Sussex council leaves record open on special events

No one speaks in favor of controversial regulations during Jan. 16 public hearing
January 18, 2018

It did not go unnoticed that no one at Sussex County Council's Jan. 16 public hearing on an amended special events ordinance spoke in favor of the measure.

It was mentioned several times during the four-hour hearing by the nearly 25 people who testified.

Most also requested council accept the unanimous recommendation from the county planning and zoning commission to reject the proposed ordinance and go back to the drawing board to rewrite it with the help of a working group made up of stakeholders.

After the hearing, council voted 3-2 to leave the record open for another 30 days to accept written public comments and receive an economic impact study on 2017 concerts held at Hudson Fields north of Lewes.

Councilmen Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, and Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, said it was time to vote on the ordinance. “It's clear to me,” Arlett said, referring to the negative testimony against the ordinance.

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said although the proposed ordinance is designed as an update, he admitted the issue is more complicated that it appeared.

Assistant county attorney Vince Robertson said the existing ordinance is vague and would not stand up in court.

The proposed ordinance allows for special events to be approved several ways including direct approval from the planning and zoning director or passage of a conditional-use application for larger events that last more than three days. “The director has this authority now. This is not a drastic change,” he said.

“Council has never given direction to ban anything. Nothing written in the ordinance bans anything,” Robertson said. “We need clarity, and we want to keep things simple, in line with the current ordinance, and not add steps, time and money.”

He also made it clear the ordinance does not cover events within towns, indoor events or events at churches, fire halls, schools and fraternal organizations such as VFWs and American Legions.

Even so, most speakers represented the county's fraternal and veterans organizations who were confused and concerned about how many events they would be allowed to sponsor each year.

Bessie Hickman, representing the Loyal Order of Moose, said organizations want that exemption written specially in the ordinance. “That will protect us in the future,” she said.

Several representatives questioned how the ordinance would affect outdoor events – such as chicken barbecues – held either on club property or offsite.

No clear answer was provided.

Cole: Need for information

Cole said the county could be open to litigation by signing off on events without all pertinent information to disseminate to the public. “Making this quick and easy is not the way to do it,” Cole said.

Cole went through a long list of what he called check-offs for special events that county officials should be aware of including number of people expected, parking provisions, cleanup after an event, lighting, whether music is expected, security, police and even the number of portable toilets.

“Is DelDOT involved? Is it ADA compliant? Is the county held harmless if someone gets hurt?” he asked.

In addition, he said the property should be posted with information about the event.

“The world is so different today. People should have priority in this. We need to protect property and homeowners who live adjacent,” Cole said.

“What is proposed doesn't do that,” Robertson responded, adding council would have to make a decision to add that to the ordinance.

“This is a different direction,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.

“We should at least consider this and have a conversation,” Cole said.

Attorney: Fix a bad ordinance

Attorney Stephen Spence, representing the Hudson family, concert-sponsor Highway One and Atlantic Lacrosse Inc., said council should start over. “You don't need to fix a bad ordinance with a worse ordinance,” he said.

Spence said the ordinance should be written so that county council provides specific guidelines to the planning and zoning director. “There should not be absolute authority; it only makes it worse. You need to tell her what to do,” he said.

Spence, who is president of Atlantic Lacrosse, is concerned about the future of Hudson Fields, where the league has played for 10 years.

Robertson assured him that recreational uses are already permitted on AR-1 zoned land such as Hudson Fields. A special-events permit is not required. “There has never been a violation,” he said.

Future of Hudson Fields

Speaking on behalf of Hudson Fields, Christian Hudson said the proposed ordinance would shut down the family’s ability to offer the venue to the community for events, something it has done for more than 50 years. “It needs to be completely redone,” he said. “It doesn’t address any of your concerns and ticks off everyone in this room. It’s anti-economic development and anti-quality of life. It hurts us and Sussex County.”

Christian Hudson said he could not dismiss the irony that county council is considering financial support to a new sports facility in Georgetown while at the same time putting limits on an existing facility. “It's like you are opening one and shutting down another in the name of economic development,” he said.

Jamin Hudson questioned why council was pressing the matter when it was clear people opposed it. “If passed, this would have a chilling effect on community gatherings,” Jamin Hudson said. “As written, it does not solve the valid issues.”

Limited to three events a year

One of the most contentious regulations would limit special events allowed on a parcel to three days per year. A special event would require a conditional-use application to exceed that number.

“Why a hard and fast three events?” asked Jim Reichert of Ocean View. “Why not more than three events?”

Under current county code, there is no limit on the number of special events per parcel, although county policy has to been to limit events to three per year.

“It's been around forever. The policy has been three events per year. But a policy is no good. It needs to be an ordinance,” Cole said. “We are attempting to fix it. It's poorly written.”

“It all boils down to a number,” Robertson said.

Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, asked if long-standing special events could be grandfathered in.

Robertson said if a specific event had been in existence since before zoning was enacted in 1969 it would be grandfathered in, but there are no grandfathering provisions for events after that.

No response from county

Julie Hudson, special-events coordinator for Hudson Fields, pointed out the number of special-events permits issued by the county over the past three years: five applications in 2015; four in 2016; and 11 in 2017, including four permits at Hudson Fields.

She said everyone knows there are many more events each year in Sussex County.

In addition, she said, she has never received confirmation or any response from county officials after filing applications online.

“We need to do a lot of improvement,” Cole said.

Lawson said the county's EMS is contacted by hundreds of event organizers each year in regard to public safety requirements. He said in some cases, events are required to fund paramedics and/or dispatchers, while in other cases, on-duty personnel can cover events. The county enacted an EMS permit for special events in 2013.

Kevin Burdette of Milton said specific guidelines are lacking on how to determine whether an event is large or small, and events such as yard sales, farm events and family gatherings are not mentioned.

“It's short-sighted not to have a grandfather clause,” he said, adding there are no provisions for monitoring the ordinance or penalties for noncompliance.

“It's a can of worms. You need a workshop,” he said.

In addition, he said, requiring a conditional use for some events is like opening Pandora's box. “Spending $35,000 to $50,000 for that is not unusual,” he said.

“It can't be overstated how upset people are about this,” said Ryan Moore of Hartly, who headed a Save Hudson Fields petition campaign. Council was presented with a petition signed by more than 2,000 people opposed to the ordinance.

D.J. Hughes, who helps coordinate events for the Milton Fire Department, said special events are not about zoning. He said there should be a separate section of code for events.

What's in the ordinance?

The proposed ordinance would give the county planning and zoning director more discretion, clarity and guidance in determining whether to approve a special-event request administratively or to require an applicant to seek a conditional use, a process that requires public hearings before the planning and zoning commission and county council.

Events requiring a conditional use could occur on a regular basis or could have a greater effect on surrounding property or roadways.

Criteria to be used includes crowd size; parcel size and location; parking requirements; traffic access; hours of operation; noise; light and dust; and the number of consecutive days for an event. The director may impose conditions on the management of an event.

Applicants could appeal a denial to the county's board of adjustment or apply for a conditional use.

However, council and the public expressed concern with that process, which could take up to two months to get on a board of adjustment agenda and four to six months to be placed on planning and zoning commission and county council agendas.

Robertson said the appeal process is set by state law.

What about WonderFest?

One of the most popular events in the Lewes area is in the crosshairs of the proposed ordinance. In its second year, Winter WonderFest has attracted 100,000 people and raised more than $150,000 for community grants, said event director Peter Briccotto.

The event occurs over several days over the holiday period at the Lewes ferry terminal and Cape Henlopen State Park outside Lewes city limits. Under the proposed ordinance, the event would exceed the three-day limit and therefore require a conditional-use application.

“We are in a quagmire in this,” Briccotto said. “The county should not get into the events business; it's hard to regulate. This ordinance would spell the end for events as we know them. If we needed a conditional use, this event would not exist.”