Town of Middleton Sunflower Days' fee draws controversy

Middleton, Wis (WMTV) -- After a year hiatus, the town of Middleton’s Sunflower Days festival returned, but this time with a $4 admission charge that has the previous owners upset.

The Pope family said 20 years ago they sold the Pope Farm Conservancy, but with specific guidelines. It had to remain an educational conservancy that was protected and be free and open to the public.

145 acres of land started as a sheep farm, but later bloomed into something new.

"After a few years they decided to try sunflowers, and they're on the hill where they are now. It became an instant sensation," David Zoerb, family member of previously owned conservancy said.

The Pope family said that two decades ago they decided to sell the land to the town of Middleton as long as their vision -- a free, public educational conservancy -- was kept alive.

But the family said when the town took over the popular attraction that vision started to fade.

"Very early on it became obvious they would charge admission to the site," Zoerb said.

Town officials said the $4 fee is in place to help pay for services like parking safety and crowd control representatives.

"Everything after we pay the organization that's doing the setting up and crowd control. Everything we receive is going back into Pope Farm Conservancy," Greg Dimiceli, Town of Middleton administrator said.

Even though the town said the fee is for safety concerns, the Pope family said charging an admission fee wasn't a part of the deal.

However, town officials said the agreement allows a fee for entry to the park. According to town officials, the 1999 Memorandum of Land Contract under Exhibit B states, " 'Park' shall mean a typical municipal park open to the public either free of charge or for a reasonable usage charge..'"

"I wrote a letter on the 20th of March saying ‘we think you violated the restricted covenants of the original sale agreement,'" Zoerb said.

The family said the only response they received was a letter saying the town would hand it off to their attorney. That's when the Pope family started their own website to spread the word.

"We feel betrayed, and we've had neighbors and friends say you know people don't appreciate the decision that was made," Zoerb said.

They explained they'll keep fighting until their vision from 20 years ago is brought back to life.