State officials have pledged their cooperation in efforts to preserve Rehoboth Art League and its campus.
Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock and the art league have signed a memorandum of understanding, under the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, to enter into cooperative agreements for preserving, developing and carrying out the continuation of the art league as an artists' colony.
The agreement allows the state to play the role of intermediary in the art league’s ongoing dispute with the town of Henlopen Acres, where the art league is located, Bullock said.
“I think the Rehoboth Art League is a huge cultural asset for our state,” he said. “We have a vested interest in the art league surviving and thriving.”
The acrimony between the town and the art league is not good for coastal Sussex County or the state, Bullock said.
“We’re going to try to press for a lasting solution,” he said. “It does require people to give a little. We haven’t seen much give from the town. I think the art league is a little suspicious of their motivations. The state can play the role of an equalizer. That’s hopefully enough to get a solution that works.”
The memorandum is intentionally wide open to interpretation, Bullock said, in that it gives the state and the art league a chance to build a relationship to ensure the league’s survival. He said the state was not confident the league could survive in the tension-filled atmosphere between it and the town.
The state has tools in its toolbox to try to help, through such means as easements and conservation measures, he said, noting the most far-reaching option would be a state takeover of the art league property.
The art league welcomed the agreement.
“It’s just a gigantic honor and recognition of the Rehoboth Art League and what it has contributed to the state,” said art league President Diana Beebe. It shows the state’s recognition of the art league’s cultural and historical significance, she said.
Cooperation with the state would allow the art league to take care of its facilities and assess future uses of the property, she said.
Beebe said she is not sure how the memorandum will affect the league's negotiations with Henlopen Acres, which has long sought to limit what town officials consider expansions of permitted activity on the art league property.
The two sides have already battled in court over the art league’s proposal to build a new Chambers Building and have recently been at odds over a possible rezoning.
Mayor David Hill said, “I don’t know the legal ramifications. We’ll try to make it the most positive thing we can.”
“This seems to be another endeavor to explore other options to gain protections for the art league that are not within the authority of the town,” said Henlopen Acres Solicitor Glenn Mandalas.
Mandalas said Henlopen Acres officials are still interested in holding talks with the art league regarding its zoning. As a starting point, town officials sent the art league a questionnaire; in response, art league attorney Mark Dunkle said the questionnaire was unnecessary and untimely. Dunkle wrote to town officials saying the art league had provided requested information during the town’s recent comprehensive plan review process.
At an April 12 meeting, the Henlopen Acres commissioners agreed to move forward to clarify the art league’s zoning status through a new zoning district, special exception or conditional use. The commissioners also agreed to move forward with or without input from the art league.
The town’s planning commission has recently restarted discussion of the comprehensive plan review. The art league, which is zoned residential, has long proposed cultural zoning that would allow it to maintain its facilities. Town officials have said what constitutes a cultural zone has never been properly defined.
Hill said the state coming in could be helpful in breaking through to come up with a solution to the current zoning stalemate. He said a solution needs to balance the art league’s rights with the rights of property owners.
Bullock agreed there needs to be a balance. He said the art league and the town have coexisted peacefully until recently. He said the caustic environment has overwhelmed the discussions, although Bullock hopes that is changing.