Lewes Historical Society fighting to keep menhaden fishing net reel

Attorney: Historic preservation commission does not have authority
March 5, 2021

Lewes Historical Society’s fight to keep the menhaden fishing net reel at the corner of Third and Shipcarpenter streets is set to go at least another round, as society officials have appealed a city building official’s decision.

Historical society officials do not believe the historic preservation commission has the authority to review placement of artifacts in the cultural/historical zone. However, in a Jan. 2 letter, Building Official Robin Davis upheld the city’s position that the commission does have that authority. 

The appeal is expected to go before the board of adjustment in May.

At the center of the dispute is the prominent placement of a historic menhaden fishing net reel on the society’s campus. 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 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. 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.

Mark Dunkle, attorney for the society, argues that plain reading of city code exempts cultural/historic properties from review and approval by the historic preservation commission.

“LHS and the city have a good-faith disagreement over what the code means, and that’s why we are asking the board of adjustment to decide,” Dunkle said.

Dunkle said there is only one other property in the city that has cultural/historic designation – St. Peter’s Square, home to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, its cemetery, parish hall and rectory, and the historic Ryves Holt House. He argued in a letter to building official Robin Davis that code specifies which zones require review by historic preservation, and the cultural/historic is not one of them.

“In a sense, [historic preservation] review is already taken care of on these two properties by their dedicated owners, who are the professional stewards of these iconic cultural gems in Lewes,” Dunkle said. “We think this is the reason the C/H zone is exempt from going to HPARC for approvals.”

In February, mayor and city council tasked the historic preservation commission with developing an ordinance to establish criteria for review of historic artifacts in the cultural/historical zone. The commission is set to begin discussion on the issue at its Tuesday, March 9 meeting.

If the commission develops a draft ordinance that is eventually approved by mayor and city council, the historical society may reapply to keep the net reel in place.

After initially setting a Jan. 31 deadline for removal of the net reel, the city granted a 45-day extension through early March. However, the net reel may now remain until work on a new ordinance is complete, or if the board of adjustment rules in favor of the society.

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