Lewes Historical Society appeals board of adjustment decision

Lawsuit will be dropped if museum/outdoor exhibition ordinance passes
February 22, 2022

The Lewes Historical Society has filed a lawsuit against the City of Lewes and its board of adjustment seeking to overturn the board’s decision regarding jurisdiction over the historical society’s campus. 

The board’s written opinion was issued Dec. 28, setting in motion a 30-day period within which the historical society could appeal the decision. The appeal was filed in Superior Court Jan. 25. 

Less than a month after that filing, Lewes Mayor and City Council introduced an ordinance that may resolve the situation, specifically regarding the placement of a historic menhaden fishing net reel on the historical society’s campus. 

“The LHS appeal to Superior Court will be stayed by agreement between legal counsel for the city, BoA and LHS so the museum ordinance amendment initiated by the city can first proceed,” said LHS attorney Mark Dunkle. “The LHS supports the amendment introduced by council Feb. 14, and if adopted as drafted, [LHS] would then be able to terminate the Superior Court appeal. But to preserve the rights of the LHS, filing this appeal was necessary. So far, the legislative resolution proposed by the city looks very promising.”

Ordinance proposed

At its February regular meeting, mayor and city council introduced an ordinance related to museums and outdoor exhibitions.

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 if they were installed after Feb. 1, 2022.

Those standards include 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 the city’s historic preservation architectural review commission.

Due to the Feb. 1 effective date, the net reel would be permitted to remain at the corner of Shipcarpenter and West Third streets.

A public hearing on the ordinance is set for 6 p.m., Monday, March 7.

Long history

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 the Lewes HPARC, then-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 they had not needed permission to place artifacts on their property in the past.

After a 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 testified several times that 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 went before the city’s board of adjustment in November 2021 seeking to have the denial revoked on the grounds that HPARC did not have jurisdiction over the LHS campus. The board upheld HPARC’s power by a 3-1 vote.

In the months since, city staff and members of council have been working on the museum and outdoor exhibitions ordinance as a way to find resolution to the feud.


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