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Commissioners weigh mass-gathering rules

Wednesday, July 8, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners have once again delayed a decision on adding new restrictions for outdoor events, but not before more than a dozen speakers from the public weighed in on Tuesday.

The commissioners appeared ready once more to take up the proposals to change the mass-gathering permit process after originally postponing a vote on them back in May.

However, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced early on in the discussion that she would postpone action on the item’s most controversial provisions. Those provisions include a new noise limit, music curfews and a heavier burden on promoters and operators to limit light pollution, dust and traffic.

The proposed changes first came under consideration in the spring after friction developed between the increasingly popular outdoor venue Carson Creek Ranch and several of its neighbors in eastern Travis County. This year, the venue has hosted, among other events, the Austin Psych Fest, Euphoria Music and Camping Festival and the Life in Color paint party.

Brent Johnson lives near Carson Creek Ranch and was at the meeting Tuesday to express his support for new rules for mass gatherings.

“At the most recent event, the noise levels measured from my property by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office exceeded 94 decibels,” Johnson told the commissioners. “From my house, where I live with my wife and four children, I’m hearing expletives shouted from the stage during the events, intoxicated people jumping the fence and roaming around my farm.”

In their current form, the recommendations before the court would limit noise levels to 85 decibels, or the equivalent of busy city traffic. The proposals would also require concert organizers to pull the plug at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and at 12 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Brad Douglas, an attorney who spoke against the proposal, argued that the county doesn’t have the legal authority to regulate sound, light or dust.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the Texas Constitution deliberately refused to grant the same type of rule-making authority to the county that they did to municipalities,” Douglas explained. “And people that live in the county, all of the people that have addressed this commission, they live there because that’s where they choose to live. If they want an abundance of legal regulation, they’re invited to move right into River City with the rest of us.”

Scott Davidson of Code 4 Event Management agreed with Douglas. Davidson, who coordinates permitting and public safety for events at Carson Creek Ranch, handed the commissioners a thick packet of documents, including a study of how many of Travis’ 253 peer counties have passed restrictions similar to the ones the court is considering.

“Zero,” Davidson declared. “None of the 254 counties in Texas have imposed sound restrictions or restrictions regarding light, sound and dust that are proposed here.”

Davidson told the commissioners that he is willing to work with them to find a less sweeping solution and praised progress already made since May.

At least a dozen others also addressed the commissioners during the 90-minute discussion. The majority said they supported the proposals, although a number of the speakers also spoke out against a proposed venue at Fall Creek Road and SH 71 in far western Travis County.

Several suggested whittling the definition of mass gathering down to 1,000 people. As it stands now, special-event planners must go through the permitting process if they’re expecting at least 2,500 people (or 500 if there will be alcohol and more than half of the attendees are minors).

If the commissioners consented to the lower number, the operators of the proposed venue would need to apply for a permit for every big event they hosted.

Tim O’Connor, former owner of the the Backyard and one of the people behind the new venue, estimated that the space would accommodate 1,200 people on the low end.

“You have to have enough people to charge and raise the dollar amount to attract the quality talent, which we’ve always tried to have at all our venues, so you can afford to have them,” O’Connor said.

After hearing from several other speakers – including Marc Fort from the Texas Music Office, who offered state-level guidance on drafting new rules the existing Mass Gathering Act – the commissioners voted unanimously to designate Fire Marshal Hershel Lee as the point man for handling all mass-gathering permit applications.

Eckhardt also said she would continue to coordinate with the relevant stakeholders, including those who spoke on Tuesday, and added that the item could come back to the court as soon as Aug. 11.

2013 Woodstock 127 fala, crowd surfing” by Ralf Lotys (Sicherlich). Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been corrected.

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