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Punkin Chunkin organizers know the 2014 version of their event will take place Oct. 24-26. What they haven't yet nailed down, though, is where and, maybe more importantly, whether the Delaware born-and-bred phenomenon will have to leave the state.

The farmer who has allowed thousands of pumpkin-propelling enthusiasts and fans onto his land since 2007 said he told organizers he fears more lawsuits like the one an injured event volunteer filed against the farm last fall.

For that reason, Dale Wheatley said in an interview Monday that he has shut the door on Punkin Chunkin returning to his property.

"I told them that last week," said Wheatley, who owns Wheatley Farms outside Bridgeville. "The town's kind of upset about it, but I can't help it. I can't stand to be sued all the time, no protection at all."

Unless an alternate location is found, it's possible last year's Punkin Chunkin was the last one in the First State.

Sussex County and state officials, who value Punkin Chunkin as a cultural attraction and an economic boon, have known for months it might not return. Punkin Chunkin Association President John Huber announced last November, as the 2013 event was ending, that the organization was considering a move, both because of the lawsuit and, he said, because of what the state and county governments charged for services.

"If we don't have decisions made by March, we're going to have to look at packing up and moving somewhere else," Huber said in November. A site "on Maryland's Eastern Shore," he said then, was the preferred alternative.

On Monday, Huber said the organization had recently decided to set a date for the 2014 Punkin Chunkin to let contestants and longtime volunteers plan their schedules. The Punkin Chunkin website now sports a "Countdown to Chunk" banner announcing the number of days left until the event.

But while the date is certain, Huber said, the location is not. "We're still working through that," he said.

The Punkin Chunkin Association issued a news release Monday evening saying it had been notified "of Mr. Wheatley's intention to disallow the use of his land" and said the group "has maintained discussions with parties both within and outside of Delaware" about a replacement venue.

Wheatley Farms is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by Daniel Fair, a volunteer during the 2011 Punkin Chunkin who was injured in an ATV accident during the event. Fair's lawsuit, filed last fall, says organizers were negligent about safety at the event. Spotters on ATVs ride out into a farm field where pumpkins land, helping determine how far they flew.

Fair was doing that work, his lawsuit says, riding atop an ATV moving at 30 miles per hour when the four-wheeler hit a depression "not properly graded down to the field level" and ejected him, with the machine falling on top of his spine. After extensive medical treatment, he still suffers from paraplegia and is in a wheelchair most of the time, the suit says.

His lawsuit, filed in New Castle County Superior Court, names both Wheatley Farms and the Punkin Chunkin Association as defendants. It asks the court to award him $4.5 million in medical expenses and lost wages. A judge denied Wheatley Farms' motion to dismiss the case in February.

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, had proposed legislation to cap the liability the organizers and hosts of special events like Punkin Chunkin could be exposed to, but it didn't get anywhere in Dover.

Originally held with little fanfare near Lewes in 1986, Punkin Chunkin has swelled to be a major tourist attraction in southern Delaware, attracting tens of thousands of attendees over several days. Since 2007, it's been held at Wheatley Farms, which lies just east of Bridgeville.

"I'm disappointed to hear it. It's a shocker," said Lawrence Tassone, a Bridgeville commissioner, of Wheatley's decision. "We obviously benefit from [the event]. We'll do anything we can to facilitate it, but at the same time, it's not in our hands to do much either way."

In November, Alan Levin, director of the state's Economic Development Office, said in a statement that the state would like to see the event remain in Delaware.

"Alternative revenue sources have been suggested, and we've also traded some ideas on addressing the liability issue," Levin said then. "We will continue the conversation." A spokesman for the state's tourism office could not be reached for comment Monday.

Pettyjohn said he remained reasonably confident legislators could help the Punkin Chunkin Association reach an agreement with another landowner to keep the event in-state.

"One thing about Sussex County: We've got a lot of fields here, a lot of land," Pettyjohn said. "With the right agreement and the right landowner, I'm sure we can find an acceptable location right here in Delaware."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Punkins might not be chunkin' in Delaware

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