Fests Vs. Farms

Travis Commissioners change rules on mass gathering permits, but nothing's set in stone

Carson Creek Ranch property manager Joan Havard (Photo by John Anderson)

The Travis County Commissioners Court decided Tuesday, May 26, to introduce a series of changes to the county's mass gathering permitting process, thus kickstarting a 30-day public hearing period during which locals can voice their opinions before the changes become part of the county's health and safety code.

The changes, supported unanimously by the court's five commissioners, will streamline the application process and require significantly more accountability from permit applications for any event within the county (and outside the city limits) that lasts more than five hours and involves more than 2,500 people (or more than 500 people if 51% or more of them are under the age of 21). All applications will now go through the Travis County Fire Marshal's office, and are to be submitted at least 45 days before the event date. Further, those hoping to coordinate such events will now have to explain how they plan to mitigate the spread of stage lighting and dust from the event's grounds, and may need to defend exceeding new, earlier imposed curfews. The court will soon expect events to shut down at 10pm Sunday through Thursday, and at midnight on Fri­day and Saturday.

Those changes aren't set in stone – a public hearing on each application will be held no later than the 10th day before the the mass gathering start date – but as Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle three days after the vote, "If we can at least say what our default position is, a promoter knows what they need to argue against. At least they know upfront that there will most likely be an issue with the duration of amplified sound at their event. If they've got a compelling case for amplified sound beyond midnight ... we can make an exception."

Eckhardt said the monitoring of mass gatherings is a "burgeoning issue" as the population and number of events continue their rise throughout the county. She cited Carson Creek Ranch (where, among other events, the spring season saw Euphoria Festival, Untapped Festival, Life in Color, and Levitation Festival), as well as Willie Nelson's ranch town in Spicewood, and the Circuit of the Americas as sites that have attracted noise complaints in the last few months. The primary battleground for this issue, however, is set on Carson Creek, where property manager Joan Havard has engaged in a standoff with her neighbor, Brenton Johnson, owner of local favorite Johnson's Backyard Garden.

Tensions between the two parties became apparent in Commissioners Court on March 31, when Johnson voiced opposition to CCR holding Euphoria Fest, set for April 10-12. There, he expressed concerns about festival­goers who may trample his crops, and the noise from music scheduled to run past 1am keeping his four children from sleeping. (The court told Johnson and Havard they'd work on a solution, but in the interim suggested the two hash it out themselves.)

Johnson acknowledges that he spent a fair share of the spring requesting decibel readings from the Travis County Sheriff's Office – usually to no avail; as one sheriff's report taken on April 25 notes, readings regularly came in under the 85 decibel limit – but maintains they were only in the interest of peace and tranquility. Sound "depends on the frequency," he explained. "Babies' cries are designed to be really alerting to humans. There are other frequencies that people can't even hear. Even if it's 85 decibels, it doesn't really matter. It can be a low frequency and a low decibel count and still vibrate through the house. We're over a half-mile away from the stage, but the distance that a low frequency goes, it vibrates the inside of our house." He notes that he's accepted Havard's invitations to put his family up in a hotel during each festival only out of necessity. "I don't want to take my four kids and wife to a hotel on the best weekends of the season. I work all week on the farm and want to hang out on my back porch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday."

By Levitation, May 8-10, county commissioners had already gone into executive session to iron out the details on a 19-point application process Eckhardt hopes will help foster better relationships between the property owners.

"Good fences make good neighbors," she said. "I'm after creating a procedure that starts far enough in advance that it can at least weed out the neighbor-to-neighbor nuisance issues. I can't say we'll weed out all of them, but usually we can come up with a reasonable compromise."

It's a nice thought, but a hard pill to swallow for someone like Havard, who's spun a business off her property thanks to the string of springtime fests. She was present at the Commissioners Court meeting May 26, and was represented before the dais by her attorney Clark Richards, who there (as well as in letters to Eckhardt) tried to argue that the Commissioners Court does not have the authority to enact light, sound, and dust-related restrictions to county properties. (In response, Judge Eckhardt was blunt: "If I have no regulatory authority out in the county, we should probably fold up our tents, cut the sheriff's department down to just corrections, and stop doing any health and safety work at all.")

Also present at the hearing was Mitch Morales, founder and creative director for Euphoria. The high-energy camping festival has pumped electronica late into the night at Carson Creek Ranch for two years running, but changes to the way he goes about planning for each festival may force a relocation. Last Friday, he told the Chronicle that the possibility of a Euphoria Festival at Carson Creek Ranch next year is currently "left up in the air."

"This is like telling a bakery that it can't open until noon," he said. "There are a lot of acts that have high-value visual performances. If we have to move it to daytime hours, they're not going to want to play our event. They're only interested in sunset-or-after performances. It's difficult to imagine our event could exist as it does now with these changes in place."

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Travis County Commissioners Court, Carson Creek Ranch, Johnson's Backyard Garden, Joan Havard, Brenton Johnson, Sarah Eckhardt, Psych Fest, Euphoria Fest, Levitation Fest

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