Sussex County Council, at its Sept. 18 meeting, adopted a measure updating the county’s “special events” requirements under county code, in place since the 1990s to ensure occasional gatherings do not become permanent fixtures and fundamentally change a parcel’s approved base land use.

The vote followed more than a year of work by county staff and legal counsel to draft the update, conduct public hearings and revise the legislation following concerns raised in the community.

The adopted ordinance, among other things, better defines special events under county code, clarifies the land use review and permitting process, and streamlines the coordination of public safety services, such as having police, fire, emergency medical services and transportation crews on site for larger and longer-duration events. County officials said the update was needed simply for clarity.

“The existing ordinance was scattered throughout the county code and, frankly, conflicted in some parts and was a little difficult to understand,” said 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.”

As defined by county code, “special events” are gatherings held outdoors or in temporary structures on parcels in which the activity differs from the property’s permitted use. These can include circuses, carnivals, midways, promotional and tent sales event, fairs, festivals, concerts, rodeos, shows, races/walks or any other event or mass gathering.

The update keeps in place the county’s limit to three the number of special events that are permitted on a property each calendar year, and mandates reviews by the county’s planning and zoning, emergency operations and emergency medical services offices. Any number beyond that could trigger the need for other land use processes, including conditional use or re-zoning approvals.

The ordinance will not affect those locations, including fire halls and service clubs, where events are within the properties’ permitted land use, though the public safety coverage coordination requirements of the ordinance would still apply. The 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.

Those were among some concerns raised during the public hearing process that council members wanted clarity on before moving forward.

“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 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.”

With council’s adoption, the ordinance takes effect immediately, and will apply to areas of unincorporated Sussex County — areas outside municipalities — only.

View the ordinance at sussexcountyde.gov/special-events-ordinance.