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After a one-year hiatus, a popular Dane County sunflower festival is back, but plans to charge admission have stirred controversy.

Sunflower Days, which in past years has drawn more than 90,000 visitors to a 10-acre sunflower patch on the Pope Farm Conservancy in the town of Middleton, begins Friday. But for the first time in the event’s decade-long history, visitors will be charged admission, which has drawn protests from people connected to the park.

The Pope Farm Conservancy, at 7440 W. Old Sauk Road, was created after Art and Betty Pope sold part of their farm to the town in 1999.

With panoramic views of Lake Mendota, the state Capitol and Black Earth Creek valley, it was set aside as a “passive park,” open to non-motorized recreation such as hiking, skiing and bird watching, and designed to teach visitors about land conservation and agriculture.

The festival began accidentally in 2007 when a hillside field was planted in sunflowers, and thousands of people began coming to take pictures, have picnics and just gawk at the tall yellow blossoms.

“They bloomed … and it just took off,” said Dave Zoerb, Betty Pope’s son.

Dave Zoerb

Zoerb

Over the years the event caught on, attracting an estimated 92,000 visitors in 2017. That was more than the volunteer organizers could handle, and last year the Friends of Pope Farm Conservancy canceled the event, citing safety and parking concerns.

The town decided it couldn’t let the event just die, so plans were made for 2019.

“This is a really marquee-type event for the town,” said town administrator Greg DiMiceli. “This is something really special and cool.”

Using room tax money from its sole hotel, the town hired a private firm, Race Day Events, to manage the 10-day festival. Race Day Events has organized a shuttle bus to bring in visitors from three off-site parking lots.

“You had to contract with a professional firm to ensure there was safety,” DiMiceli said. “And that’s what we did.”

The town established an entry fee — $4 for those over 12 — to cover the costs, which are expected to top $174,000, including Race Day Events’ $20,000 management fee.

“We’ve got to try and recover a little bit of the cost,” DiMiceli said. “We might even make a little bit, which would be poured back into the park.”

But the Friends group and the Pope family have protested the fees, saying it violates the spirit — if not the letter — of deed restrictions that require the conservancy to be open to all.

The town paid $2.8 million for the 145 acres, of which 40 acres were later sold to the Middleton-Cross Plains School District. As a condition of the sale, the family included a covenant restricting the town’s use of the land as a park “open to the public either free of charge or a reasonable usage charge.”

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The family also cites a town ordinance that prohibits “commercial uses” of passive parks.

Sunflower Days banner

Dave Zoerb oversees the installation of a large banner on the side of the family's barn objecting to the town of Middleton's decision to charge an entry fee for this year's Sunflower Days.

On Thursday, Zoerb hung a 60-foot-long bright yellow banner on the side of his mother’s barn next to the conservancy reading “Sunflower Days Should Be Free And Open” and featuring the address of a web page outlining his gripes with the town, which also include the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which can be harmful to bees.

“We just think when they went and farmed it out to a for-profit event marketing company, that was a slap against the covenants,” Zoerb said.

Zoerb is also upset that the organizers have added a 5K run/walk on Aug. 1 for which they are charging a $35 entry fee.

“This could be a prelude to more and more commercial activities, and change the ambiance and mission of the Conservancy itself,” Zoerb wrote in a letter to the town board.

The Friends of Pope Farm organization has been more circumspect in its criticism but says those who aren’t interested in the sunflowers should still be allowed free access, even during the festival.

“The Friends want to concentrate on education and preservation,” said board chairman Mel Pope. “The Friends don’t want it commercialized, and they’re against restricting access to the conservancy.”

DiMiceli defended the entry fee as minimal and said in the best-case scenario the town will clear about $13,000, which it will put into park maintenance.

“The town is not getting rich off of this,” he said. “You’ve got to be reasonable.”

The festival faces an additional challenge this year: As of Thursday, few of the sunflowers were in bloom, making the field look more like a cornfield than a sea of gold petals.

“The sunflowers are in charge,” said festival spokeswoman Ellen Foley. “The farmer planted them a week early. Last week there were no flowers open. Today I would say there’s 20 percent of them open.”

Foley predicts the field will be in full bloom by Monday.

“It happens real fast,” she said. “It’s almost like you can watch them growing.”

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