Fenwick Island’s newest town park officially has a new, eponymous, name: Cannon Street Park. Signage to that effect was due to be ordered this week and put in place soon in the newly completed park located on Cannon Street on the town’s west side, after a 6-0 vote of the town council.
However, the decision did not come without controversy, as citizens who had supported naming the park after late Fenwick Island resident and historian Mary Pat Kyle objected at the Feb. 22 council meeting to the council’s decision to not name the park after Kyle, despite a petition of support containing more than 140 signatures.
Mayor Audrey Serio opened discussion of the naming of the park at last Friday’s meeting by noting that the Town hoped to have a dedication of the new park and its official opening around Memorial Day.
“We do have to do a sign. We do have to name it,” she said. “I’d like to come to a conclusion as to what to name it.”
Councilman Gene Lavgan made a motion that the council name the park with the same name it already had been given in informal use: Cannon Street Park. But, he suggested, the park should be “dedicated to all those who have served the Town of Fenwick Island.”
“It was proposed to name the park after a certain individual,” he noted, referencing the movement to name it after Kyle, who had served the town variously over decades as mayor, town council and board of adjustments member, and environmental commissioner, as well as writing two books on its history. Kyle passed away in December 2011.
“I was in support, but recently we had another former council member pass away,” he added of the death in mid-January of former councilman Harry J. Haon III, who had done extensive work on the town code during his term on the council, as well as focusing on environmental concerns.
“I thought about all the people who have served this town,” he continued. “And it occurred to me it wasn’t fair to name it after one individual person. We should name it in a way that all the people who have served this town are honored.”
Councilman Todd Smallwood said he didn’t feel it was fair “to judge one person versus another.” He pointed to the potential future perspective on even the sitting council’s contributions and said that perhaps the council should consider naming different elements of the park to honor individuals.
Smallwood also read into the record an email from Councilwoman Vicki Carmean, who was unable to attend the meeting and who was alone among the council members in supporting naming the park after Kyle.
In the email, Carmean said she was concerned “about the seemingly arbitrary decision to reject the idea of naming the park after Mary Pat Kyle.” With 140 signatures on the petition, Carmean said she was unaware of any who had objected to the idea during its circulation. She said she had heard references to an anonymous “they” who felt people would feel left out if the park was named solely after Kyle.
“I don’t feel ‘they’ are in the majority,” she wrote, emphasizing the town’s past history of naming streets and other features after residents. “This has been brought up before and, after several meetings, hasn’t been discussed formally by the council,” Carmean added. “This should be addressed by the park committee, with an up-or-down vote, and if it is moved forward, should then go to a council vote. I don’t feel it’s fair for one person to dismiss this idea.”
Serio said she had replied to Carmean’s email and also wished to clarify some issues she had addressed therein.
“Buzz did make a motion,” she said of park committee member Edward “Buzz” Henifin. “But it was not seconded by anyone on the committee. No one squelched anything. I decided we should certainly have a moment up here to get the matter going and get the sign going and put whatever is decided, so I put it on the agenda for today.”
Serio emphasized that she had known Kyle for decades. The Town hadn’t acted quickly on naming the park, she added.
“Then, when Harry died, I thought, ‘Who are we to decide who takes more credit than others?’ Everybody should be given the chance to add something to the park or to town hall to give them recognition,” Serio said. “If special recognition is felt to be needed by family or friends, we should give them the opportunity to have that done.”
Councilman Bill Weistling Jr. said the decision was very tough one for him.
“I was very close to Mary Pat for the last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “She did an awful lot for this town and is very deserving of any award or any recognition. But if it wasn’t for Harry, we would not have had this park here.
“July is our 60th anniversary,” he continued. “And the town was incorporated because people were afraid that Ocean City’s highrises were going to protrude into Fenwick Island. It has not happened. And it took a lot of people in this town volunteering on the council and committees to keep Fenwick the way it is now. I find it hard to honor any one person,” he said, supporting the additional wording Lavgan had offered, “acknowledging everyone who has contributed to the town.”
Councilman Gardner Bunting said he also agreed.
“It occurred to me that if we named things after everyone who has participated over the years, we would have a plaque on every telephone pole, every signpost, everywhere in town.”
Asked if the council felt so strongly about not honoring one person over another whether they would be removing the honorific name from town hall or the name Bunting from Bunting Avenue, Serio said such changes “are not for us to do. We’re talking about something that is on the table,” she said.
Councilwoman Diane Tingle said she didn’t think most people knew who the town hall had been named after. “Nobody calls it that,” she said.
Bunting noted that some of the streets had been named prior to the town’s incorporation, named by the property developer, while he thought the County or State had named Bunting Avenue after his ancestor.
Resident Lynn Andrews defended the idea of naming the park after Kyle.
“Mary Pat served this town for 65 years,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in this world who’s going to serve a town for 65 years. The first two people who jumped on this petition were Harry and Carolyn Haon,” she emphasized.
“But Mary Pat did more than anyone. The town was incorporated when she was here. She started FISH,” Andrews added of the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners. “She started the Women’s Club. I know other people have served, but no one in this town has served the way Mary Pat has. She wrote two books of the history of this town. I do not accept your rejection of naming the park after her.”
Resident Joanna Kass, who was also among supporters of naming the park for Kyle, asked whether — if the council would not name the park for her — if there would be a problem with putting a plaque there in her honor.
“Then a plaque with Harry, and so on? Are you going to reject that, as well?” she asked.
Serio said they wouldn’t reject the idea of a plaque or a bench — something that was planned for inclusion in the park.
“I think the reasoning has been discussed,” she said. “Rehoboth has trees with plaques on them. It gives people the opportunity to recognize other people, as well.”
Henifin acknowledged that he had been the one who had brought up the idea of naming the park after Kyle at the parks committee meeting.
“You’ve pretty much thrown out 140 signatures, which is pretty close to half of the year-round residents,” he pointed out. “If we can’t settle on naming it after Mary Pat, I would propose we call it Fenwick Island Town Park and get rid of Cannon Street, because we have another park on Cannon Street,” he added, to support from others in the group.
“We already have a town park,” noted Tingle, referencing Fenwick Island Community Park, which is adjacent to town hall. “How would you tell which one is which?”
Serio further noted that the Town had to be careful, because the Cannon Street Park “is specific in the State’s eye, and we have to be very specific,” because of the funding for the park project that came from the State of Delaware.
Town Manager Merritt Burke noted that DNREC considers the park a part of its Greenway Trail Head, with the kayak launch and access for standup paddleboards to Fenwick and the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge.
One supporter of naming the park after Kyle said she had called State officials about the issue, “And they don’t care what it’s called.”
“It can’t be lumped in with another park,” Burke clarified.
Despite the debate, the council remained in favor of retaining the name of Cannon Street Park, “Dedicated to all those who have served the Town of Fenwick Island.” They voted 6-0, with Carmean absent, to approve the name and order signage for the new park as approved by the council.