Lewes to review museum order on March 14

The fate of the historic menhaden net spool on the Lewes Historical Society campus could be determined at the Monday, March 14 meeting of the mayor and council.

City officials are considering an ordinance to change the city code regarding outdoor exhibits on museum campuses. One version of the order would make the new regulations effective Feb. 1, 2022, while another version under consideration would not be retroactive.

The mayor and city council held a public hearing on March 7, when they asked speakers to identify which version of the ordinance they prefer – the version that allows the spool to stay or the version that does not allow it.

Peter Keeble, chairman of the LHS board, said his organization favored the version that would allow the reel to remain on its campus.

“Without [grandfathering], I don’t know what will happen to the net reel,” he said. “We are a non-profit organization and we cannot afford to move again. We think it’s the only net roller that exists in the country, and we risk losing it.

The appearance of the net spool on the historical society‘s campus at the corner of W. Third and Shipcarpenter streets sparked controversy nearly two years ago. The reel was previously located along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal next to the Overfalls Lightship. Without permission from the city, historical society officials moved the artifact to its campus, where it was repaired. After complaints from neighbors, the historical society sought retroactive approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Architectural Review Board, but was denied. The historical society appealed to the adjustment board, saying HPARC had no authority to make such a decision; however, the council sided with the city.

In January, the historical society filed a lawsuit against the city and the Board of Adjustment in Delaware Superior Court, seeking to overturn the board’s decision on jurisdiction. Proceedings are on hold while the mayor and city council consider the museum’s ordinance. Historical society lawyer Mark Dunkle said the appeal would be closed if the city council passes the version of the ordinance that allows the reel to remain.

In addition to the grandfathering provision, the ordinance states that museum buildings must conform to the dimensional regulations of the zoning district in which they are located. Exterior exhibits presented for more than 90 days are subject to additional standards such as a setback from the property line a minimum distance of half the height of the object and a maximum height of 20 feet. Outdoor exhibits that do not meet these standards may seek HPARC approval.

Since HPARC’s ruling, the snaffle reel has been championed as an important part of the city’s African-American history. Many have testified that the reel was originally used in the city’s menhaden fish factories, where black and white employees worked together at a time when segregation was widespread across the country. Reels were used to pull fishing nets out of the water to dry them.

“It’s a tool that has been fundamental to the growth and stability of Lewes throughout 60 years,” said Pilottown Road resident Owen Cheevers. “It speaks volumes about the fairness with which the owner of the fishing industry has treated all workers, and I think that is to be commended. This spool of netting is the cornerstone of what has allowed the black community to develop their own businesses, homes – and it’s around the corner from [what was] the heart of the African-American community at that time.

As a longtime member of the historical society, W. Third Street resident Kevin Mallinson said the organization never told him about the project or was spending money to restore the net spool. . When it was built just down the street, he said he had no idea what it was. He said a comedy of errors led the historical society to this point.

“All these years we’ve worked to maintain our home,” he said, noting that he’s proud to live in a home that was once a grocery store for the African-American community. “We have maintained the house as it should. We’ve seen HPARC tell a lot of people you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and I’m glad they’re doing it because that’s what they’re here for.

Former Councilor Bonnie Osler served as an ex-officio member of HPARC for many years during her tenure on Council. She said the commissioners are trained, dedicated and apply the preservation law equally and fairly.

“Without the constant work of HPARC, Lewes would not be a historic town, it would be a replica town,” she said. “Regardless of what one thinks of the reel, this ordinance reeks of special interest favoritism. It is not good government. It is a very bad government.

Some residents have advocated moving the reel to its original location near the lightship falls, saying it is more appropriate along the canal where it can be displayed along with other items of maritime significance.

Other residents have urged council to keep him where he is.

“It takes my breath away every time I see it,” Marina Drive resident Dawnel White said. “It really brings to mind the history of this town. I can’t even begin to tell what it means to me when I watch it. It is very important that he stays where he is.

Mayor Ted Becker said the city received 82 letters in support of the version of the ordinance that would allow the netting reel to remain, while 13 were against.

HPARC opposes the order

Emotions ran high at the March 3 meeting of the Historic Preservation Architectural Review Board as members aired their frustrations with the mayor and city council over the proposed ordinance.

Commission chair Barbara Warnell said her group was not consulted when city officials drafted the ordinance. She said it reverses HPARC’s decision to deny the Lewes Historical Society’s retroactive request for permission to place the net reel on its campus, and the adjustment board’s vote to maintain HPARC’s authority.

“HPARC commissioners and the public can’t help but wonder why the mayor and council chose not to support the city’s own commission; the commission charged with preserving the historic character and historic fabric of Lewes,” Warnell said. “Preservation in Lewes is the foundation that attracts tourism, fuels real estate, sustains our many businesses, and anything can go south in a nanosecond.”

She said it doesn’t seem fair to write a prescription that satisfies a group.

“I was told it was legal for the mayor and council to do this, but is it true?” she says. “Does this serve all the people of Lewes or the project of one organization? And in the future, will it help attract qualified people to volunteer for HPARC or any other part of town? »

In 57 years of living in Lewes, Commissioner Randy Burton said he had never been so hurt or appalled by his hometown and the behavior of people within the community since this issue began.

“Lewes has changed,” he said. “And that issue changed him in a way that’s not consistent with this story that I grew up with or that my grandmother talked about all my life growing up.”

He said his family had lived in Lewes since 1720 and in Sussex County since 1668.

He said the fate of whites and blacks was co-opted throughout the process into a different narrative that no one in his family is aware of.

“I understand that I come from a place of white privilege, I don’t deny that, but I also have an experience of growing up in this community which is not what this issue has become. It has torn the fabric of this community, and now we are faced with a situation where, in my opinion, there is gross negligence on the part of a good government trying to solve a divisive problem that cannot be solved by poor governance.

For many years, Burton said, he advocated for preservation and said HPARC does not go far enough and there are important assets that need to be preserved more than they are.

“That’s how I got here,” he said. “But I won’t waste my time here if that’s how it’s going to be.”

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