Back to the drawing board: Special events proposal draws heavy criticism

GEORGETOWN – Back to the drawing board.

That, some podium speakers stated, is where Sussex County’s new special events ordinance proposal should go during testimony at the Jan. 16 public hearing before Sussex County Council.

Representatives from veterans’ organizations tune into testimony at the special events public hearing.

“This whole process should be started over. Don’t try to fix a bad ordinance with a worse ordinance. That is what you have done,” said attorney Stephen Spence. “I think you have to go back to the drawing board, just like the planning and zoning recommended you do – 5-0 – and figure out how you are going to regulate this.”

Under the proposal, special events would include carnivals, midways, promotional and tent-sale events, fairs, festivals, concerts, rodeos, shows, races/walks or any other event mass gathering staged outdoors or within a temporary structure or at a site for a purpose different from the permitted use and usual occupancy of the premises or site.

Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson, who was involved in drafting the proposal, prefaced the hearing by stating, “I want to be clear that council never gave any direction to ban anything.”

The intent of the ordinance proposal, Mr. Robertson said is an attempt to keep it “simple and easy and without a lot of steps ad red tape.”

Major objection to the proposal is a limit of no more than three special events approved on the same property during a calendar year. As proposed, each calendar day would be counted as a separate special event, excluding reasonable time for set-up and tear-down when the event is not otherwise underway.

“The existing ordinance isn’t particularly well-drafted either,” said Mr. Spence. who represents the Hudson family, Highway One and also wore the hat as president of Atlantic Lacrosse Inc. that has utilized Hudson Fields for 10-plus years. “And in an attempt to correct it the ultimate correction was made to reduce the number of possible events by current law from as many as you can apply to get a permit for as long as you don’t use tents more than three times, to three days total – no matter what. That’s not a correction or a clarification. That’s a significant change.”

Concern that drew a platoon of representatives from the Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and veterans’ organizations to council chambers is fear that their organizations’ charitable fund-raising efforts could be impacted by ordinance limitations.

“We have to have events,” said Armond Rice, a recently retired 42-year military veteran who is quartermaster at Virgil Wilson VFW Post 4961 in Seaford. “Knowing how much has been taken from us already … my thing is quit taking from us.”

Under new ordinance guidelines, the proposal would not affect events in incorporated towns and traditional events hosted by fire companies, churches and community service groups.

“This proposed ordinance does not ban or limit events at VFWs, fire halls or similar organizations, churches; that sort of thing. It does not do that,” said Mr. Robertson. “It does not affect events within a town. We don’t have jurisdiction over zoning within towns or municipalities.”

“VFWs, American Legions, fire halls, churches, schools – those sites are built with building permits with halls in them. They are social gatherings. They are educational, religious. All of those uses that happen in those buildings – because it’s part of the designated and usual occupancy – it doesn’t come under any of the special event information,” said Mr. Robertson.

Discussion surfaced last summer following complaints county councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, received regarding concerts staged at Hudson Fields located off Del. 1 near Milton.

For decades, Hudson Fields has been operating as an airport and events facility for a variety of events and activities, including youth athletics, air/parachute shows, weddings, family reunions and concerts.

Attorney Stephen Spence, left, and Christian Hudson stand in line to speak at the public hearing.

Christian Hudson of Hudson Management said the proposed ordinance needs a complete overhaul.

“I think it needs to be amended, tweaked. I think this needs to be completely redone. It doesn’t address any of your concerns,” Mr. Hudson said. “It would hurt non-profits. It would hurt us, and it would hurt Sussex County. This is anti-economic development. This in anti-community and it is anti-quality of life for the vast majority of Sussex County.”

“It came about because of politics; no more, no less,” said Greenwood resident Daniel Kramer, saying the proposal came down the pike because of an event at the Hudson Fields property.  “And one of you guys got a complaint. We’ve had all kinds of complaints all over these years and nothing has ever occurred but now because it’s Chris Hudson. It’s all a bunch of bull and it should have been thrown out a long time ago because we don’t need it.”

Following nearly four hours of testimony – all with concerns and/or opposition – Sussex County Council voted 3-2 to defer the issue and leave the public record open for 30 days.

Council members Cole; Irwin “I.G.” Burton, R-Lewes; and Michael Vincent, R-Seaford, supported the motion to defer. Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, and Samuel Wilson Jr., R-Georgetown, opposed deferring.

The proposal would amend the current special events provision in county zoning code and provide a criteria list for the county planning and zoning director – at present Janelle Cornwell – in considering an application for a special event.

Criteria consideration encompasses the number of attendees, parcel size, parking requirements, roads/traffic, prior events of the applicant, noise, lights, odor and dust, hours of operation, number of consecutive days and others.

Typically, the special events permitting process would entail over-the-counter approval, with no fee or charge.

An initial public hearing for the proposal, introduced at county council’s Oct. 2 meeting, was postponed in December due to a power failure that darkened council chamber’s in the County Administration Building on The Circle.

Judy Mangini concludes her opposition to the proposed special events ordinance, holding a $20 stamped with “Not to be used to bribe politicians.”

After the public hearing at the Oct. 26 meeting of the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission, commissioners recommended by 5-0 vote that county council withdraw the new proposal and draft another one incorporating public input.

Lewes resident Judy Mangini doesn’t think county government should be sticking its nose in charitable efforts that benefit the community.

“I am realtor by day and also a singer with my own band,” said Ms. Mangini. “I donate my time to fundraisers; I don’t charge them. We need to be a more charitable community because it is the right thing to do. These events; most are fundraisers that are beneficial to the community, to the recipients and eventually to the taxpayers. Because charity begins at home; let us be a charitable county. Fundraisers help us to help those in need without raising taxes. You need to start listening to us – your employers – because you can be fired if you don’t.”

“Why are our rights, liberties and our freedoms infringed so much that we have to come and ask our employees for permission to do simple things, like have a concert on our property or a fundraiser on our property?” asked Ms. Mangini.

“For a county that chooses not to have public parks, not to invest money in public parks, and when our high schools and our other schools’ facilities are already overburdened with events for students and for clubs, to take away one of the best locations we’ve ever had because of this process that you are going through is silly,” said Mr. Spence.

James Fiske, who told council he has vast fundraising experience for charitable causes, said non-profits are “very concerned about the looseness of the language” and the appeal process.

County attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. asked Mr. Robertson if ordinance language regarding permitted uses by VFWs, American Legion posts and similar organizations have on their properties could be expanded so it would be “clearly understood” that activities would be grandfathered or exempted?

“I think we could do that,” said Mr. Robertson. “We could elaborate on that.”

Regarding recreation, Mr. Robertson said AR-1 (agricultural/residential) zoning does permit recreational uses that are not operated for commercial purposes.

Three event limit

Options for requests beyond the three-event limit are the conditional-use application process, which if granted would make that a permanent use for that property, or an appeal through the Sussex County Board of Adjustment. Those processes, it was noted, can take an extended period of time.

Ocean View resident Jim Reichert asked why there’s a limit of three events.

“I still have not heard why no more than three events. Long story short is I don’t see a purpose for it if the director is going to have the authority under the current statute to make a decision,” said Mr. Reichert, who concurred that a special event every weekend, 52 weeks a year would require “some discretion to say that is excessive use of this thing. On the other hand, if you are going to have like eight or 10 concerts in the warm weather and weddings and that sort of thing …”

“They can apply for a conditional-use permit to be able to do what they want to do,” said Mr. Cole.

Mr. Arlett asked how the three-event limit came about in the first place. “Why three? Why not one? Why not six?” asked Mr. Arlett.

Mr. Robertson replied that was the direction council provided to the county legal staff. “What is here now -the three days – that came from council,” said Mr. Robertson.

Authoritative decision?

Mr. Spence questions the authority of the planning and zoning director, or designee under the proposal.

“You can’t then just delegate the director absolute discretion to decide whether or not to permit an event. You can’t do that. That’s your job. You’re supposed to draft an ordinance that tells the director what her guidelines are, not she has absolute discretion,” Mr. Spence said. “So, for what it’s worth, you took an existing bad ordinance and made it worse, not better in that area. I think you exposed the director in the worst case to personal liability. That’s silly. If you are going to impose restrictions, tell the director what she is supposed to do, not give her absolute discretion.”

Noise factor

In a comparison of noise levels, Mr. Hudson said he paid a professional engineer from Pennsylvania to conduct decibel monitoring in July and the end of August for their specific site.

“The concerts are less than 100 decibels, but the airplanes, the tractor-trailers on Rt. 1 and helicopters landing are well in excess of 100 decibels,” said Mr. Hudson.

Other comments

“This poorly-written ordinance is so nebulous. You guys are trying to build a special events policy on the shifting sands of nebulous legal language. Today, the VFWs we’re saying are specifically excluded from being regulated. By the same language, then in October we were saying they were specifically included,” said Mr. Hudson, who said the proposed changes would shut down our ability at Hudson Fields to serve the community – in the way as I said we’ve been doing that for 50 or 60 years. “I also find this unimaginable, but this same Sussex County Council, while debating whether or not to pass this ordinance that would shut down our ability to serve the community by being a venue for youth athletics and concerts and fundraising, this same council is moving forward and taken steps to spend $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars to create a new facility in Georgetown that in the name of economic development … this new facility would not even have to comply with this new special event code.”

“That’s pretty fascinating. Let’s shut down one business that it is in the county and create a new one in the name of economic development. I think that’s wrong,” said Mr. Hudson. “I also think it is wrong to handle this particular special event issue in such a heavy-handed manner and negatively impact so many of these non-profits in this community that you heard from today. I think that speaks to how vital 5Ks and festivals and community centers and non-profits are to life in Sussex County.”

Lewes resident Larry Mayo speaks out against Sussex County’s new special events ordinance proposal.

“Again, there is so many things wrong with this ordinance I urge you to vote no and follow the planning and zoning commission’s 5-0 recommendation,” said Mr. Hudson.

“Life, liberty and property do not exist because men made laws. On the contrary, life, liberty and property existed beforehand,” said Lewes resident Larry Mayo. “I actually reside between Hudson Field and Hopkins dairy farm. When they have their events as Hudson’s, it causes an inconvenience … traffic in my neighborhood. In addition, when Mr. Hopkins fertilizes his fields, winds blowing just right … I can’t even enjoy my day. However, Mr. Hopkins has a right to use his property to his purposes. And Mr. Hudson, after all that property is theirs, or is it? Is that property theirs, or are they merely tenants? So, it seems the question here is not one of how often Mr. Hudson or Mr. Hopkins can use their property to their purpose. The question here is: who really owns their property – them or is that property of the county or the state?”

“My main point was I think the ordinance as drafted tried to fix one that wasn’t very good to begin with; it just didn’t accomplish the result,” said Mr. Spence. “Start over. Do it right. I’m glad to help.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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