Proposed ordinance would allow net reel to stay in place

Lewes Mayor and City Council sets public hearing March 7
February 18, 2022

The historic menhaden fishing net reel would be allowed to stay on the Lewes Historical Society campus if a proposed ordinance is passed by mayor and city council.

Lewes officials set a public hearing for Monday, March 7, to receive comments on an ordinance to amend city code related to museums and museum exhibitions.

Under proposed regulations, 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.

At council’s Feb. 14 meeting, Deputy Mayor Andrew Williams asked about the legality of the proposed ordinance.

“I have had some questions as to if this legislation is legal,” Williams said. “The mayor mentioned [this is] a prospective ordinance, and in this ordinance, we’re allowing for essentially a grandfathering.”

City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said the ordinance is legal.

“It’s not common, but it’s also not completely uncommon that an ordinance recognizes things that are currently in place that are not consistent with current zoning laws,” he said. “I don’t see it as legally flawed.”

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 kerfuffle.

The public hearing will be held at 6 p.m., Monday, March 7. A link to the proposed ordinance can be found on the agenda for council’s Feb. 14 meeting at It will also appear on the March 7 agenda when it is posted. The ordinance could be up for vote as early as council’s next regular meeting Monday, March 14.


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