The fate of the historic menhaden net reel on Lewes Historical Society’s campus could be determined at mayor and city council’s Monday, March 14 meeting.
City officials are considering an ordinance to amend city code as it relates to outdoor exhibitions on museum campuses. One version of the ordinance would make the new regulations effective Feb. 1, 2022, while another version under consideration would not be retroactive.
Mayor and city council held a public hearing March 7, when they asked speakers to identify which version of the ordinance they prefer – the version that allows the reel to stay or the one that does not.
Peter Keeble, chair of the LHS board, said his organization favors 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’re a not-for-profit, and we can’t afford to move it again. We think this is the only net reel in existence in the country, and we risk losing it.”
The net reel’s appearance on the historical society’s campus at the corner of W. Third and Shipcarpenter streets set off the controversy nearly two years ago. The reel previously sat along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal next to the Lightship Overfalls. 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 commission, but was denied. The historical society appealed to the board of adjustment, claiming HPARC did not have the authority to make such a decision; however, the board 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. The proceedings are stayed while mayor and city council consider the museum ordinance. Historical society attorney Mark Dunkle said the appeal will be terminated if city council adopts the version of the ordinance that allows the reel to stay.
In addition to the grandfather provision, the ordinance says museum buildings must comply with the dimensional regulations of the zoning district in which they are located. Outdoor exhibitions on display for more than 90 days are subject to additional standards such as a setback from the property line by a minimum distance of one-half the height of the object and a maximum height of 20 feet. Outdoor exhibitions that do not meet those standards may seek approval from HPARC.
Since HPARC’s decision, the net reel has been championed as a significant piece of the city’s African American history. Many have testified that the reel was originally used at the city’s menhaden fish factories, where Black and white employees worked together during a time when segregation was prevalent throughout the country. The reels were used to pull fishing nets out of the water to dry.
“This is a tool that’s been a fundamental part of Lewes’ growth and stability throughout 60 years,” said Pilottown Road resident Owen Cheevers. “It also speaks volumes about the fairness at which the owner of the fishing industry treated all workers, and I think that should be commended. That net reel is a cornerstone of what enabled the Black community to develop its own businesses, its homes – and it’s on the corner of [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 that it was spending money to restore the net reel. When it was constructed just down the street, he said he had no idea what it was. He said a comedy of errors has led the historical society to this point.
“In all these years, we’ve worked to maintain our house,” he said, noting he’s proud to live in a home that was once a grocery store for the African American community. “We’ve maintained the house the way we should. We’ve watched HPARC tell a lot of people you can’t do this, you can’t do this, and I’m glad they do that because that’s what they’re there for.”
Former Councilwoman Bonnie Osler served as an ex officio member of HPARC for many years during her time on council. She said commissioners are trained, dedicated, and apply preservation law equally and fairly.
“Without HPARC’s steadfast work, Lewes wouldn’t be a historic town, it would be a replica town,” she said. “Regardless of how one feels about the reel, this ordinance reeks of favoritism for a special interest. This is not good government. This is very bad government.”
Some residents advocated to move the reel back to its original location near the Lightship Overfalls, saying it is more appropriate along the canal where it can be displayed with other items of maritime significance.
Other residents urged council to keep it where it is.
“It takes my breath away every time I see it,” said Marina Drive resident Dawnel White. “It really brings home the history of this city. I can’t even begin to say what it means for me when I look at it. It’s very important that it stay where it is.”
Mayor Ted Becker said the city received 82 letters in support of the ordinance version that would allow the net reel to remain, while 13 were against it.
HPARC opposes ordinance
Emotions were high at the March 3 meeting of the historic preservation architectural review commission as members aired their frustrations with mayor and city council regarding the proposed ordinance.
Commission Chair Barbara Warnell said her group was not consulted when city officials drafted the ordinance. She said it overrides HPARC’s decision to deny Lewes Historical Society’s retroactive request for permission to place the net reel on its campus, and the board of adjustment’s vote to uphold HPARC’s authority.
“HPARC commissioners and the public can’t help but wonder why the mayor and city council have chosen not to support the city’s own commission; the commission that is charged with preserving the historic character and historic fabric of Lewes,” Warnell said. “Preservation in Lewes is the foundation that draws tourism, fuels real estate, supports our many businesses, and it can all go south in a nanosecond.”
She said it doesn’t seem fair to write an ordinance that satisfies one group.
“I’ve been told it’s legal for mayor and city council to do this, but is it right?” she said. “Does it serve all the people of Lewes or just one organization’s project? And in the future, will this help attract qualified people to volunteer for HPARC or any other part of the city?”
In 57 years living in Lewes, Commissioner Randy Burton said he’s never been so injured or appalled by his hometown and the behavior of people within the community since this issue began.
“Lewes has changed,” he said. “And this issue has changed it in a way that is not compatible to this history I grew up with or my grandmother spoke about all my life growing up.”
He said his family has lived in Lewes since 1720 and in Sussex County since 1668.
He said the plight of white and Black has been co-opted throughout the process into a different narrative that nobody in his family is aware of.
“I understand that I come from a place of white privilege, I don’t deny it, but I also have an experience of growing up in this community that is not what this issue has become. It has torn the fabric of this community apart, and now we are faced with a situation where, in my opinion, there is a gross negligence of good government going on to try to heal a divisive issue that cannot be healed by poor governance.”
For many years, Burton said, he’s been advocating for preservation and saying HPARC does not go far enough, and that there are important pieces of property 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 this is the way it’s going to go.”