It’s not uncommon to see trendy golf carts cruising down small streets near the beach as people head to the ocean or boardwalk.
Kim Espinosa, a Fenwick Island resident, bought a bright yellow Moke – an electric golf cart that almost looks like a small retro Jeep – in March 2021 and has been using it to get to the beach, grocery shop and run all kinds of errands around Fenwick.
Espinosa and her husband have even taken their three dogs out for joy rides, with seat belts attached to their leashes, as they caught sunsets or indulged in evening ice cream cones. Affectionately named "Tweet-T" on the Delaware license plate, the electric vehicle has been a fun and environmentally-friendly way to get around, Espinosa said.
But then the town of Fenwick Island approved an ordinance this spring that banned all low-speed vehicles within the town limits.
If Espinosa uses her Moke now, she risks a $100 violation fee.
In an attempt to overturn Fenwick’s ban, Espinosa filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, which argues that the town’s ordinance is in direct conflict with the state law regulating low-speed vehicles.
The state law allows LSVs – four-wheeled vehicles, excluding trucks, that can reach up to 20 mph but no more than 25 mph on paved surfaces – on any two-lane roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less. This is why people might see registered golf carts on side streets, especially throughout small beach towns in the summer.
The law prohibits these vehicles on any dual highways, like Coastal Highway, unless someone needs to cross the highway to get to the other side.
The Delaware code is clear that towns have the right to enact ordinances that would allow LSVs on these dual highways if they wish. This is something that other resort towns have considered.
For example, Dewey Beach heard from a golf cart ride service company based in Newark called Doobie Ridez last year. The founders, two University of Delaware students, proposed that Dewey accept their service as a safe alternative for late-night travel.
Ultimately, the town decided to stick with the state law and not introduce new legislation that would allow these golf carts on Coastal Highway.
But in Fenwick Island, the Town Council went in the opposite direction and completely banned LSVs.
The Fenwick ordinance approved on March 4 prohibits LSVs on any roads within the town limits, except for construction equipment, lawn mowers, emergency vehicles, town vehicles and electric mobility devices like wheelchairs and scooters.
Since LSVs are already prohibited from going on Coastal Highway, this mostly affects the only other north-to-south roadway, which is a narrow street called Bunting Avenue on the ocean side of the town.
The reasoning stated in the ordinance was to “promote the public health, safety and general welfare of the property owners and residents of the Town of Fenwick Island.”
The mayor and town manager said they cannot comment on pending litigation.
In the lawsuit, Espinosa argues that the ordinance is interfering with her property rights and "constitutionally protected right to travel."
Espinosa said she believes the Town Council has not been listening to its constituents, especially those who opposed this low-speed vehicle ban. Because of this, she and her husband, Eric, both plan to run for Fenwick Island Town Council in August.
This would not be the first time that someone runs for a council seat in Fenwick after suing the town. Jacque Napolitano, who is now a council member and vice mayor, was a plaintiff in a 2020 lawsuit that alleged zoning violations at the new Fenwick Shores hotel.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Fenwick Island's low-speed vehicle ban prompts lawsuit from resident