County council defers decision on proposed music festival location

Sussex County residents will have to wait until at least next week before hearing whether the County will grant conditional use for part of a farm in Harbeson for an outdoor country music festival.

Dewey Beach businessman Alex Pires spoke to the Sussex County Council on July 22 during a three-hour public hearing for the conditional-use application, which requests permission to use 500 acres of farmland in an AR-1 agricultural residential district zone on Hollyville Road, owned by the Baker family, for a facility for outdoor entertainment events with temporary camping facilities.

“We’ve done a lot of research on the music festival business. The music business itself is an enormous industry,” Pires said, noting that he had spent two years looking at sites before finding the Baker Farm.

“They have what I believe is the largest contiguous farm in Delaware, and they have enough land that we could use,” he said.

Pires said the country music festival would be “very low impact” and encourage people to camp throughout the multi-day event, rather than coming and going from the site each day.

“These country festival events are camping events. There are very, very, very few people who come for the day and leave. People come, stay the three days and then leave.”

Pires said the traffic impact to the site — for which preliminary drawings show two entrances to the property for the festivals — would be minimal.

“We expect 5,000 campers to go in once and leave once. That’s 10,000 trips. We expect a maximum of 2,000 cars — I think it’ll be 1,000 cars to come in once a day. Times three days, that’s 12,000 trips. Just to give you an idea of the impact of the travel, there are as many cars as that just in one day on Route 9. It averages 18,000 trips per day.”

Pires said he hopes to have two festivals back-to-back in early August 2015, to be followed up by three one-day charity events, such as the Color Run. The other 11 months of the year the site would be empty, he said.

“The trend is to have back-to-back festivals. These are very expensive events,” he said, noting that the $5 to $6 million festivals could have up to a $2 million impact on the county’s economy. “This is a job-producer. The fencing alone will take three or four companies,” he said.

Pires said that food and beverage purveyors at the events would be predominantly from Delaware, adding to the potential boost to the area’s economy.

“I prefer giving business to people who live in the community where I live,” he said.

Ideally, Pires said, the festival would draw approximately 20,000 people to the area.

“It’s not a lot of people,” said Pires, noting that University of Delaware football games and Punkin Chunkin draw greater crowds. He also stated that, in the first year of Delaware’s Firefly music festival, 40,000 people converged on that event’s 150 acres.

For those who are concerned about security, Pires said that a professional security company would be hired to maintain the events and would work closely with the Delaware State Police. Medical services would also be on-site for every event at the venue.

The area used for the festival would be temporarily fenced-in during the festivities, with the fencing removed afterward and the entire site to be cleaned up within two days after the event’s conclusion. The festival would end each night by 11:30 p.m., he said, with the venue going dark by midnight.

“The location of staging and facilities is all done by professionals… I don’t have that kind of expertise.”

Pires said that a Harrington venue would be his Plan B; however, there are only 190 acres available, as opposed to the Baker Farm’s 500 acres.

Mark Baker, whose family has owned the farm for approximately 12 years, spoke on behalf of the application.

“We did not take the decision lightly to enter into this agreement… It was only after very careful consideration and a lot of internal discussion that we decided to do it,” he said, adding that in the property’s lease, the family retains right to use the property for recreational use. “We have very high standards for how the property is maintained… We pass those high standards on to our tenant. We have the same mutual interest in that regard.”

Baker said he attended Firefly this year as a day-tripper and did not find traffic to be an issue and hopes the County will approve the festival in Harbeson.

“We would not have done this if we didn’t think this was a positive for Sussex County,” he said. “It’s going to take some vision and leadership on the part of the county council.”

County Councilman George Cole asked Baker if the soil on the farm would be appropriate for parking cars and RVs. Baker said that there are areas of the parcel he would not have vehicles park but that there would still be ample areas to park vehicles for the festivals.

Cole asked Pires if he would consider changing the time of the year for the festivals.

“We really don’t need to attract too many people to the beach area in the summertime because we’ve already got quite a few people in August… where most small-businesspeople are concerned about the offseason,” he said. “Could you see this happening in the offseason or the shoulder season?”

“The country music business is a June, July, August touring business. They want the younger children, and they want the families. They can’t get the mom when the kids are in school, and they can’t get the dad without the mom,” said Pires.

“My concern is we’ve got so many people here already — to put a festival in August would bring additional traffic,” responded Cole.

More than 100 residents attended the public hearing on the application, with more than half a dozen speaking in opposition.

“I am going to be looking at a stage,” said Trudy Belotti, who said she lives 30 feet from the Baker Farm.

Belotti said that, if the conditional use were to be granted, not only could a music festival take place on the parcel, but so could a circus.

“Now you’re talking about animals — you’re talking about something different than a music festival,” she said. “It’s such a shame to take a beautiful residential area and turn it into a circus.”

William Nelson, the president of Avalon Woods homeowners association told the council his development is 540 feet from the proposed entrance for the camping area of the site.

“We’re extremely concerned about our community being deadlocked and locked into place. That’s exactly what would happen. We would not be able to get in or out of our community for the days specified by the applicant,” he said, adding that security was also a concern for the approximately 250 fulltime residents. “What’s to prevent someone from getting into our community? That fence isn’t going to do it. Do we need to hire our own security?”

Millsboro resident Beverly Morgan asked that the County consider the noise that would accompany such music festivals.

“Music is music, as long as it remains reasonable to our ear,” she said. “When we speak, [the decibel level] is 50 to 60. Once we get to 85, there becomes a risk of damage to our ears… That’s when it becomes noise pollution.”

Morgan said noise pollution is the disturbing or excessive noise caused by humans that may harm the health or welfare of humans or animals.

“Decibels of concerts outside, such as that Mr. Pires is proposing, go from 110 — the softest level — to 130. Eighty-five is damage; 130 will carry quite an impact,” she said. “I would ask you to consider, this being a family event… will I bring my young children to this 130-decibel concert for their young ears to be damaged?”

Mike Falkenstein, a resident of Avalon Woods, said that he is concerned that the festivals would not only draw families to the residential area but less desirable attendees.

“The applicant has mentioned maybe the Cleavers, and Ozzie and Harriet, are going to come, but for the most part we’ll have a bunch of drunken, drug-addled [attendees],” he said. “I request you deny this application.”

County Planning & Zoning Director Lawrence Lank told the council that, in the public hearing planning process, the County received five letters in support of the application, and 51 letters and emails, and 462 signatures in a petition in opposition to the application.

Michael Rivera of the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) said that officials have had one meeting with Pires to review the application.

“In theory, we can manage that if we have to,” he said of the potential traffic. “We have some of the same concerns that have been addressed here today. Pending approval from the council, if it’s our job to manage it, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Rivera said that for such events, DelDOT works with the organizer, Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to develop a traffic control plan.

Councilman Vance Phillips asked if DelDOT was satisfied with the number of entrances presented.

“We’d have to examine that further,” Rivera said.

Phillips asked if DelDOT has the authority to require more entrances, if they find the number to be insufficient.

“The authority? That’s a slippery slope. Once they’re on private property, it becomes a little harder for us to dictate their moves.”

The council voted unanimously to defer their decision until they receive a recommendation from Planning & Zoning and hear a more detailed report from DelDOT as to what they would ideally like to see for the site in terms of traffic. The presentation from DelDOT was expected at next Tuesday’s council meeting.