After a lengthy discussion about possible conditions on a proposed country music venue application, Sussex County Council decided to put off a vote until its Tuesday, Aug. 19 meeting.
Dewey Beach businessman Alex Pires, on behalf of Cool Spring LLC/Highway One, has filed a conditional-use application for an outdoor entertainment venue with temporary camping on a 500-acre parcel of farmland near Harbeson. Pires wants to stage back-to-back country music festivals in early August 2015, each one attracting as many as 20,000 people.
The county's planning and zoning commission and Delaware Department of Transportation have recommended county council deny the application based on lack of a detailed site plan. However, County Administrator Todd Lawson noted DelDOT's letter of objection to the application could not be considered by council because it was received after the public record was closed.
Phillips offers 16 conditions
During the Aug. 12 meeting, Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, offered 16 conditions for council to consider. When Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, raised questions, Phillips backed off pushing for a vote. Conditions must be approved before a vote on the conditional-use application can take place.
While a vote for deferral on the conditions passed unanimously, the vote to defer a decision on the application narrowly passed 3-2. Council members Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Cole voted against the motion. “The applicant has not made a good case to defer,” Cole said. “This is just a delay tactic; we need to vote.”
Council members Phillips, Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, and Council President Mike Vincent, R-Laurel, voted to defer for one week.
Vincent said the applicant's failure to provide a detailed preliminary site plan is a concern. But, he said, valid questions remain about the proposed conditions.
Phillips said he supports the application because of the potential positive economic impact on the county. He said the details would be finalized as the project goes through agency review and final site plan review.
“There have been some good questions laid out on the table. I'd like to pray on it to see some answers,” he said.
Among the proposed conditions offered by Phillips.
• The application would be valid for three years with a public-hearing review after two years.
• No more than 5,000 RVs or campers would be permitted on the site.
• Two festivals would be permitted, not to exceed four days and four nights each.
• Compliance would be necessary with all county and state agency regulations, including those required by DelDOT, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, fire marshal, Delaware State Police, emergency medical services and Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
• Admission would be limited to 20,000 people the first year; 25,000 the second year; and 30,000 the third year.
• Approval would be contingent on submission of a revised preliminary site plan depicting or noting all approved conditions.
• The final site plan would require approval of the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission
One of the questions relates to a proposed condition concerning camp sites. Under Phillips' proposal, the applicant must comply with county code for all campsites; code requires a minimum lot size of at least 2,000 square feet.
When that was pointed out, Phillips said that lot size is larger than he thinks is necessary for a temporary event. To reduce the size – under the proposed condition – might require a variance from the county's board of adjustment, said Shane Abbott, assistant director of county planning and zoning.
Cole asked Phillips who would be responsible for counting 5,000 campers and 20,000 attendees. Phillips said it wouldn't be too much to ask county staff to determine the number of campers from an aerial photo. “If they are over 5,000, we have the ability on the second year to pull the plug,” Phillips said, adding the same was true if the event surpassed the number of attendees.
Cole noted that specific dates for events were not included in the proposed conditions. Phillips responded that he would modify the conditions to include one four-day festival during the summer and one in the shoulder season. He then asked Cole if that was sufficient.
“These are not my conditions,” Cole said. “It's your show. You plug in something you think will get you positive votes. I remind you that the applicant asked for back-to-back weekends in August.”
Cole also questioned the condition requiring compliance with county and state agency regulations. He said he is not aware that the applicant has met with any agencies other than one meeting with state transportation officials. Cole said those meetings should have already taken place and be part of the public record.
Applicant could bypass application
Phillips said the organizer of the event does not need approval of his conditional-use application to stage the festival. The county has a system in place that provides approval for large events lasting three days. Punkin Chunkin, the largest event ever staged in the county, never had a conditional use, he said.
“We are given the opportunity to put stringent requirements on them,” Phillips said. “The limitations would far exceed the county policy. We are missing a good opportunity for the protection of a lot of people.”
Pires could apply for three-day event approval in order to bypass the conditional-use application. However, Lawson said because of the size of the proposed music festivals, he and Lawrence Lank, director of planning and zoning, asked Pires to file for a conditional use.
Organizers of large events in Sussex County are required to get a letter of approval for their events from the county's planning and zoning director. “There is not a permit,” Lawson said. “It's a counter review with a letter of approval.”
Lawson said the director has the option to recommend that an event organizer seek a conditional use.
Site-plan at center of debate
The question about a detailed music venue site plan is front and center in many county officials' minds. It's the main reason Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended that county council deny the application.
But, there seems to be some confusion about how detailed that plan should be and when it should be presented to county officials in the case of conditional-use applications.
Generally, once an applicant gets approval for a conditional-use application they present their site plan to state agencies, said Vince Robertson, assistant county attorney. “They will not give a full review without approval,” Robertson said.
Planning and zoning commissioners wanted a detailed preliminary site plan as part of the record during their July 10 public hearing. Commissioner Mike Johnson said the plan should be signed by a certified surveyor or engineer. Officials say they need a detailed plan to make an informed decision.
The commission ruled that the testimony and plan offered by applicant Alex Pires was more of a business plan than a land-use plan that shows how the application conforms to county code and the county's land-use plan. Robertson said the applicant presented an aerial photograph with some notations on it.
Planning and zoning commissioners urged Pires to present a detailed site plan to county council during the second public hearing.
Pires took their advice and presented a site-plan map during the July 22 county council public hearing. But, according to some council members, even that was not sufficient.
Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, said the burden was on the applicant to provide a site plan, and not on council to devise one. “I'm uncomfortable there is not enough information on the site plan to know exactly what is taking place there. We have a drawing that shows no roads, no camping sites and no emergency access,” he said.
“With something this size we should have a site plan before, not after. It's hard to unring the bell. We needed more information,” said Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, adding the site plan is required by county code.