Lewes historic preservation group opposes creating new ordinance

Commission confident existing regulations are appropriate
March 16, 2021

Lewes’ historic preservation panel does not believe it is prudent to create a new ordinance governing the placement of historic artifacts within the historic district.

In a unanimous vote March 9, the city’s historic preservation architectural review commission decided to tell mayor and city council they prefer to continue to work within the existing code and guidelines.

In February, mayor and city council tasked the group with determining if separate code needed to be drafted for the handling of artifacts after the Lewes Historical Society challenged the commission’s decision on the placement of a menhaden fishing net reel on its campus at the corner of Shipcarpenter and Third streets.

Reels were used by the city’s fish factories on Lewes Beach in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to dry fishing nets after boats returned from a day on the water.

The net reel in question 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 meeting before the historic preservation commission, LHS Executive Director Jim Abbott said circumstances out of the society’s control required the net reel to be moved. After repairs, the net reel was reassembled on the society’s campus.

The group did not seek permission to do so, saying it had not needed permission to place artifacts on its property in the past. A small group of neighbors objected to the net reel’s new location, and 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.

In February, the historical society appealed the decision, saying the historic preservation commission does not have authority to review placement of artifacts in the cultural/historical zone. The appeal is expected to go before the board of adjustment in May.

At its March 9 meeting, Historic Preservation Chair Barbara Warnell presented a plethora of findings from hours of research into whether municipalities nationwide provide separate regulations for historic artifacts.

“What I’m finding is that artifacts do not have a definition that’s different than anything else,” she said. “They perhaps identify the importance of something [but] a chair can be an artifact, a cemetery can be an artifact, a statue can be an artifact.”

She found that the guidelines the commission uses for review are appropriate for all historic items.

Commissioner Bill Landon said he once found Native American tools while digging in his yard. He considers those artifacts and doesn’t believe he needs to go through the commission to determine if they’re appropriate for placement.

“Every community has artifacts,” he said. “I think you have to look at it in its location so that it benefits the community.”

Commissioner Randy Burton said there wasn’t any evidence to suggest the city needs to change how it governs within the historic district.

“I think our code speaks for itself,” he said. “We stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who have taken preservation very, very seriously.”

He thanked mayor and city council for recognizing the commissioners’ autonomy in that they did not attempt to draft and change city code without their permission.

During public comment, former commission Chair Elaine Simmerman agreed with the commission’s take.

“When you look at the definition of an artifact, it really tends to talk about smaller items,” she said. “The artifacts I’ve collected over the years ... those are not covered by historic preservation commission, and they shouldn’t be.”

Other members of the community disagreed with the commission’s decision.

“It sounds like it’s not going well for the artifact that’s on the LHS campus, but I support that it remains where it’s at,” said resident Trina Brown Hicks. “I think it’s a great contribution and an asset.”

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