt well to new economic and environmental realities. 

The Coastal Zone Act is a lens for examining broader environmental challenges. Its undeniable impact on Delaware’s coastline contrasts with its hotly debated broader effects. As the Act’s legacy evolves, it continues to shape Delaware’s environment and economy. 

map showing delaware coastal zone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *