Seeing the (Enchanted) Forest for the trees
Ever since the July 18 announcement that the Austin Enchanted Forest may face permanent closure over permit problems, there's been a remarkable outpouring of public support for the unique 3½-acre outdoor art space on Oltorf near South Lamar. (Just ask any media outlet or local official with an e-mail account.) But both the forest's owner and city staff stress they are working together to find ways to keep the site open and legal.
Owner and operator Albert DeLoach created the forest by consolidating three plots. His family lives on one, and artists use the other two for large installations. DeLoach estimates more than 150 artists have displayed their work there this year alone. That's very different to how the place looked when he took it over, which he described as "a grown-over jungle" and home to the nation's oldest hobo camp. Initially he was happy to share the property with them, but "as far as they were concerned, I was trespassing on their land," he said. So he moved them off, built a back fence, and started the long and expensive process of cleaning the land.
He also tried to make sure he followed city ordinances by gaining a temporary-use permit in 2006, renewable every six months. That's the same kind of permit normally granted for short-term events like Christmas-tree sales – "basically, any time you put up a tent," explained Battalion Chief Don Smith, who serves as spokesman for the city's Public Assembly Code Enforcement team. Smith explained: "They were doing some acoustical music under that tent, and it wasn't really a big deal. As a fire department, we didn't know of any problems with it."
The venue's troubles began after the city received a noise complaint on May 27. On July 4 the PACE group informed DeLoach it would perform a site inspection the next day. According to Smith, there had been a series of changes to the site, including construction and electrical work that were out of code. His group informed DeLoach the violations meant the permit could not be renewed. While DeLoach has tried to fix the immediate health and safety problems, he says the evolving nature of the site is part of the process. He explained: "You know how people say, 'Build it, and they will come'? Well, we said let us build our community first, and then build a building that will specifically house the needs of the community."
While there are stages and live performances in the forest, he said: "I don't want to be forced into being an outdoor event space, because that's not the drive for what we are. ... Our goal is to build a self-sustaining arts and community center." He says he's already consulted with businesses that have gone energy-, waste-, and carbon-neutral.
Contrary to rumors, Smith said, the PACE group is not trying to close anything, but there are serious code concerns to deal with. Yet even before the storm of complaints, Smith's group was feeling the effects of the potential closure. "Captain [Jeff] Solomon went out there on the 17th, and he was very upset that he had to tell [DeLoach] this," he said. DeLoach echoed this, praising Solomon for working toward finding a solution. Smith advised DeLoach to contact the city's Development Assistance Center and said he hoped they could find "some kind of zoning allowance that would fit what they were doing." But this would need to satisfy not just DeLoach and his supporters but city regulations and DeLoach's neighbors, too. "It is a unique spot, and it is something that helps the ambience of Austin, but there are two sides to every story," said Smith. "The quality of life can go both ways."
Now there's a ray of hope. DeLoach said that he has a meeting organized with the mayor's office for this Thursday (July 31) to discuss potential zoning and permitting solutions. One option is a special-events permit ("Chief Smith explained to me it's like for when the circus comes into town," said DeLoach), which would give him more flexibility than a new temporary-use permit. Describing the city's response so far as "very amiable and very hospitable," he said that Mayor Will Wynn's Chief of Staff Rich Bailey "had already talked to the City Council individually, and none of them wants to see the forest closed."
For the time being, DeLoach has had to cancel a fundraiser for several local co-ops and performances by two theatre companies. But his biggest immediate concern is that the permit problems may derail his annual Haunted Forest trail. The Halloween event pays for property taxes, subsidizes exhibitions, and contributes seed money to the annual Art Outside event. DeLoach estimates he is already personally $12,000 down this year, but that's a small cost. "I have always paid all the artists," he said, "and I continue to do it because there's a need."
Meanwhile, Spider House and the United States Art Authority are facing similar issues at their venue; see "United States Art Authority," Arts, for more.