As debate swirls around Sussex County's special events ordinance, the use of Hudson Fields north of Lewes has become a central issue.
Recent concerts have raised the ire of some nearby residents prompting county officials to look at revising the ordinance to add new restrictions. One of those new regulations would be no more than five special events on one parcel per year.
And that's confusing to Christian Hudson, president of Hudson Management, who is the third generation in his family to allow the 200-acre site to be used for events. He's not sure how events would be counted; there are definitely more than five events at the site each year – and that's nothing new, he said.
“I was shocked that anyone would raise an issue about 4,000 people for a concert when no one raised an eyebrow when we had 25,000 people for a Beach Boys concert and had Punkin Chunkin for three days each year,” he said. “This is an out-of-left-field issue.”
He's referring to a new concert series at the fields sponsored by Highway One. The final concert in the series – a Christian music festival – was scheduled for Friday, Sept. 15. Due to low ticket sales, the event has been canceled, Hudson said.
During a discussion of a possible new ordinance, assistant county attorney Vince Robertson said concert organizers had followed procedure to receive a special-events permit from the county's planning and zoning office.
Council discussed parameters for a new ordinance during a meeting in July, but the issue has not resurfaced on an agenda.
Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said there is no doubt the special events ordinance in effect since 2013 needs to be revisited. He said enforcing the current ordinance is difficult.
Lawson said one of the key questions is when a special event becomes so large or frequent that it would trigger the need for a conditional-use application.
The current ordinance allows for three days of events a year on the same parcel. It's been a general rule, but has not always been enforced Lawson said.
Use of field dates back to 1950s
Throughout the 1950s and into the next few decades, Hudson said his grandfather, Joe Hudson, used Eagle Crest Airport on the parcel as a gathering spot for a variety of aviation-related events. The famous Tuskegee Airmen attended several events.
In the 1980s, Hudson Fields was the site of the annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin. The only reason it moved is that air cannons began to shoot pumpkins beyond the range of the fields, so a larger area was needed.
Hudson said county officials wrote a section in the code especially for that event.
In the 1990s, the Hudsons hosted three huge charity concerts featuring Chicago, The Beach Boys and Hall and Oates for the Lewes Chamber of Commerce, Beebe Healthcare and the Delaware River and Bay Authority.
There was even a laser light show and fireworks at one of the concerts.
In 1999, Hudson's late father, Craig, reached out to the Henlopen Soccer Club, and sporting events began to be played on the fields. The Atlantic Lacrosse Club has called the fields home for the past 10 years.
Thousands of games have been played on the fields over the past two decades.
Hudson said other events at Hudson Fields include weddings, company outings and political rallies. The Hudsons started Foodie Fest last year and Highway One is leasing space this year for a concert series.
He said the land could be developed, but the family has chosen to keep it as open space.
Hudson said the fields provide a venue for sporting events for people throughout the county. “It's a private family business operating as parks and recreation open space on our dime. We are only looking to do what we have done for more than 60 years and make it affordable to do it,” he said.
Hudson said the current debate is an overreaction to a few people who complained about noise and traffic following the recent concerts. “We've received overwhelmingly positive reviews. The community accepts and loves this. Why are a few trying to kill it?” he asked.
Hudson said allowing a maximum of five events would not be financially feasible for Hudson Fields over the long term. “The promoters will be forced to hold the shows elsewhere, outside of the county. Sussex County will miss out on the large economic impacts, and the people will lose a massive local entertainment venue that has been around for decades,” he said. “I really have no idea why they are pursuing this new cap on our shows.”
Hudson said use of Hudson Fields predates Sussex County code. “We are willing to work and be a team player to address concerns, but this is a property rights issue,” he said. “It looks like we might be put out of business.”