TOWN OF MIDDLETON (WKOW) — After a one year hiatus, 10 acres of Pope Farm Conservancy are filled with yellow sunflowers, opening up to visitors once again, but not everyone is happy.
The annual festival took a year off in 2018 after its former hosts said it became too big for volunteers to handle. By 2017, the event was attracting roughly 90,000 people.
Two years later, the day before the event opened again, Greg DiMicili, the Town of Middleton administrator, said the excitement was mounting with each bloom, with about 30 percent of the field flowering by Thursday evening.
“You can see the majesty and glory of these sunflowers,” he said.
That’s why, despite the challenges, DiMicili said the town decided to bring the field back to life.
“We decided that this is a marquee event for the Town of Middleton, so I just thought we could not let this go and let this rest,” he said.
According to DiMicili that meant making significant changes to manage the thousands of people the event attracts.
“We had parking all up and down the street,” he said describing previous events. “We had mothers with strollers walking through traffic and it became a very dangerous situation that we want to avoid this year.”
To prevent that, DiMicili said the event now restricts parking, asking guests to get dropped off or take a shuttle service and the town is charging a $4 fee. He said that covers the shuttles and the cost of the event management service the town hired to put it on.
Dave Zoerb, a descendant of the Pope family, which sold the conservancy land to the town, said that decision goes too far.
“We do not want these kinds of events that are not free and open to the public on this property,” he said.
Zoerb said when his family sold the land they agreed it was for educational and recreational purposes, not for commercial events. He argues charging admission and restricting access for the next two weeks is a violation of that agreement and ultimately hurts those who love the conservancy.
“The other 30,000 people who visit here every year, outside of sunflowers, come here on a fairly regular basis and they should be able to have access,” Zoerb said.
He said he’d support the event if they charged for the shuttle service alone, but Zoerb said charging admission to the park doesn’t just go against his family’s wishes, but a town ordinance that restricts “commercial uses” of passive parks.
Town officials disagree. They said hiring an outside company and charging a small admission fee is just what it takes to run an event of this scale in a part of town not used to seeing these kinds of crowds.
Ultimately, DiMicili argues the Pope family and the town want the same thing for the land and people of Middleton.
“They can come out in nature and enjoy this,” he said. “Literally the majesty of the sunflowers.”
Zoerb acknowledges nothing he can do can prevent this year’s event but he’s hung a banner on his family property overlooking the field reading “Sunflower Days Should be Free and Open.”
He said his family is considering filing charges if the town continues to operate the event like this.