Emotions ran high at the March 3 meeting of the historic preservation architectural review commission as members aired their frustrations with mayor and city council regarding a proposed museum and outdoor exhibition ordinance.
As proposed, the ordinance would allow the menhaden fishing net reel to remain on the campus of the Lewes Historical Society while setting parameters for the placement of future historic objects or artifacts.
Commission Chair Barbara Warnell said her group was not consulted when city officials drafted the ordinance. She said it overrides HPARC’s decision to deny Lewes Historical Society’s retroactive request for permission to place the net reel on its campus, and the board of adjustment’s vote to uphold HPARC’s authority. HPARC determined, per Secretary of Interior standards and the city’s own standards, that the reel did not fit in with the rhythm and scale of the neighborhood.
“HPARC commissioners and the public can’t help but wonder why the mayor and city council have chosen not to support the city’s own commission; the commission that is charged with preserving the historic character and historic fabric of Lewes,” Warnell said. “Preservation in Lewes is the foundation that draws tourism, fuels real estate, supports our many businesses, and it can all go south in a nanosecond.”
She said it doesn’t seem fair to write an ordinance that satisfies one group.
“I’ve been told it’s legal for mayor and city council to do this, but is it right?” she said. “Does it serve all the people of Lewes, or just one organization’s project? And in the future, will this help attract qualified people to volunteer for HPARC or any other part of the city?”
In 57 years living in Lewes, said Commissioner Randy Burton, he’s never been so injured or appalled by his hometown and the behavior of people within the community since this issue began.
“Lewes has changed,” he said. “And this issue has changed it in a way that is not compatible to this history I grew up with or my grandmother spoke about all my life growing up.”
He said his family has lived in Lewes since 1720 and in Sussex County since 1668.
He said the plight of white and Black has been co-opted throughout the process into a different narrative that nobody in his family is aware of.
“I understand that I come from a place of white privilege; I don’t deny it, but I also have an experience of growing up in this community that is not what this issue has become. It has torn the fabric of this community apart, and now we are faced with a situation where, in my opinion, there is a gross negligence of good government going on to try to heal a divisive issue that cannot be healed by poor governance.”
For many years, Burton said, he’s been advocating for preservation and saying HPARC does not go far enough, and that there are important pieces of property that need to be preserved more than they are.
“That’s how I got here,” he said. “But I won’t waste my time here if this is the way it’s going to go.”
Commissioner Bill Landon also grew up in Lewes and has been involved with local government for most of his life. He said he’s never seen council stick its fingers into the middle of the process and go against its own committees or commissions. He’s also upset HPARC had no say in the proposed museum ordinance.
“I can’t believe we weren’t consulted,” he said. “Our expertise was ignored in this process. I think our input has contributed to this town, particularly in the area of preservation. I think our input is valuable to the town, and for the council to ignore us – it just floors me.”
Commissioner Philip Franz said he worked with architectural review and zoning boards for 35 years before coming to Lewes and warned what could happen if the ordinance passes.
“We better be careful, because when a group doesn’t have anything safeguarding [it], it can be dangerous,” he said.
Under the proposed regulations, he said, there are many things he can think of that could be placed that would be inappropriate for the site, such as a large sign like the Dolle’s sign or a barbershop pole with revolving colors that lights up at night.
“I would hope all of this is worked out and the efforts of all of us are not just taken for granted,” he said.
Like his colleagues, Commissioner George Thomasson said he was disappointed HPARC was not included in drafting the ordinance. Allowing one organization to be exempt from historic district regulations is unbalanced, he said.
“It’s unfair, and now my opinion of the government of the City of Lewes is [it’s] not transparent – it was all done behind closed doors – and I am very, very much opposed to these ordinance changes.”
Commissioner Michael Weider said the ordinance gives an unfair advantage to a select group.
“I’m just very disappointed this is the path that has been chosen,” he said.
HPARC took two votes at its March 3 meeting. The first, a motion by Burton, was that minutes from the meeting be sent to every member of mayor and city council. It was noted that four of those five members were watching the meeting.
The second motion, made by Thomasson, was to recommend mayor and city council not approve the ordinance. The vote was unanimous with one abstention from Joe Hoechner.
To view the commission’s full conversation, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QiaKbe10kc. Discussion beings at the 2:30:00 mark.
Mayor and city council will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance at 6 p.m., Monday, March 7, at the Rollins Community Center and via Zoom. Comments may also be sent to to Janelle Cornwell at email@example.com.