How the five members of Sussex County Board of Adjustment interpret a 34-word sentence in county code may, for now, dictate the future of Hudson Fields, a popular venue for sporting and special events for more than 60 years.
Hudson Fields LLC is asking the board for a clarification that the venue – north of Lewes along Route 1 – is grandfathered as a nonconforming use because events occurred at the site long before the establishment of county zoning in December 1970.
If the board finds the property is grandfathered, Hudson Fields would not be subject to proposed regulations under a new special events ordinance now being considered by county council, said John Paradee, the applicant's attorney.
The new regulations would have a limit of three events per parcel per year. Hudson Fields hosted nearly 100 events over the past two years, Paradee said, including a new concert series in 2017.
“This is an unusual application. There is a provision in code that an applicant can ask the board to determine if a nonconforming use exists,” said Sussex County assistant attorney Jamie Sharp.
A two-year window
Paradee said in order for Sussex County officials to deny the Hudson family the right to use the venue for events, the board must demonstrate that the Hudsons intended to abandon their non-conforming use or they failed to engage in any events, leaving the property unused for a continuous two-year period.
“And this has never happened at this property,” he said. “Hudson Fields should be exempt from all zoning regulations and exempt from the special events ordinance as a legal nonconforming use.”
He said events and activities have occurred on a consistent basis since the 1950s, including major events such as Punkin Chunkin from 1989 to 1998 and concerts by music legends the Beach Boys, Chicago and Hall and Oates.
In addition, the property has been the home of Eagle Crest Aerodrome since 1952.
Paradee said the burden of proof for that determination falls on the board of adjustment. “So we need to establish a historic record,” he said.
Paradee presented the board with 68 affidavits from local residents recalling events they attended at Hudson Fields, including 25 from people who attended concerts and festivals prior to 1970.
Sharp said the question is the two-year window when determining whether a property owner loses the right to use a nonconforming property or have a nonconforming event. “It's a legal question that needs to be flushed out,” Sharp said.
“If they do any one of the uses, all of the uses are permitted,” Paradee said.
After testimony from brothers and Hudson Fields owners Christian and Jamin Hudson, the board voted to leave the record open to allow more time for review of the documents presented to them. They will schedule another meeting in the near future to allow time to ask the applicants questions.
Continuous events over 60 years
Sharp said over the years, there have been at least 38 different uses at the venue. He asked Paradee if there was a limit to the number and types of events that could occur at Hudson Fields. “Could they do rodeos there?” he asked.
“There have been rodeos in the past,” Paradee answered. “Uses that are similar should be permitted, but it's not infinite.”
“Should it be for 365 days a year with no limitations?” Sharp asked.
“Yes,” Paradee responded.
“There have been a wide variety of continuous uses since the early 1950s and there is no evidence to the contrary,” Paradee said. “No one in the county has ever contested the use and they have never been cited with a violation. It's a legal nonconforming use not subject to code.”
History dates back to 1950s
Brothers Christian and Jamin Hudson presented numerous photos and newspaper clippings detailing the history of Hudson Fields, which dates back to 1953 when their grandfather, Joseph R. Hudson, opened the airport and eventually established a large aerial-spraying business. Early events included air shows, ballooning and parachuting demonstrations.
“My grandfather and late father promoted use of the field, and my brother and I do the same,” Christian said.
Jamin said even before his grandfather purchased the property, it was used for horse races dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. He showed the board several photos of signs on the property dating to the 1950s advertising his grandfather's aerial-spraying business.
They presented the board with many photographs and newspaper clippings concerning the history of Hudson Fields.
When asked by their attorney, Christian and Jamin replied that no county employee or official had ever told the family to apply for a conditional use, issued a violation, or told the family not to hold events on the property.
Hudson Fields has also hosted sporting events over the years and has been the home venue of Atlantic Lacrosse for several years. Sporting events that require team memberships are permissible on AR-1 land, according to county officials.
“Show me another property in Sussex County with a higher degree of commercial uses than Hudson Fields, and show me another property in Sussex County that has repeatedly hosted special events of such magnitude as Hudson Fields,” Hudson attorney John Paradee said.
Sussex County assistant attorney Jamie Sharp told Paradee that the family was granted a conditional use in 1990 to operate the airport. In addition, he said, the family had applied for a special-use exception in 1997 for Hudson Fields. Sharp said while the board approved the application, it was rejected by the Hudsons because they did not agree with all of the conditions placed on approval.
“Then it went back to what it was zoned for, and some events are not permissible in an AR-1 zone,” Sharp said.
Special events regs due for vote
As one of the main venues for outdoor events in the area, Hudson Fields has come under scrutiny during public hearings on the county's proposed updated special events ordinance. It was a concert series at Hudson Fields last summer that raised the ire of some nearby residents who complained to county council.
That set off a review of the county's special events ordinance. It also triggered a Save Hudson Fields petition campaign.
The county's special events ordinance was adopted in 1990 and amended in 1992 and 2013. Under current special event regulations, any event that lasts more than three days requires a conditional-use application. However, there is no specific limit on the number of events permitted on a parcel.
The planning and zoning commission urged council to reject the proposed ordinance and go back to the drawing board. Council did not take that recommendation and will vote on the proposed ordinance at a future meeting.