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Commissioners kick off overhaul of special events permitting

Wednesday, May 27, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners Court took a big step Tuesday toward reforming the mass-gathering permitting process for large special events.

The commissioners voted unanimously to open the issue to public comment for the required 30 days before making any final changes.

Recent big events at Carson Creek Ranch have stirred up concerns from neighbors about noise, light and traffic at the venue, which is situated on the banks of the Colorado River just east of Austin. Those concerns prompted County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to ask county staff to take a closer look at the permitting process and come up with recommendations to improve it.

The most substantial – and least controversial – change under consideration would designate the Fire Marshal’s Office as the coordinating agency for receiving applications for mass-gathering permits. Currently, applicants submit paperwork separately to the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, the Sheriff’s Office and the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

Fire Marshal Hershel Lee told the Austin Monitor that he expects the change to bring efficiency to an awkward system.

“It really wasn’t coordinated,” Lee said of the current application process. “Some of the departments that needed information were not getting it in a timely manner.”

That lack of timeliness was a sticking point for Eckhardt, who said the goal of the policy change is to get the application information into the relevant hands “as quickly as possible, so that we could start negotiations much earlier in the process if we did see any issues that were specific to that mass gathering.”

Examples of possible issues in applications include light, sound and dust mitigation. Unlike the city of Austin, Travis County doesn’t have statutory power to create its own ordinances to regulate the offending byproducts of mass gatherings.

Clark Richards, an attorney representing the owners of Carson Creek Ranch, warned the commissioners that this revision illegally assumes those powers. He said the commissioners would be using the Texas Mass Gathering Act, which defines mass gatherings as events attended by 2,500 or more adults, to restrict property rights.

“If there are 2,499 adults participating in an event, it is not a mass gathering, and therefore there’s certainly no basis on which the county could assert authority to limit the time of amplified music or the amount of dust or the amount of light involved in that event,” Richards explained. “So the notion that, somehow by implication, as soon as you reach 2,500 people, the county has authority to adopt regulations that it would not have the authority to adopt for a gathering of 2,400 people is not supported by any statutory enactment and frankly doesn’t make sense to me.”

Eckhardt told Richards that this process was about achieving a “balance” between private residents and event hosts.

“Of course, a private party is welcome to sue the event host, and the event host, of course, has the courts open to it to sue the county if they feel we have overstepped our bounds,” she said. “But my hope is (that) through a clear statement from this court with regard to our expectations with regard to mass events of this type, we will avoid such lawsuits, and I think that that is a very positive thing.”

During the 30-day comment period, members of the public can communicate with the commissioners individually. The item will come back for a final vote at the end of that period.

Photograph “Hands” by Horse With No Name Photography available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license

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