For the past three Christmas seasons, Rehoboth Beach has been in a public back-and-forth with the local Knights of Columbus about the placement of a nativity scene on city property – specifically the Bandstand. It looks like Christmas 2021 should be much quieter.
During an April 16 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved an agreement with the Knights of Columbus Star of the Sea Council 7297 that ends a lawsuit filed in June 2020. The vote came after a 20-minute executive session, and there was no discussion after commissioners returned.
In their lawsuit, the Knights argued that the blanket ban of the crèche from city property showed religious discrimination. Six months after the suit was filed, commissioners approved a policy prohibiting private holiday displays on public property during the holiday season, defined as Nov. 15 through Jan. 15 in any given year.
This issue began in December 2018, when the Knights placed a nativity scene on the lawn by the Bandstand. The city forced the Knights to remove the figurines days later. Ultimately, the Knights installed the nativity scene in the outdoor patio entrance of the ocean-block Grotto Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue. Last year, in addition to adopting the new policy, the city also installed a multi-religious display on the Bandstand, including a nativity scene.
In an email following the meeting, Mayor Stan Mills explained the agreement, which calls for the city to display its full nativity scene for at least the next two Decembers, maintain and repair the figures if damaged, and enforce the regulations on unattended displays.
These were all intentions of the commissioners in adopting the existing unattended display policy, said Mills.
That city policy allows for privately owned displays on private property only, not on city property, said Mills, which means the Knights of Columbus can display their private nativity on private property.
Under the terms of agreement, Mill said the Knights are not allowed to display their nativity scene on city property. However, he said, he was glad the issue was resolved amicably.
“I believe we all are winners,” he said. “Last year’s array of seasonal displays was beautiful, received many compliments and was enjoyed by many.”
Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, represented the Knights of Columbus. “This is cause for celebration,” said Byron, in an email April 19. “A free-standing crèche is once again part of the community’s holiday display. The Knights of Columbus is pleased to have helped bring about such an outstanding result.”
BeachWalk case heading to trial
The city may have resolved one three-year-long issue, but BeachWalk, which has been going on twice as long, will be continuing.
With a project introduced in 2015, developer Keith Monigle is seeking to build 63 residential units on a 7.75-acre parcel off Route 1, currently operating as Rehoboth Beach Plaza shopping center. His plans call for 58 single-family homes and five apartment-style units, but lots would not be subdivided; houses would be constructed on a single lot.
During a special meeting in May 2019, city commissioners voted unanimously to enforce an ordinance created in 2017 that applies to all pending and future applications, and an ordinance created in 2016 codifying that only one building could be built on a lot. Soon afterward, attorney Richard Forsten filed a lawsuit on behalf of Monigle.
In a decision issued April 13, Court of Chancery Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III said he thought the issue would be “best resolved through the development of a record at trial.”
Both sides, the city and Monigle, argued for summary judgment on their behalf. Glasscock said the city argues that Monigle believed the city code was fairly confusing, and that he purposefully avoided submitting his redevelopment plan to the city for concept review because he feared the city could close the loophole Monigle believed he had found in city code.
However, Glasscock continued, the plaintiff believed its redevelopment could be done as a condominium if drafted and built correctly. Monigle also provided statements from various city officials indicating that he could redevelop the property as a condominium, said the judge.
During the recent commissioners meeting, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said a date had not yet been set for the trial.