The historic menhaden fishing net reel must move, at least a little bit, as Lewes Mayor and City Council voted to approve an ordinance regulating outdoor exhibitions at museums.
Council voted 3-1 with one abstention to approve a version of the ordinance that did not include language that would have let the net reel stay right where it is. It was placed on the campus of the Lewes Historical Society without permission from the city.
The ordinance now in effect requires an object no taller than 20 feet to be set back at least one-half of its height from property lines. To be compliant, Lewes Historical Society may only need to move the net reel back a few feet; however, officials may also move it elsewhere on the campus or to another location altogether. 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.
Voting in favor of the ordinance were Mayor Ted Becker, Councilwoman Carolyn Jones and Councilman Khalil Saliba. Councilman Tim Ritzert voted against, while Deputy Mayor Andrew Williams abstained.
“I think it’s been an unfortunate incident, frankly, and it’s divided the town in many ways,” Saliba said. “Some on HPARC will claim that we’re usurping their authority, potentially, but what I think is important here is that we need to make a decision. We need to move on, because this has been going on too long.”
The issue first came to light in September 2020, when the historical society went before the city’s historic preservation architectural review commission to seek retroactive approval for the placement of the net reel at the corner of Shipcarpenter Street and W. Third Street. The reel, which has become a symbol of the African American community’s contributions to Lewes’ history, had previously sat along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal near the Lightship Overfalls for more than a decade. HPARC commissioners voted unanimously to deny the historical society’s request, saying it did not fit in with the rhythm and scale of the neighborhood.
After months of discussions with city officials, the historical society appealed to the city’s board of adjustment, claiming HPARC did not have the authority to make such a decision. In November 2021, the board determined the historical society’s campus was within HPARC’s jurisdiction.
City Manager Ann Marie Townshend said testimony from Tim Slavin and Dan Griffith, the current and former directors of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, pointed out that the city’s historic preservation standards envisioned buildings, but not museum-type artifacts, and that code revisions should be considered.
“They spoke to what the code should be, not what the code was,” Townshend said. “What was before the board of adjustment was what the code was.”
With that limited scope to consider, the board denied the historical society’s appeal.
City staff then drafted an ordinance to address artifacts in an outdoor exhibition setting. The original draft included language that exempted anything placed prior to February 2022; however, a second version of the ordinance was presented at a March 7 public hearing that removed the grandfathering clause.
While the ordinance was being drafted in January, the historical society filed a lawsuit in Delaware Superior Court, seeking to overturn the board of adjustment’s decision on jurisdiction. The lawsuit was filed due to a narrow window in which the historical society could appeal the board’s decision. The lawsuit was stayed while mayor and city council considered the ordinance. If it was adopted by council, the historical society said it would drop the lawsuit.
“Recognizing the importance of museum independence, last Monday night city council removed the LHS campus from HPARC supervision over most outdoor exhibits,” said LHS attorney Mark Dunkle. “Council restored to LHS museum independence, something it had previously enjoyed from 1962 until HPARC was created in 2019. Now, the only remaining question is, does the net reel meet the new height and setback limits? In other words, does it fit where it sits? To answer that question, the LHS will hire a surveyor to professionally measure the reel’s height and plot its present distance from the property line down to the inch, and report these findings back to the LHS board. With that survey in hand, the board can determine any steps it needs to take for compliance with the new law.”
Ritzert voted against the ordinance because he believes it undermines the good service and purpose of HPARC.
“I’ve come to appreciate the fact that they are not part of the political process that I am as a councilperson,” he said. “That’s very, very important. We need to have a body that studies the history of these buildings, the importance of them, and works with property owners to make sure that the buildings are restored correctly and respectfully.
“We have a body in the city that did not follow the process, did not follow our code,” he said later. “And frankly, I think they need to comply with our existing code without damaging the very commissioners that we are dependent upon for us to serve in our capacity.”
Williams chose to abstain from voting because he campaigned on carrying out the will of the people, but he did not agree with the majority in this case because the reel was moved illegally.
“I respect the fact that this seems to be the will the people, but we have these committees and commissions that we put in specific roles, frankly, so that I'm not in this position,” he said.
Jones, who is council’s ex officio representative to HPARC, said she’s received an overwhelming number of emails and personal contacts from people about this issue. She also worked in the museum business for 20 years.
“It’s been extremely difficult for me,” she said. “I know how hard it is for everyone here. I’m here to tell you that we cannot continue the way we’re going, because it doesn’t work. You put us in this position for the health, safety and welfare of the city, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. I sincerely hope that we can move on from this.”
Becker said the entire situation could’ve been avoided had the historical society had a meaningful discussion about other possible locations.
“I think we can find a solution with perhaps just a modicum of change of location,” he said. “I hope there will be community support. I do think the net reel is important enough that it will not be impossible to find resources to do a relocation on the grounds, and I would certainly support efforts to do so.”