Pires: Rural setting suits music festival

But residents say event does not comply with county land-use plan
July 25, 2014

Location and traffic are the primary issues that have polarized debate over a proposed country music festival venue in Sussex County

Dewey Beach businessman Alex Pires says the rural location on 500 acres of farmland is perfect for an event attracting some of the top country music performers in the country.

Residents who live near the farm say the proposed events with large crowds would disrupt their quiet, rural lifestyle and the increased traffic – including thousands of RVs and campers – on rural roads would gridlock the area.

As with traffic issues, the two sides have different views on whether the application conforms with the county's comprehensive land-use plan. Highway One attorney Steve Spence said the proposed project would promote tourism and conserve agricultural lands, two key components in the plan. “This is good for the county with limited use of the property,” he said, adding that the parcel would be used for farming 11 months out of the year.

Residents who testified said because the county's land-use plan designates the area as a farming and residential area, large commercial events are out of character with the surrounding area.

Pires, representing 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 owned by the Baker family near Harbeson.

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

Council asks for traffic plan

Residents had another chance to comment on the proposed entertainment venue during a July 22 Sussex County Council public hearing. Many comments during the three-hour July 22 hearing before Sussex County Council were similar to those made two weeks earlier during a planning and zoning hearing. Residents also had a chance to view a preliminary site plan of the proposed venue.

County council did not take action as it awaits a recommendation from its planning and zoning commission, which deferred a decision at its July 10 meeting. Council requested a traffic pattern plan for the venue from the Delaware Department of Transportation. That report will be presented during the Tuesday, July 29 council meeting in the county administration building on The Circle in Georgetown.

Pires: Event will take place in 2015

Pires said he has plans to use the site to stage a country music festival and possibly a folk-country music festival on back-to-back weekends in August 2015. He estimates, during the first year, each event could attract about 12,000 to 15,000 people with a maximum of about 20,000 people coming to future events if the venture is successful. He said he would model the events after other music festivals he has researched and attended over the past two years.

Pires said the vast majority of attendees would be campers in RVs who would spend the entire three days of the festival on site. He also said country music festivals are family events.

Under Pires' proposal, there would be no more than five events on the parcel during the year. Two would be three-day music festivals in August; the other three would be one-day charity events without music, Pires said.

While he said he wants to stage events in Sussex County, if that doesn't work out, he also has an agreement to use facilities at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington. “This is going to happen in 2015,” he said.

Many residents urged him to take that option where infrastructure for major events is already in place. “I love music and I am willing to travel to Harrington to listen to it,” said Bill Ryon, a resident of the nearby Independence community.

Pires said every aspect – from the location of campsites to parking – is regulated by state and county agencies. He also said he would adhere to any reasonable conditions placed on the application.

Pires said he is asking for no more than eight nights and days to stage the festivals. That does not include an estimated two weeks to prepare the site and two to three days for break down. He said the entire parcel would be fenced in.

Cole: Why in August?

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, asked Pires why the festivals are scheduled for August when the area is already crowded with vacationers. “It seems to me this would only bring more traffic and more activity to an area that is already congested,” he said.

Pires said county music festivals are family events that have to be staged when schools are out of session. In addition, he said, county music performers tour to venues such as he is proposing occur only during the summer months.

Pires also said many campers would choose to stay extra days in Sussex County providing an economic benefit to local businesses.

Traffic surfaces as major concern

Traffic and road conditions have surfaced as major issues in the debate over the proposed entertainment venue.

Pires and residents have decidedly different views of the traffic issues that an event attracting up to 20,000 people would create.

“It won't be a traffic problem,” Pires said. “It's very low impact.”

Mark Baker, one of the owners of the farm, said he understands area residents' traffic concerns, but he doesn't feel the impact will be nearly as great as they are predicting. He said there is a lot of room off the roads to stack vehicles on the property. “And in the long term if it doesn't work and access is not good, people won't come back,” he said.

Residents who testified during the hearing talked about potential gridlock, long backups on rural roads and inaccessibility for emergency vehicles to reach their homes.

The flow of traffic to get 4,000 to 5,000 RVs to and onto the site would be controlled by state transportation officials who have experience in managing large events, Pires said.

In addition, he said, daily vehicle traffic for those purchasing one-day tickets would be restricted to no more than 20 percent of ticket sales.

Nathan Wise, a resident of the nearby Independence community, said residents disagree. He said residents fear for their safety, security and well-being but have a greater fear about traffic congestion and possible delays for emergency, fire and medical service vehicles. “We are also concerned about the length of time the congestion will continue,” he said.

Wise, who helped manage a similar event on a smaller scale in Pennsylvania, said his organization allowed three to four days before the start of an event to move 1,500 RVs and campers onto an improved site. He compared that to the proposed three days to move 4,000 to 5,000 RVs and campers onto the Baker farm. Wise said he found it hard to believe that many RVs could be moved onto the site in the three days.

Wise said the length of time needed to access the site could create long backups, which could block roads to local traffic and emergency vehicles.

Wise said the roads leading to the site are narrow with no shoulders, and many have drainage ditches along the road edge. He said other major events – such as the Delaware State Fair and events at Dover International Speedway – that attract large numbers of RV campers are near major roads with many lanes, shoulders and traffic signals.

Speaking for other residents in the area, Wise said if the application is approved, major road improvements – including turning lanes and shoulders – should be required.

Baker: This deserves a chance

Baker said the decision to sign the lease with Pires was not taken lightly.

“We have high standards how the property is maintained. We are proud of it, and that will not change,” he said. “We have a mutual interest in that regard. We would not have signed the lease if this was not a positive thing for Sussex County.”

Baker said the application was not a typical one proposed to county officials. “It will take some vision and leadership. This deserves a chance in Sussex County,” he said.

Baker tried to dispel what he called misinformation contained in letters and made during comments to the planning and zoning commission. He said concerns about tree removal caused by the proposed venue are unfounded because logging of pine trees has been ongoing at the farm.

He said people concerned about water draw down should consider that the farm has 300 irrigated acres and during summer months as much as 10 inches of water is sprayed on corn, amounting to 81 million gallons of water with no effect on residents' wells.

He said runoff would be absorbed by the hundreds of acres of additional farmland surrounding the proposed music venue site.

He said there are no bald eagle nests on the parcel and the two cemeteries in the leased area would be fenced off and not disturbed.

“From my perspective there will be minimal disturbance,” Baker said.

An area farmer said she feels the events in August would have a long-lasting effect on the land in part because of gravel left over from roads needed to create camping sites and entrance ways. “I can't imagine a farmer wanting this to happen to his land,” said Margaret Foulke, who lives off Route 5 on Martin's Farm Road.