We might take for granted the preservation of historic homes, the creation of an impressive public park, and the safeguarding of a clean enviroment, but those achievements did not happen by luck in the First State's First Town. Citizen activists made them happen.

By Chris Beakey 
Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the September 2021 issue


Whether you’ve just escaped from Route 1 traffic or taken a detour on your way home from a day at Cape Henlopen State Park, you’re apt to feel a special kind of peace as you encounter historic Lewes’s most picture-perfect places. The bustling marina alongside the Savannah Road bridgeCanalfront Park, with its performance spaces and public boat launch. The quaint downtown surrounded by beautifully preserved Colonial, Victorian and craftsman homes. 

But what if it wasn’t there, as you see it now? 

That’s a question some longtime local residents contemplate every time they look back on three pivotal events that almost turned Lewes into a very different place: a town challenged by chronic pollution, reduced access to its picturesque canal, and the loss of prized historic buildings. 

While their memories illustrate the dangers of relying solely on temporary market forces to determine a community’s course, they also show what can be achieved when local citizens work together to create economically vibrant neighborhoods that stand the test of time.

Steady paychecks and black dust

In 1981, long past the shuttering of the fish processing plant that had been the town’s largest employer from the 1940s into the 1960s, good jobs in and around Lewes were hard to find. That had a big impact on the success of downtown businesses. 

As longtime resident and businessman Cliff Diver recalls, “I was president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1981, when we had a 50 percent vacancy rate among the businesses and also didn’t have a strong residential base. Rehoboth and Lewes were also very different in terms of desirability. I think some people were ready to sacrifice Lewes to bring in more jobs for the region.”

To many, what happened next initially felt like a miracle. It was a proposal from Annapolis, Md.-based developer T. Phillip Dunn, who acquired 16 acres with an option for 63 more for the potential creation of what he first identified as a “bulk product facility.” However, it didn’t take long for locals to learn the product would be coal. Lots of it — enough to fill up to 200 railroad cars traveling daily toward a massive port that would be built on the land currently occupied by the Cape Shores community. Each year that port would receive between 3 million and 6.7 million tons of coal destined for barges that would carry it to massive ships offshore. 

You don’t have to be an economist or political scientist to know how this was received. With a promised abundance of full-time jobs for people who didn’t have a college education, the port offered what seemed like a magic formula for rebuilding the population base and ensuring no more downtown businesses moved out. 

Yet from the beginning, longtime local Dale Parsons, who owned the drawbridge-area marina that depended on anglers and sightseers drawn to clean water and air, was among many who pointed to environmental dangers that could have extended beyond the coal port’s proposed location.

“The whole town knew I was against it because I could just see it messing every damn thing up,” he recalls. “I told them we got plenty of wind that’s gonna blow the dust everywhere and that if you don’t like that you’ll have to take your house somewhere else.”

Diver heartily agrees.

“I had a friend in Morehead City, N.C., where there was another coal port, so I saw what Lewes would become. One day of breathing in coal dust won’t kill you, but many days of coal dust will.”

Others were more circumspect, and some were determined to make it happen.

“The mayor [Al Stango] was against it, but he was trying to look out for the well-being of the town ... trying to keep jobs,” Parsons adds. And two City Council members went on record with sustained and strong support. 

Still, the resistance endured. David Swayze, an environmental attorney hired by a group of Lewes Beach property owners to argue against the port, notes that “the current of opposition was powerful but it also ran deep. ... They were content to let the process take its course and make sure the stars were properly aligned.”

In retrospect, two key events steered that course toward the clean air and water that Lewes enjoys today. One was the prospect of long-term litigation to determine if the coal plant would be grandfathered in as an allowable use for the property despite the 1971 Coastal Zone Act, which restricts industrial operations along Delaware’s waterways.

The other was a collection of firsthand accounts of what happened to coastal towns with coal ports. Dennis Forney, editor of The Whale newspaper, flew to Morehead City in a plane piloted by University of Delaware Marine Sciences Director Wadsworth Owen. The way he describes his reaction all these years later shows why so many locals were grateful the plant never came to fruition:

“Seeing the train tracks and coal cars — dirty, of course — going through the center of town was enough to make the decision easy. There would have been jobs, of course, but imagine a coal port instead of Cape Shores. [That] pretty much sealed the deal in terms of Lewes becoming a tourist town versus an industrial town.”

Against tall odds, a public park

Situated alongside Front Street as it transitions to Pilottown Road, Canalfront Park is a treasure. On many warm days you’ll find children climbing and swinging at its playground, families crabbing and fishing from the public pier, or crowds lounging on its vast Village Green during live musical performances. 

If you close your eyes knowing about its dramatic history, however, it’s easy to imagine a very different view, with today’s green space replaced by a large building with dozens of condominium residences above retail stores and a vast parking garage. Stretching from the edge of today’s Inn at Canal Square toward the tennis and basketball courts, the building would have significantly reduced public access to the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal. 

The story about what happened instead is filled with local heroes — and no real villains. In a June 1998 Cape Gazette article, Jim Kiernan of Coldwell Banker Resort Realty described his vision for the condo development as reflecting architectural aspects of the building that housed King’s Ice Cream, a beloved two-story Colonial-style structure on Second Street.

“We like the cedar shingles, the lapboard siding and the small-paned windows and their proportions. We also designed a lot of open space ... with a 50-foot arch, two stories tall, to open a view to the canal from Front Street. We’ve also completed an environmental analysis, so we know what we have to clean up.”

That clean-up was especially important to Parsons, who had led the fight against the coal port. He was the owner of the boatyard, which had become filled with derelict watercraft and would have been replaced by the condo building. Yet other local residents were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to create something very different.

Second Street resident Joe Stewart relishes how that effort succeeded. 

“Once the project began getting publicity, a group of people started meeting in my dining room on Sundays at 11 a.m. to talk about something better because they realized this was the last undeveloped piece of land that would give Lewes a connection to the water ... our last opportunity.”

The group, which included individuals with expertise in community planning, took a two-tiered approach to realizing an alternate vision. They hired an attorney and a traffic engineer to ask important questions when the condo project came before the city’s planning commission. And they embarked on a public awareness campaign to help people imagine a different use for the site: a public park.

While the turnout for the group’s first public discussion was astounding, Stewart, who spent decades following public policy in Washington, D.C., knew that support from federal and state agencies was vital. 

“Lawmakers know everybody’s looking for support for something, but what really stands out is when people show they’re willing to put in their own money as well,” he says. “Over a four-day period we fanned out and knocked on doors and by … Sunday we had 100 people who had agreed to give $100 apiece toward whatever it took to build the park. We had these pledges in hand when we went to meet with Delaware’s congressional delegation shortly after.”

That enthusiasm was compounded during the years that followed, with donations from 1,600 local residents, businesses and people who simply love Lewes. Together these groups donated nearly $2.7 million to create the park. This was in addition to a $2 million grant from the Save America’s Treasures program at the National Park Service and generous support other government agencies, including the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Ultimately, it took nearly $11 million to create the park the public enjoys today.

Stewart also appreciates the collective vision that evolved once the land was secured.

“Everybody wanted a waterfront park, but we also had to decide what it was going to be. We got a grant from the city to bring in a group of planning experts, who helped us develop a vision with input from people throughout Lewes. It took 10 years but we ended up with a naturalistic refuge that preserved the nautical flavor, with boat slips and public restrooms and a playground.”

Greater Lewes Community Foundation Executive Director Mike Rawl also credits Kiernan as an ardent philanthropist who graciously ceded his dream, paving the way for the park’s development.

“Once he became aware of how strongly the community felt, he created an agreement that benefited everyone,” Rawl recalls. “His daughter, Kathy Newcomb, went on to serve on the Greater Lewes Foundation Board and created a scholarship in her father’s memory. We’re very grateful to the entire family for all of the wonderful things they’ve done to make Sussex County such a great place.”

Historic preservation as a vital force

In 1974, long before the coal port or park were even a possibility, Carol Garner and her husband opened R&L Liquors on Second Street, just steps away from restaurants that were operated by her father, Lou Ianire, from 1959 to 1980. Strolling through the area on a recent afternoon, she easily recalls a town center that was far more utilitarian than the hospitality-oriented streetscape people encounter today. 

“Friday nights were when people got their paychecks, so that’s when they came downtown to cash them and do their weekly shopping. We had Franklin Hardware where Kids’ Ketch is ... Graves Uniforms around the corner, a shoe store, a barber shop, a couple of grocery stores and Fox’s Five and Dime. Back then you could pick up everything you needed right here.”

As a businessperson, Garner understands the consumer tastes that drove the development of big box stores outside of town. Like so many, however, she’s grateful that the quaint buildings where those utilitarian businesses once operated are still intact and perfectly suited for boutiques, upscale restaurants and art galleries.

She’s not alone. Lewes is filled with people who cherish downtown’s Norman Rockwell vibe and stately historic homes, including some built well before 1800. They also love the campus of the Lewes Historical Society, replete with mostly Colonial-style structures that were disassembled and moved to the site, and places like the Zwaanendael Museum, a grand building constructed in 1931, despite the Great Depression, to honor the town’s Dutch heritage.

That widespread appreciation was a key force in the development of preservation rules that have been enthusiastically supported by longtime residents and newcomers alikeThe process of getting there, however, was spurred by some deep pain as Lewes became more popular in the late 1980s.

“There was a run on demolitions. ... We lost some beautiful old places, including a couple that meant a lot to seniors at the time,” local preservationist Barbara Warnell recalls. With Barbara Vaughn, another preservationist who has held various elected positions, leading the charge, “a group of us started meeting and going to preservation workshops with speakers from the National Trust and other organizations. Finally, in 1992, we had a locally designed ordinance for the Lewes Historic District.”

Although that looked like progress for those who wanted to protect homes and commercial buildings, the regulations tended to be advisory. And by the end of the decade, demolition danger signs were still apparent.

As Mike DiPaolo, who served as the Lewes Historical Society’s executive director from 2001 to 2019, sees it, “for a long time, local preservationists had the sentiment that people would be inclined to do what’s right with their historic houses. That was justified because from the 1970s, as a result of the U.S. Bicentennial, there was a deepened appreciation for Colonial architecture. By 2000 and 2001, though, a lot of the people who’d restored local houses were selling, and we started seeing newcomers with a different mindset.”

As a result, the effort to strengthen protections was significantly ramped up between 2001 and 2004, when the mayor and City Council put their full support behind a citizens group that created official guidelines to ensure that new construction and renovations in the historic district reflect Lewes’s architectural heritage.

Not surprisingly, conflicts do arise, often when a homebuyer is unaware of the restrictions prior to embarking on a renovation. But the bottom-line result is that the stately homes and other buildings that have stood watch over the town’s evolution for a century or more are there to stay.

When asked whether that could hinder Lewes’s vitality by causing homebuyers to choose less restrictive neighborhoods, DiPaolo has an unequivocal response: “Lewes real estate certainly hasn’t cooled off because of these rules. ... I believe it’s because they protect the flavor that people come here for. But if you start to let the historic properties go one at a time, suddenly Second Street won’t look like Second Street anymore. People know the businesses and neighbors will come and go, but the streetscape will stay the same. That’s what preservation is all about: protecting the places we know and love ... and often making them so much better.”