An art program for survivors of abuse planned at the Rehoboth Art League has drawn threats from Henlopen Acres that participants will be ticketed.
In a response to a letter from Henlopen Acres Town Manager Tom Roth, Survivors of Abuse in Recovery Executive Director Valerie Marek called the town unfriendly and accused Acres officials of bullying. She said SOAR would not be deterred from running the event, which was designed not only for the victims of Earl Bradley and other offenders, but also for other mental health professionals and students.
SOAR had teamed with the art league on a program called Art is Healing, Healing is an Art, set to take place throughout April. An art exhibition inspired by healing, a workshop on journaling, painting classes, pottery and yoga are planned, taught by clinical psychologists and mental health professionals.
Controversy over the program was sparked by a letter from Roth to the art league saying the planned program is beyond the scope of the league’s permitted nonconforming use. In his letter, Roth said the opening reception, Friday, April 5, in the Chambers building, is a prohibited extension of a nonconforming use. The Chambers building was recently renovated after the art league and the town went to court four years ago over a variance to build an expanded building.
“The Chambers building has traditionally been used for classroom/teaching activities. There was no indication in the building permit application for the renovations that there would be an expansion of the uses in the Chambers building to include exhibitions and receptions where art work would be sold,” Roth wrote.
Roth wrote if SOAR events go forward, the art league, SOAR and the participants in the events would be subject to citations.
“Deliberate disregard of the town code cannot be tolerated,” Roth wrote.
Roth's letter, in turn, may have been sparked by an email sent late last year from league attorney Mark Dunkle to attorneys for Henlopen Acres, informing them that should efforts to resolve the zoning issues break down, the art league is prepared to establish a cooperative agreement with the state to take over the art league campus. The email included model legislation drafted by Dunkle to be introduced in the General Assembly.
Show will go on
Art league President Diana Beebe said the opening-night reception would go on as scheduled. To prevent teachers and participants from being fined, the workshops will be moved off campus to All Saints' Episcopal Church in Rehoboth Beach. The art league will still hold its usual art classes on campus, she said.
“This kind of thing demonstrates some kind of zoning change is necessary,” Beebe said. It is unclear how the town decides what the art league can or cannot do, she said.
Dunkle said the town is harassing the art league for doing things on its property that every other residentially zoned property in Henlopen Acres can do. He said if a group of people in Henlopen Acres wants to get together at someone’s house to have a yoga club, book club or art club, they can, but the town is picking on and singling out the art league. He said the town was wasting time and taxpayer money sending threatening letters; the town’s position makes no sense unless it was a grudge against the art league, he said.
Marek said most of the program had been designed for the Chambers building. Now that the workshops have moved, the experience will not be as pleasant for attendees, she said. Marek said she did not know why the town had to threaten attendees and participants.
“Does the town of Henlopen Acres seriously intend to issue citations to various participants, including children and parents who will participate in these art classes at RAL?” Marek asked in her letter.
"While this is truly unfortunate conduct, know this: SOAR and its professionals will not be intimidated by this ugliness,” Marek wrote.
Other activities draw fire
Besides the SOAR event, Roth also sent a letter to the art league regarding a Shakespeare in the Garden production by the Georgetown-based Possum Point Players scheduled in May. Roth’s letter said the art league and the Possum Point Players would be subject to prosecution if they went through with the performances.
The town fined the art league $200 last year for similar performances by the group. Beebe said the Possum Point Players would not appear this year.
“It’s intimidating. People don’t want to work under that kind of a threat,” she said.
Beebe said she is still hopeful the art league and town officials can work out the zoning situation. The two sides have been talking since October about a process to review the art league’s zoning status and possibly make changes.
During the town’s comprehensive plan review process last year, the art league proposed a new cultural zone that would enable the art league to better maintain its facilities.
Mayor: Discussions get sidetracked
Mayor David Hill said the town wants to resolve the art league’s zoning issues. He said he wants to work with the art league to craft a policy regarding the art league’s use that is beneficial to both the art league and town residents.
“We keep getting sidetracked with sideshows, but hope springs eternal,” he said.
Dunkle said he has advised the art league to seek a partnership with the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs naming the art league campus a historically protected facility. He said under current residential zoning, if the art league facilities were to burn down, town code forbids the league from rebuilding. A state partnership could protect and preserve the campus, Dunkle said.
The art league and the cultural affairs division signed an affiliation agreement in 2009, enabling the art league to collaborate with the state on issues such as the buildings and art collection.
Beebe said, “Our affiliation agreement with the state has been a mutually beneficial one, which we hope to continue and possibly expand as one of our options for ensuring that the art league can sustain its mission and historic campus and continue to thrive for another 75 years.”
Tim Slavin, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, did not respond to calls for comment.
So far, nothing has gone before the state Legislature. House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said nothing regarding the art league has come before him.
Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, said, “It would be my hope that any sort of compromise between the town of Henlopen Acres and the Rehoboth Art League could be reached without interference from the state of Delaware. The town of Henlopen Acres and the Rehoboth Art League are both treasures that are unique and distinctive to Delaware and the region.”