Country music festival: Bane or boon?

Sussex residents line up for and against proposal
Alex Pires makes a presentation to the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission on a proposed music venue near Harbeson. BY RON MACARTHUR
July 18, 2014

Someone with a little imagination could have come up with lyrics for a good country song based on testimony at a July 10 planning and zoning commission hearing.

For more than two-and-a-half hours, commissioners listened to people for and against the request filed by Dewey Beach businessman Alex Pires, whose Cool Spring LLC/Highway One Companies has filed an application for a conditional use of agricultural-residential, AR-1, land for an outdoor entertainment venue with temporary camping on 500 acres of a 1,000-acre farm owner by the Baker family near Harbeson.

Pires has signed a lease with the Bakers to use the farm.

The final decision could come down to location. Pires says the large farm is a perfect spot to stage a county music festival. Many residents disagree, saying infrastructure is not in place to support an event attracting up to 20,000 people.

Another public hearing on the application is scheduled before Sussex County Council at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 22, in the county administration building on The Circle in Georgetown.

Pires presented his idea for a music festival saying at the outset that he will stage an event in August 2015. While he wants to hold it in Sussex County, if that doesn't work out, he also has an agreement to use facilities at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington.

More than 200 people spilled from the meeting room out into the hallways. Many supporters of the application came on buses and left about midway through the hearing. During an unofficial count, more than 115 people raised their hands in support and about 75 people were opposed.

Lawrence Lank, director of county planning and zoning, said, as of July 10, his office had received five letters in support of the application and 51 letters and emails and more than 460 signatures on petitions opposed to the application.

Under Pires' proposal, there would be no more than five events on the parcel during the year. Two of the events would be three-day music festivals; the other three would be one-day charity events without music, Pires said. He said the country music festival would attract some of the top performers in the business.

If he does two music festivals, they will be held back-to-back in August using the same equipment, he said after the meeting.

Pires said 80 percent of the estimated 12,000 to 20,000 attendees would be campers who would stay for the three-day festival; daily ticket sales would be limited to 20 percent of total sales.

The planning and zoning commission deferred on making a recommendation to county council. Commissioners could take action next week because the application is on the Thursday, July 24 commission agenda. Council will make the final decision on the application and cannot take a vote until they receive a commission recommendation.

“I think it was an incredibly fair hearing,” Pires said after the meeting, adding he is taking the advice of the commission and will provide a detailed preliminary site plan to county council.

Supporters point to economic benefits

Those who supported the application talked about the positive economic effect a music festival could have on the county.

Jim Allen, who owns a cab company, said Pires does everything first class. “The economic effect of this would be enormous,” he said. “And he will leave the place the way he found it.”

Dale McCallister of Dover, who does business in Sussex County, said it would be a mistake to stage the event in Harrington because of the economic windfall for local businesses. “You are already losing Punkin Chunkin and not one person is complaining about getting that event in Dover.”

Cindy Issel, who lives on Robinsonville Road near Lewes, said allowing events at the site would ensure that the large farm would remain in farm production. “This is an opportunity to preserve the area,” she said.

Members of the Baker family did not attend the hearing because of a death in the family. In a letter to county officials, Mark Baker said the lease allows for only limited use of the property with farming taking place on the parcel 11 months out of each year.

Opponents: Not the right place for venue

Opponents cited increased traffic on rural roads, noise, harm to the environment, safety concerns and disturbance of their rural lifestyle. Most said the fairgrounds in Harrington would be a better location for the event.

Pires said that every aspect of the proposed festival would be regulated by state or county agencies with all precautions taken to minimize impact on the surrounding area.

Willie Nelson, president of the Avalon Woods Owners' Association, called his community of 250 people ground zero, across the road from the proposed festival site. He said residents are concerned about potential grid-lock caused by increased traffic that could affect emergency access to the area. He said police and emergency vehicles respond to the area an average of five times a week.

He said residents say there is potential for increased crime during the days events are staged.

“We believe this is a direct violation of the county comprehensive plan for rural communities specially regarding our safety, convenience and the well-being of our communities, as well as the protection of the AR-1 agricultural lands,” Nelson said.

Gary Simone, who lives in the Independence community near the farm, spoke about the potential environmental impact including possible tree removal, draw down on the water supply, stormwater runoff in a flood-prone area, noise and degradation of air quality caused by traffic, generators and dust.

He said the applicant's record does not address possible environmental risks. “Information is not available on the public record to evaluate the environmental impact,” Simone said.

He said county officials should require the applicant to provide a formal risk assessment and make the report public, provide environmental monitoring and also provide bonding and insurance to cover any environmental damage or damage to residents' properties.

Tim Riale, a Realtor who lives on Lawson Road, near the proposed festival site, said AR-1 zoning prohibits most landowners from operating a commercial business. He said it's understandable if a landowner facing an economic hardship would request a conditional use to operate a small business. “It's quite another to consider a request of this magnitude, which when making a list of pros and cons, it has no pros or benefits to anyone residing in the area,” Riale said.

Peter Lucuk, an Independence resident, said the four roads around the perimeter of the proposed festival site are not designed to support a large, commercial-type venue. He said the roads are all two lanes about 20 feet wide with no shoulders.

Lucuk said the big difference between the proposed venue and other venues for major events is their proximity to a major road. He said Firefly, NASCAR races and Punkin Chunkin take place along or near some of the state's major roadways.

Lucuk said, if approved, county officials should have strict conditions in place to limit attendance and the number of vehicles allowed on the parcel based on state transportation officials' recommendations. In addition, he said, the applicant should be required to make road improvements and ensure that surrounding properties are not overwhelmed by parked vehicles.

He said county officials should also place limits on the number of days permitted for set-up and break-down before and after events. “If not, you could end up with a full-time city all summer,” he said.

Delaware Department of Transportation's Marc Cote said, if approved, DelDOT would work out a traffic control plan with the applicant and police similar to plans for other events in the state.

Bill Ryan, a resident of Independence, asked how the county would benefit from the proposed event. “The only benefit I see is to the applicant requesting it,” he said. “It's going to cost the county money.”

Margaret Foulke said she doubted the county would enforce conditions placed on the application. “When you give out conditional uses, you lose control of them,” she said. “This is not what Sussex County is supposed to look like.”

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