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City plans to cut back event permits during SXSW

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

On Friday, the city of Austin announced that how they do business during South by Southwest will be changing.

The changes come from suggestions made in a SXSW after-action report released in September. That report was commissioned after last year’s event, which in addition to larger-than-ever crowds, also saw the deaths of four people.

In general, the city is planning to reduce by 25 percent the number of temporary event permits issued between March 13-22.

The city is also changing its policy on amplified sound and music for temporary events, with curfews of 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 11 p.m. on Thursday and midnight on Friday and Saturday for venues more than 600 feet from zoned residential properties. Venues that are closer than 600 feet will have sound curfews of 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The changes are consistent with those proposed in the September report, and though some are concerned that they could negatively impact local artists and venues, other members of the music community welcome the changes.

Austin Music People executive director Jennifer Houlihan told the Monitor that she didn’t have concerns with the changes.

“We are 100 percent for anything that improves public safety and encourages people to adhere to existing code. I think that’s where things can go awry — when code isn’t preserved,” said Houlihan. “Hopefully the reduction in total events is a good, sturdy standing place from which we can start to establish a dialogue with promoters other than South by, as well as with South by, and just make sure everybody is safe.”

She pointed out that, for example, existing permitted outdoor music venues have always had to ask to extend their hours to 2 a.m. and complete a Sound Impact Evaluation. A Friday news release from the city emphasized that extended hours were not a vested right for existing venues.

“That’s just something that hasn’t been enforced, particularly,” said Houlihan. “You don’t automatically get to play until 2 in the morning because it’s South by. You actually do have to obey some rules.”

Last year, the city issued 140 temporary use, change of use and/or amplified sound permits. The new measures are intended to reduce that number to 105 permits.

Bill Manno, special events program manager for the City of Austin, explained the change to the Monitor. In an email sent Monday, he wrote, “It is important to realize that a dozen applications for small, low-crowd and -traffic impact type events are less worrisome than perhaps a couple of applications for very large events. While the 25 percent reduction is a target, we will continue to review each application based on its own merit and the cumulative impact present for already approved events.

“These changes have been coming for a few years. With the increasing popularity of Austin as a spring break destination, we have been tightening up on existing code with event organizers,” wrote Manno.

Thomas Ates, who identified himself as a big music fan, remains concerned. He would like to see the new City Council and the city’s boards and commissions have more of a say in the changes. He told the Monitor that he was particularly worried about which temporary permits would be left after SXSW had permitted all of its events.

“There’s almost a Pandora’s box of questions that arise,” said Ates. “The City of Austin shouldn’t be playing favorites. South by Southwest is a limited-liability corporation. It is not a nonprofit.”

Manno said the permit approval process will be prioritized on a “first come, first served basis.”

In previous years, some outdoor events at temporary venues were allowed to go until 2 a.m. That stop time, which is the same time that bars close, causes problems, said Manno.

Normally, sound permits are issued 30 days before an event. Manno said that temporary change of use and temporary use permits applications have been accepted as little as 10 days before an event in the past. That practice is also changing; the Austin Center for Events expects to stop accepting applications in early February to allow more time for officials to thoroughly review each application and determine whether it meets code.

“Last year, once we stopped taking applications for events, SXSW had two events they wanted to add, but were told no,” said Manno. “However, since SXSW is a city co-sponsored event, city staff has been meeting with them for months, and the meetings occur more frequently the closer we get to the event. This helps reduce last-minute surprises for the city and SXSW.”


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