State of the Beach/State Reports/DE/Beach Access

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Delaware Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access77
Water Quality89
Beach Erosion7-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill7-
Shoreline Structures6 3
Beach Ecology6-
Surfing Areas45
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


The property boundary between public and private lands at the beach varies between mean low tide, mean high tide, and a meets and bounds description on a deed, depending on location along the shoreline.

At some locations private property extends to the mean low tide line, making the entire beach inaccessible to the public. For private properties that extend only to the Mean High Water (MHW) line, the public can typically access the beaches from adjacent public beaches. Under the Public Trust Doctrine they are able to walk on the wet sand below the MHW line.

Each year the DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation (DPR) awards grants for land protection and construction of outdoor recreation facilities from the Delaware Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund (DTF). Municipalities, counties and park districts are eligible for matching grants totaling $1.5 million; up to $750,000 in assistance is available for trail construction and greenway corridor conservation. Since the program began in 1988 over $14.5 million in DTF assistance has been awarded to park, greenway and trail projects.

The DTF was created in June 1986 as a matching grant program. The income generated from the funds is granted to municipalities and local governments to provide funds for planning and acquisition of lands and waterfronts to protect our natural heritage and provide expanded opportunities for public outdoor recreation. All state, county, municipal governments and local park districts are eligible to apply for matching assistance. Local governments are able to apply for up to 50% funding. The most important requirement of the Program is the land acquired or improved with DTF assistance must be operated as either a park or public open space in perpetuity.

Site Inventory

25% of the shoreline in Delaware is publicly owned, according to Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999, "Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs," Coastal Management 27:219-237.

This same document identifies 215 public access sites. This corresponds to about one public access site for every 1.5 miles of shoreline.

DNREC is working on a public beach access guide. Research conducted for preparation of that guide indicates that there are approximately 110 public access sites along the Atlantic coast of Delaware. This includes public access sites without parking (located in private developments built on state land), with street parking (located at street ends in Fenwick Island, South Bethany Beach, Bethany Beach, Dewey Beach, and Rehoboth beach), and sites run by State Parks. This does not include vehicle drive-on only access points. The majority of these public access points are those in Fenwick Island, South Bethany Beach, Bethany Beach, Dewey Beach, and Rehoboth Beach, and have street parking or are accessible by boardwalk. The state park sites charge a fee, but also have bathhouses and handicap access.

DNREC staff estimate that there are 10 to 15 coastal access sites per mile in urban areas and an average of two access sites per mile in rural areas.

DNREC staff estimate that approximately half of Delaware's oceanfront shoreline is owned by the State, and about 75% is publically accessible. A significant portion of the Bayfront is owned by either conservation groups, the State or Federal government. Approximately 75% of the land fronting the ocean and Delaware Bay is permanently conserved.

As defined by Delaware's Beach regulations, the state has 61.45 miles of “beach” (this includes sandy ocean and bayfront beaches from Fenwick Island to Pickering Beach). Of this, 38.96 miles are open to the public – about 63%.

An inventory of beach access sites in Delaware was not readily available. Each of the towns along the Delaware coastline typically has street-end access points; however, parking spots near the access points are limited.

Beach access is difficult and contentious at several locations in the Bethany Beach area. Sea Colony is a large condominium complex between Bethany Beach and South Bethany. The sandy beach there is reserved for residents. North Shores, Henlopen Acres, Indian Beach and a string of high-end, often gated communities north of Bethany are also closed to the public, as is Middlesex Beach just south of Sea Colony.

Delaware has three state parks on the ocean: Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware Seashore State Park, and Fenwick Island State Park. The parks provide more than 12 miles of beach access. All three parks have parking, restrooms, picnic areas, and showers. In addition, Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore State Parks offer camping, nature trails, and hiking trails. For more information, check out the DNREC Division of Parks and Recreation's Website at: This great site lets you search by "places to go," "things to do," and "things to know." For more information on the three beach parks go to:

At Cape Henlopen State Park there are about 5 to 6 miles of coastline which is all sandy beach public land. There are approximately 1.8 million visitors per year to the park; about 80% of these go to the beach. The park has 11 foot access points to the ocean and four vehicle access points. A section of the beach is blocked off for shorebird nesting from March 1 to August 1 every year.

Yearly passes are available for entrance to Delaware's State Parks. See fee information.

The Division of Parks and Recreation also publishes this information in A Guide to Delaware's State Park Beaches.

Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation
(302) 739-4401

There is now an official Delaware State Parks Guide app.

Other sources of information regarding coastal access and coastal recreation opportunities include:

Beach Attendance Records

Information on beach attendance in Delaware was not found. However, DNREC estimates that over six million trips were made to Delaware beaches in 2003, and more than 57 million people can access Delaware's beaches in less than a day's drive.

The number of total people that visited all state parks for FY2007 was 5,021,946, which includes 4,812,961 day visitors and 208,985 overnight visitors.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

Detailed information on the economic evaluation of beaches in Delaware was not found. However, it has been estimated that the overall state tourism industry contributes $1.2 billion to the state’s economy, generating 23,000 jobs.

A report prepared for DNREC projected what the loss of tourism revenue and decline in property values would be for 1996 to 2000 if the state stopped fill projects on eroding beaches. The report concluded that the total loss of tourist revenue would be $30.2 million and that property values would decline $43.3 million.

The beach communities of Rehoboth, Lewes, Bethany and Fenwick may have additional economic information.

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

Delaware's 2005 Section 309 Assessment reported:

In Delaware, the demand for public access continues to be high. Nearly 50 percent of Delaware’s visitors utilize coastal waters and beaches for recreational activities such as boating, fishing, sailing, sunbathing, and water skiing. The demand for beach recreation, especially by out-of-state visitors, has increased tremendously, but the state’s beaches are not the only recreation and tourist sites. The state operates a system of parks, forests, and wildlife areas that constitute 70 percent of the non-federal public lands in Delaware. These parks feature 14 miles of ocean beaches, saltwater bays, dunes, and surf, several miles of Delaware Bay shoreline, 3 inland ponds, grassy meadows, streams, rolling hills, and woodlands. Swimming is the most frequent use of Delaware’s inland ponds and ocean beaches, followed by beach fishing and then boating. Other activities include shellfishing, fishing, hunting, and visiting historic sites. Delaware’s Seashore State Park and Fenwick Island State Park, extending south from Dewey Beach to the Maryland State line, have some of the finest ocean beach lands on the eastern seaboard. The 33-acre Holts Landing State Park is a favorite spot for clamming, shellfishing, and family outings, along with Lums Pond State Park, which contains the state’s largest freshwater lake.

In May and June 2008, the Division of Parks and Recreation conducted a telephone survey of Delaware residents to gather information and trends on outdoor recreation patterns and preferences as well as other information on their landscape perception. These findings are the foundation of the 2009-2011 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) providing guidance for investments in needed outdoor recreation facilities. In total, 2,179 Delaware residents were interviewed for the survey. Statewide, 66% of Delawareans surveyed indicated that they expected a member of their household, including themselves, to swim at the beach during the next 12 months. Surfing was not one of the activities listed on the questionnaire, so this activity was most likely captured under "swimming at the beach."

At Cape Henlopen State Park, the beaches are “intensely crowded” every summer. More and more visitors are bringing vehicles to the beach, the result being 300 to 400 vehicles triple-parked in one small parking area.

Public Education Program

Delaware has a good system of public education and outreach programs providing public access opportunities for families and individuals. Each of Delaware’s 14 State Parks offers a suite of educational programs including: hikes, bird-watching hikes, mountain biking instruction, nature programs, canoe trips, story-telling, hayrides and exhibits.

Outdoor Delaware magazine is published quarterly by the DNREC. This magazine covers subjects such as Parks with a Point of View and Take a Hike. Delaware State Parks' Trails Web page provides information on more than 150 miles of trails throughout the state. Although surfing is not listed as an activity on the State Parks Website, swimming is. The text at the swimming link states: "Some of the most beautiful beaches on the Atlantic seaboard are found in Delaware State Parks. Enjoy a variety of activities along 14 miles of state park beach including sun bathing, swimming, surf fishing, clamming, crabbing, sailing, boating, surfing, and camping."

Beach access information as well as other state park information can be found at the Website of the Delaware Tourism Office (note the photo of the surfer).

The Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve's (DNERR’s) full time educator conducts education programs through the DNERR include instructing school groups K-12 on estuarine processes, use, and habitat qualities as well as providing education material to visitors to self–guided walks around the property. Outreach programs on nonpoint source pollution and horseshoe crabs are also taught with each class being tailored to the specific grade level.

Contact Info

Kathleen McCole
Environmental Scientist
Delaware Coastal Programs
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
Division of Soil & Water Conservation
Phone: (302) 739-9283

Susan Love
Delaware Coastal Programs
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
(302) 739-4506

State of the Beach Report: Delaware
Delaware Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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