County council discusses special-events ordinance

After County Councilman George Cole said he had received calls regarding concerts at Hudson Fields outside of Milton, he asked staff to review what ordinances were in place to govern such events.

Following a presentation to the council by County Administrator Todd Lawson last month, Lawson came before council again at the July 18 council meeting to discuss potential changes to the county code.

“Currently, we have just a very small reference in county code related to special events,” said Lawson. “An applicant will come into the Planning & Zoning Office. Upon review by the Planning & Zoning director, they receive a simple letter approving the event. If the event is of a certain nature that it would trigger a review by our emergency preparedness and 911 center, they will review the event and determine if paramedics are required to be on-site.”

Lawson said that, although the process is relatively simple, it has been used by some hosting events and has not been by others.

Currently, a special event is defined in county code as “a substantial gathering of people held outside and located on unincorporated lands within Sussex County and for a limited duration where the activities are not part of the property’s normal and customary use or are not otherwise permitted on the site. Special events may include circuses, carnivals, amusement parks or midways, fairs, festivals, concerts, shows, marathon races/walks, commercial sales, and any other events.”

Lawson said he is hoping to streamline the process as to prevent discussions and action taking an extended period of time.

“The big question is when does a special event grow outside of ‘special event’ and need to be reviewed by the Planning & Zoning Commission, County Council, and gain what I would think would be a conditional-use approval?”

As the code is currently written, special events are given up to three days for the event itself. Ordinance parameters put together by county staff included no more than five special-event days per calendar year per site, with the event counted as an operational day.

Lawson said the frequency or sequence of days of an event may be limited, and the property should be returned to its normal and customary use within a reasonable time.

Councilman Rob Arlett requested that public comment be reopened for the discussion this week, and that was approved unanimously by the council.

Alex Pires, owner of Highway One, who has partnered with Hudson Fields to present concerts at the site, said his idea for the musical performances was a simple one.

“The most popular event in Sussex County is country music… Our events are very family-oriented, with very modest prices. Parking is free; hot dogs are $2.”

Pires said the first two shows, which featured country music, were sold out.

“It’s what people want. These are one-day events. They’re about four hours. We follow all the procedures with all the State officials,” he said stating that they pay Delaware State Police to attend.

Pires said the concerts are not very profitable, with liquor sales and a portion of the proceeds being donated to the Community Matters Foundation.

He added that he would like to work with the council moving forward.

Milton resident Amber Peck said she has seen the county grow and, in her opinion, the area is lacking in entertainment. Having attended a concert at Hudson Fields with her family, she said she found it to be really fun and family-oriented.

“We need more events like the concerts in Hudson Fields. It’s great for the community,” she said, requesting the council not let a few negative comments ruin something that is providing great entertainment to so many.”

Christian Hudson, owner of Hudson Fields, also spoke, cautioning the council and stating he believed they were going to “open up a big can of worms.”

“My reading of this is, anything outside of the incorporated areas of the cities will be regulated by this code,” he said, noting fire halls that hold weddings and political fundraisers.

He asked if Hudson Fields hosts a tournament for Atlantic Lacrosse — which they do, in fact, host — is that a regulated event?

“We don’t receive any revenue from those events. They’re a community benefit. Obviously, we need to make some money on our land, so which ones do you want me to have and which ones don’t you want me to have? Because, at the end of the day, we all have bills.”

Hudson said he and his brother both have kids, to whom they would eventually like to give the almost-200-acre property one day.

“I guess, by right, I could put 400 houses on it, but I don’t want to do that… I think it’d be better to keep it better.”

Attorney Stephen Spence, who co-founded Atlantic Lacrosse, said that, each spring, 275 to 300 kids are registered with the club to play lacrosse for a March-to-May season.

“We are always looking for places to have facility space. This has been perfect for us, because of the sheer size of the facility,” he said. “We love it out there. We don’t have a stake in the outcome, in the sense that we don’t even have a lease. We survive on their graciousness.”

Spence said that, with the County not having a park system, options are limited, in terms of where the club can play.

“That’s a ‘special event’ in my heart. I’m not sure what you would call it, but I don’t want to lose it. I want to keep it there as long as we can.”

Councilman I.G. Burton said that, with any changes that may occur with the ordinance, he does not want Hudson to have to choose between hosting Atlantic Lacrosse for free or a Dirty Heads concert.

Cole said the County should look at creating code for “Special Events of Major Impact,” saying he had looked at policy from St. Johns County, Fla. He said their application was thorough, covering portable restrooms, police, music (live or recorded), food, alcoholic beverages and signage.

“I think, in the end, … it would be the goal to, hopefully, expedite the process as much as we can,” added Arlett. “I think we should be very cautious and careful not to overregulate just because we can.”

“I think we ought to keep this as simple as possible,” Burton agreed.

Lawson said he hopes to bring a draft ordinance before council later this month.