County council adopts amended ‘Special Events’ ordinance

GEORGETOWN – Often discussed and frequently debated for more than a year, an amended special events ordinance spiced with more clarity and enforcement teeth has won Sussex County Council’s majority approval.

County council by a 3-2 vote at its Tuesday, Sept. 18 meeting adopted the revised ordinance, which targets “special events” such as live concerts, seasonal festivals, 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.

The special events ordinance will not in any way impact community nonprofits, such as Moose and Elks lodges, VFWs, American Legion posts and other veterans’ organizations, fire companies, churches and other organizations with charitable ties.

“We heard from a number of people, particularly in the fire companies, VFWs, American Legions, and so on, that they were concerned about whether this would adversely affect events they might put on or host,” said Sussex County Council President Michael H. Vincent. “That was never the case, nor our intent, but we wanted to make doubly sure it was clear under the ordinance.”

The revised ordinance will also not govern events on public lands, such as parks or schools, nor will it affect non-commercial events such as weddings, family reunions or parties held on private property.

A work in progress, the ordinance entailed more than a year of work by county staff and legal counsel to draft the update. There were several public hearings punctuated by input from the public.

“We’ve heard a lot of comments from the public. What we did is we came up with some revised language, basically a reorganization of what was introduced,” said Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson.

The adopted ordinance provides better definition of “special events” under county code and clarifies the permitting process and land-use review. In addition, it streamlines the coordination of public safety services, such as having police, fire, EMS and transportation crews on site for larger and longer-duration events.

“The existing ordinance was scattered throughout the county code and, frankly, conflicted in some parts and was a little difficult to understand,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd F. Lawson. “With so many events in Sussex County, and new events cropping up all the time, we thought it was time to look at our processes so everyone, from event organizers to neighbors, are on the same page and the public’s interests are safeguarded.”

Under the revised ordinance, the limit of special events on a particular property remains three per calendar year. It also mandates reviews by the Sussex County Planning & Zoning, Sussex County Emergency Operations, and Emergency Medical Services offices. Any number beyond that could trigger the need for other land use processes, including conditional use or rezoning approvals.

The adopted ordinance packs some enforcement clout.

“Failure to abide by the Sussex County Special Events Public Safety Services Policy and Procedures may result in the termination of the special events administrative approval. So, there is some teeth,” Mr. Robertson said one week earlier during a presentation at council’s Sept. 11 meeting.

After county council unanimously approved the amendments, councilman Rob Arlett motioned for deferral, initially for one (Mr. Robertson stated he could not attend the Sept. 25 meeting) but then for two weeks.

“I would personally like to again review this entire record, because you’ve got to get it right in my mind,” said Mr. Arlett. “So, to me, I’d like to see a deferral. This is a big deal. It’s been almost a year now.”

Council colleagues defeated his motion, 4-1.

On the amended ordinance proposal, council members I.G. Burton, George Cole and Mr. Vincent cast support while Mr. Arlett and Samuel Wilson voted no.

“Well, in light of the council’s decision not to defer for two weeks after a year, I think that is the wrong decision. So, therefore I am not prepared to vote yes and therefore I will vote no as presented today. Two weeks is not much to ask,” Mr. Arlett said.

“I’m going to vote yes,” Mr. Cole said. “I have been pretty critical. I don’t think it goes as far as I would have preferred. There were some areas that I would like to have seen it a little more restrictive and a little tougher. But we are moving forward. And I believe it’s time to do something. We can always try to come back, if we have to fix it. We’ll see how it works.”

“We’ve heard from the public,” said Mr. Vincent. “Is it perfect? Probably not. But we can always tweak that if we have to. Hopefully we won’t have to.”

With adoption, the ordinance takes effect immediately for unincorporated areas of Sussex County, outside of municipalities.

A copy of the adopted ordinance can be viewed at: https://sussexcountyde.gov/special-events-ordinance.

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

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