The Lewes Board of Adjustment has voted 3-1 to uphold a commission’s authority to deny placement of a menhaden fishing net reel on the Lewes Historical Society’s campus.
Board member Luke Mette said the question before his body was not about the net reel, but rather the jurisdiction of the city’s historic preservation architectural review commission.
“The issue on the merits is not before this board today,” he said. “It simply is not. Our job is not to write the laws; it’s to interpret existing laws.”
The conflict began when HPARC voted in September 2020 to deny the historical society’s application to keep the net reel on its campus, where it had been moved after a restoration project. The LHS claimed HPARC did not have jurisdiction over its campus, but the board of adjustment Nov. 2 supported the commission’s authority.
The net reel had for many years sat along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal behind the Lewes Life-Saving Station and next to the Lightship Overfalls. During a September 2020 meeting before HPARC, LHS Executive Director Jim Abbott said circumstances out of the society’s control required the net reel to be moved. After repairs in the spring and early summer of 2020, the net reel was reassembled on the society’s Shipcarpenter Street campus.
The group did not seek permission to do so, saying that they had not needed permission to place artifacts on their property in the past. Abbott testified Nov. 2 that he had a conversation with Mayor Ted Becker on the LHS campus, where Becker advised him to not speak with LHS neighbors before placing the reel on the campus. “Because if you do that, it will not happen,” Abbott said recalling the conversation.
When questioning City Manager Ann Marie Townshend Nov. 2, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas confirmed the city’s mayor does not have the authority to personally approve or deny placement of structures.
Mandalas also argued that city code regulating the historical society’s campus and other properties in the cultural/historic zone did not exist until 2019, so historical society officials had not needed to get prior permission for other exhibits and artifacts on its campus.
After a small group of neighbors objected to the net reel’s new location, the historic preservation commission determined it did not fit in with the rhythm and scale of the streetscape, and denied an application for it to remain in place.
Abbott said the net reel is important in telling the 20th century history of Lewes, particularly during a pre-civil rights time when African Americans and Caucasians worked side by side at Fish Products Company near today’s Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal.
Abbott said the net reel would be included in a walking tour that educates the public about the contributions African Americans have made to the Lewes community. The tour is being developed by the Lewes African American Heritage Commission.
The dimensions of the cylindrical wooden reel, which was used to pull cotton fishing nets out of saltwater to dry, are 19 feet in height, 32 feet in length and 18 feet in depth.
LHS attorney Mark Dunkle said the city erred when it combined the historic preservation commission and the commercial architectural review commission into one group in February 2019. Prior to the creation of HPARC, he said, neither group had jurisdiction over the cultural/historic zone, and each group’s primary responsibility dealt with the appearance of homes or commercial businesses.
Board of adjustment member Denise Emery, the lone vote in favor of the LHS request, said she believed the city overlooked the cultural/historic zone when it created HPARC. She also agreed with an argument made by Dunkle that LHS is a museum that is permitted by right in the cultural/historic zone.
“I have a problem with one entity having jurisdiction over another entity that is a museum,” she said. “It isn’t a structure that will be lived in; it’s preserving the cultural history of Lewes.”
Dunkle argued that the LHS campus is an outdoor museum and that if it is limited to displaying only artifacts and objects that fit in with the buildings of the neighborhood, then it will not be much of a museum.
“HPARC doesn’t have the tools in its evaluation to make any informed decision about a museum exhibit as it is defined in Lewes code itself,” he argued.
Like Mette, board member Richard Grier-Reynolds said the issue under consideration was limited to city code granting HPARC the power to regulate the cultural/historic zoning district.
He urged both the historical society and city officials to work together to find a solution.
“I really hope this conversation can continue about having these important pieces of our history be able to live in our town,” he said.
Chair Candace Vessella said the board of adjustment is not able to do the things the passionate members of the community would like them to do.
“The narrowness of what we’re here to decide as the board of adjustment cannot be overemphasized,” she said. “The scope of what the board is here to do will not satisfy your quest.”
The board of adjustment has 60 days to issue a written decision. After that happens, the historical society will have an opportunity to appeal. In a statement released Nov. 3, the city said it will not require the net reel to be moved until those benchmarks are met.
In its statement, the city reiterated the scope of the meeting and that the historical significance of the net reel was not an issue before the board.
“The hearing elicited testimony from credentialed witnesses and members of the Lewes community who raised important policy matters relating to the preservation of the city’s history,” the statement reads. “Those policy matters are worthy of further consideration by the city council in a way that is inclusive of all stakeholders. The city is grateful for the continued efforts being done by LHS to preserve the city’s rich history, and is confident the two organizations will be able to continue their long tradition of working together toward that common goal.”
In an email Nov. 3, Dunkle said there appears to be a path forward to allow the reel to stay and that he would have further discussions with the historical society.
“While the outcome of the board of adjustment hearing was disappointing, the evidence that came out at the hearing gives the LHS, and quite frankly the city too, several different paths forward to save the net reel and ensure the campus can fulfill its outdoor museum mission,” he said. “I will be conferring with my client about all of those options. Certainly the public was heard loud and clear at yesterday’s hearing regarding the future of the net reel and the museum campus, and we truly appreciate their civic engagement in the case.”
Net reel support
Dunkle called several witnesses to reinforce the cultural significance of the net reel, including LHS President Elizabeth Owen, LHS board member Bill Collick, LHS Executive Director Jim Abbott, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs Director Tim Slavin, and former HCA Director Dan Griffith.
“Museums like the Lewes Historical Society campus are the exception to the rule for good reason,” Owen said. “Education about culture and history through exhibits cannot be complete and inclusive if it is required to fit in with the existing homes around our campus. If so, we would only be offering a small glimpse of history that survived and not the history that has been lost or forgotten.”
Collick, who is also a member of the Cape Henlopen school board and the Lewes African American Heritage Commission, said campuses such as the historical society’s cannot be limited in what they may or may not display. So much important history will not fit in with the community, he said, adding that the net reel is a key piece of African American history.
He applauded former Mayor Otis Smith for opening Fish Products Company in the 1950s and providing a livable wage for people of all races. Smith ensured his company was inclusive, providing three meals a day to all who worked there with the stipulation that they must share the same dining hall.
“They would develop respect and dignity for each others’ culture and heritage,” Collick said.
Out on the docks, they would also work together, including with the fishing net reel.
“The fish net reel would be a tie to bind us,” Collick said. “I appeal to [the board] to exhibit the courage to create and respect the complete culture and history that has helped build this wonderful town of Lewes, as opposed to the continued devaluing of certain people and parts of the rich history of Lewes.”
Slavin said museums create spaces for the sometimes-challenging conversations of difficult history. Regulating a museum’s ability to interpret its collection is overregulation, he said, and Lewes’ decision is likely to reverberate throughout the museum community.
He said it’s impossible to consider the jurisdictional issue without discussing the net reel’s significance to Black history. Leaving out that context, he said, is troubling.
“It may be seen as horribly tone deaf on the issues of race and equity, which so many communities are now attempting to address,” he said. “Personally, discussing these types of objects without its historical context and finding legal arguments to prevent that discussion is what people who look like me have been doing for far too long.”
In addition, many members of the public spoke in favor of the historical society’s mission and the net reel during their allotted two minutes.
“This is one of the few artifacts we have left from a zenith of Lewes’ fame in the mid-‘50s when we were the largest seaport in the United States,” said resident Peter Keeble. “If you get rid of this artifact, that whole importance of this civic pride in our town [is lost and] there’s nothing you can point to.”
If outdoor museums have to adhere to current zoning, he said, they would be full of 1970s architecture.
Lewes Beach resident Michael Bruce Parker noted that none of the homes in Shipcarpenter Square are original, as Jack Vessels brought all of them into town to create the community.
“It’s hard to judge an architectural thing when they’re not even from Lewes,” he said.
Like Keeble, Parker also noted the significance of the net reel to Lewes’ history as a bustling fishing community and its connection to Black history.
“The buildings where Fish Products was are no longer,” he said. “The net reel may be the only artifact from Fish Products, and Fish Products Company was very important to Lewes’ history, especially at that time because of its somewhat integration of the various communities – white, Black or whatever.”
One Third Street neighbor, Peter Issel, said he has no problem with the net reel, but felt the jurisdictional question at hand could have major implications. If no one has control over what they deem an artifact, he said they hypothetically could get an old oil rig or old airplane and place it on the society’s campus.
“There has to be some level of sensible control,” he said. “I’m fine with the net reel. I’m just scared if there is absolutely no check and balance.”
New board makeup
The appeal hearing marked the first meeting for Mette. He was appointed to fill out the remaining term of former Chair Brook Hedge, who resigned in September, citing her decision to become a full-time resident to New Hampshire.
Hedge’s resignation came on the heels of her announcement of recusal from the Lewes Historical Society matter after emails she sent to Becker came to light.
In those emails from June, Hedge aired her frustrations with a then-proposed ordinance to regulate how historic artifacts are placed. It was a path city council determined could resolve the situation since it did not have the authority to consider an appeal of HPARC’s decision. The proposal was eventually shelved.
In her email about the proposal, Hedge called it outrageous and said it would cause a backlash.
“Since when did one organization get to act in a lawless manner … and get rewarded?” she said. “This is politics at its worst.”
She compared the historical society’s situation to a 2017 appeal that went before the board in which a homeowner on Dewey Avenue built an addition that encroached on setbacks without seeking proper approvals.
“It knew it had to comply, but it is so arrogant it figured it could bend city council by playing the race card,” she said. “So after years of neglecting the reel at the waterfront, never heralding it as a symbol of the African American contributions, boom, they latch onto it to keep it where they wanted it and thumb its nose at the law.”
Following Hedge’s resignation, Mette was appointed. At the Nov. 2 meeting, Candace Vessella was chosen as chair, with Richard Grier-Reynolds as vice chair and Denise Emery as secretary. The fifth member is William Sharkey, who recused himself from the Nov. 2 hearing.
Much of the Nov. 2 meeting was marred with technical difficulties.
Due to space limitations in the Rollins Community Center, some members of the public were turned away at the door and encouraged to tune in via Zoom or YouTube, as is common for all Lewes meetings.
However, early in the meeting Townshend began to receive emails and text messages that those watching from home were unable to clearly hear the meeting. After a short recess, the home audience was asked to tune into YouTube, where most people were not reporting sound issues.
Although there were some complaints later, the meeting continued.
When it came time for public comment, the Zoom app on the staff computer lost the ability to see who wanted to speak or even unmute the public. To remedy this situation, Townshend provided her cellphone number, asking the public to text her if they wanted to speak. Townshend then called those people and held her phone up to the microphone.