A putrid smell created by unwashed oyster, clam and conch shells on the Lewes Ice House property on New Road has prompted mayor and city council to step in and take immediate action.
They unanimously passed a resolution at a special meeting Aug. 15, authorizing the city manager and solicitor to take any action needed to abate the situation. The city sent an Aug. 16 letter to owner Rusty Trout; he had 48 hours to clear the shells from the property or the city would do it for him.
Tim Willard, Trout’s attorney, said Aug. 16 that his client had already made arrangements to move the shells to a location outside the city.
Willard said the shells are part of an oyster farming operation in which Trout is involved. He said the shells, which are kept in piles on the 2.1-acre property, were to remain on the property until the bay water cools to the ideal temperature in the fall. Trout is working with the University of Delaware on the project, Willard said.
“He wanted to develop this property twice and couldn’t,” Willard said. “Since he was denied twice, he’s doing what he can do with it. He’s doing what he knows. He’s a waterman.”
The city has denied two rezoning requests for the property. In 2016, local businessman Rick Quill sought to rezone the property to build a 24-unit duplex development on the property. It was later discovered the lot was too small for duplexes and the request died. Then earlier this year, Sandbox Land Development LLC sought rezoning with the intent of building 10 single-family homes on the parcel. Council considered the request spot zoning and out of character with the surrounding area and denied it.
“[Trout] would love nothing more than to have these projects that were denied to have been approved; they would’ve been in settlement already,” Willard said. “He kind of wants out of Lewes, but he’s going to do what he can to keep value in his property and do what he knows – the nautical industry and the marine industry.”
Neighbors say the shells are so odiferous that they are getting sick. They are also attracting bugs and mosquitoes, residents say.
“Not only is the odor unbearable to the point where people are getting sick, but we can’t go outside or open our windows,” said neighbor Ginny Falgowski.
Resident Barbara Vaughan said she can smell the shells from her home a block and a half away.
Falgowski said there is also a drainage issue because shells are not absorbing rain water and it is running off into neighboring properties.
Neighbor Karen Greenhall said she witnessed three tractor trailers deliver a load of shells Aug. 13.
“It’s 80 to 90 degrees outside,” she said. “That’s not the way you do it. All of us feel very incredibly ill. The smell is horrible. The flies are really bad and they create disease.”
Neighbor Eve Aldred said the recent actions may be in retaliation of the neighbors’ opposition to the rezoning requests. Willard says that’s not the case.
“The perception is that this is personal and intentional,” Willard said. “He’s aggressively trying to develop this property. That’s understandable.”
But there has been bad blood between Trout and the neighbors in recent months. Police Chief Tom Spell said his officers have been called to the area several times responding to complaints. No criminal charges have resulted, he said.
“I’ve never had a problem with anyone, including Mr. Trout, until December,” said neighbor Ray Falgowski. “It’s been going on now for nine months. I’m tired of it. I’ve reported things. I have the right to do that. It’s for my protection and for the protection of my wife and family.”
Willard said the property was zoned commercial when Trout purchased it in 1986, but was downzoned to industrial in 2011. Quill said the existing issues would not be a problem if the city had not limited permitted uses of the property when it changed the zoning.
“I believe the council is to blame,” he said.
Although Willard said Trout has every intention to comply with council’s action, if he has not within 48 hours, council must work with a Sussex County constable to abate the problem.
This is not the only issue related to the Ice House property. Council also sent a notification of violation to Trout for four other items related to the condition of the building, piles of debris and trees, a vehicle on the property and the general poor condition of the overall property. Trout has until mid-October to fix those issues before the city steps in.