by Terry Rogers
On December 28, 2021, a dump truck pulling an excavator on a flatbed truck struck the overhead portion of the Mispillion drawbridge causing extensive damage to the machinery, support members and some of the mechanical components. As a result, the bridge cannot be lifted to allow larger boats to travel under the bridge. Over the past few months, DelDOT has indicated that the cost to repair the bridge and make it operable again may be prohibitive and there have been talks of leaving the bridge stationary. This has led to a lawsuit filed by Joan and Sudler Lofland, Russell Brown, Kevin Beam and Jason Watson requesting that the bridge be opened.
“This action arises out of Delaware Department of Transportation’s refusal to perform its statutory duty of repairing or replacing the bridge that spans the Mispillion River in Milford, Delaware, which was damaged when it was struck by an excavator towed by a dump truck operated by Juan Elias Diaz for JD’s & Sons Masonry & Home Improvement, Inc.,” the lawsuit reads. “DelDOT alleges the significant damage sustained by the bridge prevents it from being opened, or if opened, then closing again, thereby preventing commercial fishing and recreational boats owned by Plaintiffs from traveling the Mispillion River and gaining access to the Delaware Bay where they are able to engage in crabbing and fishing to support their livelihoods and to engage in recreational activities.”
The lawsuit then demands that DelDOT open the bridge by April 1 so that the plaintiffs can access the bay. It also seeks an injunction to repair or replace the bridge so that it remains operational once it is open.
The Lofland’s own the Vinyard Shipyard and have restored three yachts originally built in the shipyard in the 1920s and 1930s. The Lofland’s use the yachts for recreational purposes and display them at boat shows around the area. Because the boats are permanently docked at the shipyard, they now have no access to the Delaware Bay due to the closure of the bridge. The other three plaintiffs, Brown, Beam and Watson are commercial fishermen who docked their boat at the shipyard during the winter for repairs and maintenance. During the season, Brown docks his boat in Leipsic while Beam and Watson dock their boats in Slaughter Beach during the summer.
“Founded in 1896 by Wilson M. Vinyard, the Vinyard Shipbuilding Company wa the first Milford Shipyard to build motorized vessels,” the lawsuit reads. “The shipyard built numerous ships for the government during World War II including Navy subchasers and Coast Guard patrol boats. From 1927-1951, the company, led by Sonny Vinyard, also build world class yachts. Afterwards, the shipyard was used primarily for the maintenance and repair of wooden boats. In 1995, Joan and Sudler Lofland purchased the historic shipyard and have refurbished buildings to a museum-like quality with hopes of one day having it publicly operated while maintaining the facility as a functional and operational shipyard.”
Since purchasing the property, the Loflands have used the property as one of the last remaining wood boat repair facilities and have provided services to fishermen, assisting them with maintaining and repairing their commercial vessels during the winter. The boatyard has a unique rail system that allow them to remove boats from the water and work on them under cover during the winter months. Once spring arrives, the boats are then taken from the shipyard and travel down the Mispillion River to the Delaware Bay.
“Plaintiffs Brown, Beam and Watson fish for crabs, conch, oysters and fin fish,” the lawsuit reads. “If the boats do not make it out to the Delaware Bay by April 1, the fishermen will miss the spring run of the crabs and lose a significant amount of money. In the past, commercial fishermen have grossed as much as $100,000 solely during this spring run.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Alister Probst, South District Maintenance Engineer, told Mr. Lofland that DelDOT was considering renting a crane to lift commercial boats, transport them over land and place them in the water at Slaughter Beach. He also indicated there was consideration of leaving the bridge open and detouring traffic until it could be repaired. There was no discussion of transporting the historic yachts nor were these options discussed with Brown, Beam or Watson. The lawsuit states that the three plaintiffs do not want their boats lifted and transported over land.
“The value of the Shipyard is the use of the facility to maintain, store and use it as a home port for classic wooden yachts that were built in the shipyard,” the lawsuit reads. “There is no other place in Delaware that can accomplish this function and allow for the preservation of these boats. Without the ability to travel the Mispillion River, the yachts and the shipyard have no commercial value to the Loflands.” The lawsuit states that the historic yachts cannot be removed and trucked over land. If the bridge does not open again, the yachts would be permanently captured in the upper Mispillion with very little value other than as museum pieces.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit could not comment on the pending litigation. DelDOT also had no comment.
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