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Would Sustainable Events Plan hurt nonprofits?

Friday, February 6, 2009 by Bill McCann

A fast-tracked plan to make public events on city property cleaner and greener hit a speed bump Wednesday at the Environmental Board.


Members of the board raised questions about the plan’s financial impact on event holders, especially nonprofit groups that use events to raise money for charities. So, the board put off a vote on a proposed plan until Feb. 18, and city staff promised to provide cost information to the board before then.


This is likely to postpone a final City Council vote. In December, the council gave City Manager Marc Ott 90 days to come up with a plan to make public events more environmentally friendly. The current schedule calls for the Council to get a briefing on March 5, then hold a public hearing and vote on March 12. The proposal has cleared the Parks and Recreation Board and is slated to go to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission and Resource Management Commission this month.


Heidi Gerbracht of the city manager’s staff gave a detailed report on the proposed “Sustainable Events Plan” at the board meeting. The ordinance is designed to reduce energy use, conserve water, protect air quality and reduce solid waste at public events that use city funding or city property. The ordinance also would cover city-sponsored events.


The ordinance, which would apply to events with 500 or more attendees, would require event planners to take a number of steps, including using energy-efficient lighting, using alternative fuels in event vehicles and on-site power generators (or purchase carbon offsets), and provide recycling receptacles. Single-use glass containers would be prohibited at outside venues, and polystyrene foam containers and single-use plastic bottles would be banned at all events. Instead, event planners would be required to offer free water from an approved central source.


The proposal calls for event planners to file a detailed application and pay a deposit. Failure to comply with the ordinance requirements could result in forfeiture of the deposit and/or a ban on using city facilities for future events for up to 18 months. The ordinance would take effect in January 2010, although the ban on plastic water bottles would not kick in until January 2015.


Gerbracht estimated that close to 250 public events took place in 2008, with the majority believed to have had more than 500 attendees. She said staff was working to refine those numbers.


Bunnie Twidwell, co-chair of the Zilker Park Kite Festival called the plan well-intentioned, but urged the board to consider its impact on nonprofit groups. She said the kite festival has raised between $8,000 and $20,000 annually from concessions at the festival, and the money has gone to support organizations that fight child abuse. The cost of paying for the sustainability requirements would have to come out of the money they raise, she said.


Board Member Jon Beall said he “would hate to rain” on a kite event or any other event, but taking steps to protect the environment and reduce waste should be part of the cost of the event and factored into the prices of whatever is sold.


But Board Members Mary Ann Neely and Phil Moncada voiced concern that no information on the financial impact of the plan was available.


Neely said she would support a phased-in implementation of the ordinance, especially for nonprofits.


“The goals (of the plan) are admirable,” Neely said. “But how do you accomplish the goals without destroying events or affecting the raising of money?”


Gerbracht said staff was working on developing cost information, including the cost of carbon offsets, and agreed to come back to the Feb. 18 Environmental Board meeting with that information.

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