Local Agencies Air Concerns Over Balloon Festival

Local Agencies Air Concerns Over Balloon Festival
Promoters of the Ocean City Balloon Festival meet with county officials Wednesday to address various concerns regarding the new event, which is scheduled for Aug. 25-27. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Promoters of the resort’s new hot air balloon festival will have to address a variety of concerns if the event is going to take place this month.

Law enforcement, emergency personnel, county staff and Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) officials told representatives of the American Farm Foundation this week that various planning issues needed to be addressed before the Ocean City Balloon Festival can take place Aug. 25-27.

“You have a lot of people here to please,” said Matt Laick, the county’s deputy director of development review and permitting. “If you want to make it happen everybody in this room you need to satisfy.”

Representatives from numerous local agencies gathered in Snow Hill this week to discuss logistics of the Ocean City Ballon Festival, which is set to take place at Seaside Christian Academy later this month. The Town of Ocean City has been advertising the event, which was approved by resort officials in March, and tickets are being sold online at the event’s website.

“It was formerly the Chesapeake Balloon Festival in Easton,” Ocean City Tourism and Business Development Director Tom Perlozzo told officials at the time. “We did a bit of a recruiting effort. They were looking to find a new location, and we thought Ocean City was it.”

Kristen Tremblay, the county’s zoning administrator, said there had been limited information presented by the event’s organizers but they had asked to meet with officials. She said she’d advised them early on in the process the festival would require approval from numerous agencies and that they needed one project manager to serve as a contact point.

Maryland State Police Lt. Earl Starner, commander of the Berlin Barrack, said promoters had not reached out to him. He said the last event permit that had involved troopers had taken six months to get signed by the necessary agencies.

Tremblay said the promoter hadn’t even provided information regarding how many people were expected to attend the festival.

“We’ve made good faith efforts to talk to them,” she said, adding that the only site plan the county had been presented was a screenshot from a cell phone. “I don’t know if this is going to happen to be honest.”

Emergency services representatives said they had major concerns with the event, as they had not been presented any safety or emergency plans to review. Tremblay said the event also needed approval from the Worcester County Board of Zoning Appeals. She said the promoter had been slated to hold an event earlier this month in Harford County but that it had been moved to a fairgrounds location after the county cited safety concerns.

Doug Dods of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office said he’d talked to law enforcement in Talbot County, where the promoter held an event last year, and said action plans hadn’t been followed and the promoter had yet to pay the fees associated with last year’s event.

American Farm Foundation’s Alex Spies, who arrived late to the meeting, told officials the festival simply consisted of some tethered hot air balloons and music and vendors.

“You’re required to have an approved SHA permit,” Starner said. “Normally that’s a lengthy process.”

Spies said organizers planned to have attendees enter the festival via the stoplight in front of the outlets in West Ocean City.

“We’re not asking for any shutdowns,” he said, adding that they planned to let traffic flow as it normally did.

When asked what projected attendance was and what the hours of the festival were, Spies said it would run from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and could attract 3,000 visitors a day.

Starner said he wasn’t sure what the best traffic plan for that number of visitors was but that his officers would have provided input if organizers had met with them in the months leading up to the festival.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible but there is a process,” Starner said. “You’re going to impact traffic in a negative way therefore you need an approved permit.”

Dods said the light Spies referenced had traffic challenges on a normal day.

“If something happens we’re not going to be able to get emergency services down there,” he said.

Spies said his company had hired buses to move people from the West Ocean City Park and Ride to the festival grounds.

Dods said issues his office wanted to see addressed included crowd control plans, information about the propane tanks that would be on site and security being that the event also included alcohol and live music. He added the Spies needed to create a bus plan showing drop-off and pick-up locations.

“Emergency response is what we’re worried about,” he said.

Worcester County Fire Marshal Matt Owens said his office needed information regarding parking, emergency medical services and a first aid plan from organizers. He said vendors, tents, stages and generators also needed to be approved. He said his office typically received a site plan showing all of this information.

Staff from the Worcester County Department of Environmental Programs said that based on the estimated attendance, the event needed more than 30 portable toilets and 11 handwashing stations.

Spies said there was room for 600 cars on the festival grounds and that he expected the rest of the attendees to park at the Park and Ride. He said organizers were in talks with the owners of nearby properties regarding the festival as well.

When asked about ticket sales, Spies said 400 tickets had been sold so far but that attendees of outdoor festivals typically didn’t buy tickets until the day of the event. He said the last balloon festival he had done had 1,200 tickets sold in advance but 7,000 people attended. He added that 65% of the tickets for the bull riding event in Ocean City, which he’d also helped produce, had been sold that weekend. Spies added that the only reason the Harford County event had been moved was because officials there weren’t getting along.

“We got caught in a political fight,” he said.

Representatives from SHA said nearly all of the information Spies was presenting was new to officials.

“For our permit, you’re probably going to have to get every agency in this room on it,” an SHA official said. “We do have concerns.”

He added that SHA was initially advised all of the attendees would be parking on the festival grounds whereas Spies was now saying the majority would be bused over.

“Now we have concerns with pedestrian traffic as well as vehicle traffic,” he said. “We needed to know this stuff months ago.”

Starner agreed that people would likely try to walk into the event. Spies said he felt that would only happen if there weren’t enough buses.

Spies stressed the balloon festival was a first-year event and he was just trying to “maybe pull something off” because Ocean City officials had been so eager for the event. Spies said it would be challenging to have the festival anywhere near Ocean City because the wind had to be less than 7 mph.

“I can’t guarantee I can ever stand up a balloon in Ocean City,” he said.

Spies said that parking could potentially be limited to the festival grounds and daily attendance could be capped. When asked about the specifics of the balloons that would be at the festival, Spies said they were coming from various states and were likely 60 feet tall. He said they would fly about 50 feet above the ground on their tethers, which would be attached to vehicles.

Officials said Spies would need approval from the county’s board of zoning appeals, which was scheduled to meet later in the week, and that he would need to satisfy the appropriate agencies and get the necessary permits in order for the festival to proceed.

“You’re kind of backed up against the wall,” Laick said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.