BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE – Pungo Strawberry Festival officials and city police have done outreach on the parking and traffic game plan for the annual Memorial Day weekend event, which brings thousands of people to Pungo on roads that weren’t meant for such traffic.
This year’s plan also takes into account the loss of the lot at Back Bay Farms for the second year, as The Independent News first reported in the Friday, May 13, print edition.
Officials hosted a meeting on Thursday, May 12, at Princess Anne Recreation Center, discussing additional parking and steps planned to make entering and leaving the festival an easier process, though officials also noted that patience is a virtue when it comes to parking at the festival.
“We’re trying to be as user-friendly as possible for the residents,” said Todd Jones, chairperson of the festival.
The city has said communications officials will help get the word out about closures and changes to parking, and the meeting on Thursday was filmed. [A copy of the festival parking map is at the organization’s homepage and can be reviewed by clicking this link; the video is also at the festival site.]
Organizers and police said there will be additional people directing cars along the roads leading into Pungo, additional large and small lots have been identified, and there will be additional attention paid to directing cars at tricky areas, such as where New Bridge and Sandbridge roads meet.
Further, it was recommended that people have their $10 cash for parking ready to go when they reach a lot. It’s cash-only to help expedite cars entering lots.
The Muddy Creek lot has been significantly expanded this year, officials said. Police Lt. Jim Kaiser said that last year was the first time he could remember that the lot filled. [John Doucette, editor of The Independent News, is kin to the Flanagan family, which has an agreement to provide parking.]
“The Pungo Strawberry Festival gets bigger every year, but the roads stay the same,” Kaiser said during the meeting at the recreation center.
Police will use a mobile tower this year to help keep an eye on crowds. Capt. David Squires, commanding officer of the First Precinct, said it would help them respond to safety issues such as lost children.
An issue this year is an ongoing disagreement between festival organizers and Gene Hansen, who owns Back Bay Farms and works with the Noblemen, a charity that managed parking there in past years. The farm along Princess Anne Road is north of the Pungo light at Indian River Road.
Last year, the dispute challenged a festival that has seen attendence grow and grow. Hansen and the Noblemen, having rejected the festival’s profit sharing offer, tried to offer free parking at their lot after the festival removed the lot from its parking plan.
The city issued a zoning notice saying the farm was operating an offsite parking lot in an agricultural district, and police blocked parking access to the farm over the weekend, leading to complaints about violating Hansen’s rights as a property owner and an appeal by Hansen that later was denied by the Board of Zoning Appeals.
This past fall, the board upheld the city zoning interpretation. Board Chairperson Richard Garriott Jr. voted no and Secretary David Whitley, a member of the Noblemen, abstained.
Hansen sought reversal by the Circuit Court. Zoning and law enforcement officials, according to the petition, “violated the petitioner’s due process and equal protection rights by singling out [the farm] for zoning and unauthorized law enforcement efforts that were not applied” to others.
The city responded to the petition and an order to provide documents and transcripts, but there has been no apparent resolution.
Hansen on Thursday, May 12, said there would be no effort to park cars on his property.
“We’re not going to be part of it,” Hansen said. “We’ll have our say after the fact.”
Hansen said members of the Noblemen met with festival officials and Deputy City Manager Doug Smith. They were close to an agreement, he said, but it did not work. The reasons were described differently by different parties.
Hansen said the situation has affected the ability of the Noblemen to raise funds used to help children in need.
“Despite festival organizers’ best efforts to reach an agreement with the Noblemen to operate a parking lot at Back Bay Farms off Princess Anne Road, the Noblemen have declined to participate,” Smith wrote this month in a letter to Mayor Will Sessoms and members of the city council.
Smith wrote that the festival reached agreements for two larger lots and some smaller ones, and that “there will be ample parking.”
Again, patience and safety should govern driving to and from the festival, officials said.
“These roads aren’t meant for that kind of traffic,” Jones said on Thursday, May 12.
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC