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County approves mass-gathering permit compromise

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday approved controversial revisions to the mass-gathering permitting process following a nearly two-hour hearing that featured more than a dozen speakers from the community.

However, the commissioner who offered the compromise that helped guide the changes to a unanimous vote warned that this would not be the last chapter in this already months-long reform effort.

“This thing is going to court, and there’s going to be a district judge that probably is going to tell us, ‘You really don’t have the authority to do any of this stuff,’” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “But I want citizens to know that we have thought long and hard about this, and we’re trying to allow people to still continue their business, but they have to be cognizant of people that live around them.”

Tuesday’s vote was the climax of a saga that has drawn vocal opposition from the live-music industry and its advocates, who were concerned that certain provisions would hurt not only their bottom lines but also the culture of Austin.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt decided in the spring to reform the permitting process after she received complaints from residents who live near Carson Creek Ranch, a venue that hosts several outdoor music festivals.

Ostensibly aimed at making the process more streamlined, the proposed changes raised red flags for promoters when the new application included provisions to end amplified music at outdoor venues after 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends, and to limit off-site noise levels to 85 decibels.

Daugherty’s compromise extends the hours to 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. It also knocks down the allowable off-site noise levels to 70 dB, but that would have to be measured at the nearest adjacent residence instead of simply at the property line.

All along, Eckhardt has contended that these are simply baseline expectations, and that she is willing to negotiate variances with promoters and residents on a case-by-case basis.

That olive branch failed to mollify opponents of the curfew. Scott Davidson of Code 4 Event Management, which helps put on concerts at Carson Creek Ranch, said that the policy creates too much uncertainty.

“I’m not going to be able to get a contract with the venue to bring before the court to ask for a variance whenever a client or the promoter has no idea how long they can go,” Davidson explained. “There’s 253 other counties in Texas that they know how long they can go. So I’m afraid that we’re going to get to that point, and we’re going to be putting a closed sign on the county.”

Daugherty asked Davidson if there was a compromise on the amplified music curfew that he and his clients would be amenable to. Davidson offered midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends.

Also pressing for a change in the baseline hours of operation was Tim O’Connor, the former owner of the Backyard at Bee Cave, who is looking to build a new outdoor venue on U.S. Highway 71 near Spicewood.

O’Connor said that pulling the plug at 10 p.m. would make it difficult to book shows that feature several bands.

“It starts the show way too early. People can’t get to the show, because they’re getting off work (and) going home. And by the time they get there, they’re there for about an hour and a half, and that’s it,” O’Connor said before asking the commissioners to consider revising the weekday cutoff to 11 p.m.

A contingent of residents who live near O’Connor’s proposed venue also showed up to show their support for stronger restrictions. They advocated a reduction of the permitted off-site noise levels to 70 dB, a figure emblazoned upon tiny cards affixed to Popsicle sticks that they would silently wave whenever one of their own mentioned the number before the commissioners.

Janice Shows explained to the court that she is looking out for the well-being of her children, saying, “I have chosen to home-school my teenager this year because, in the school, the classrooms often exceed 85 dB. The cafeteria exceeds even higher than that. … I’m trying to protect and provide the best life for my children, and it seems like I can’t go anywhere without being bombarded.”

At the end of the nearly two-hour hearing, Daugherty offered to “cut the baby” by presenting his compromise. Ultimately, all of the commissioners supported it, despite Daugherty’s prediction that it would be challenged in court. Even if that doesn’t happen, the issue will return eventually: After the vote, Eckhardt announced the policy will be brought back in one year to be reviewed.

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