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The farmer versus the festivals

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Chinese water torture.

That’s how Brenton Johnson describes the persistent thud of bass and drum thumping from the music festivals just beyond the farthest edge of his property outside Austin city limits.

“There’s no way to stop it. Even inside the house, when you close the doors, it’s still there,” Johnson told the Austin Monitor last week in a candid interview conducted during a sweaty ride in his dust-covered pickup, the requisite wheels of this soft-spoken farmer’s trade.

Johnson was picking up an employee in East Austin and driving him back to the headquarters of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, the organic farming operation that keeps its eponymous owner consistently busy seven days a week. The 25-minute round trip presented a rare, mostly uninterrupted moment when Johnson could discuss his largely solitary battle against the bass. That battle has resulted in sweeping revisions in Travis County policy while at the same time raising age-old existential questions about Greater Austin’s commitment to its vaunted live-music credentials.

Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting presents the latest chapter in the saga with a scheduled vote on whether to grant promoters a mass-gathering permit to hold the 2016 Euphoria Music & Camping Festival at Carson Creek Ranch in March. It’s the first permit application since the commissioners adopted significant revisions to the process last month.

Those revisions are by and large the direct result of Johnson’s complaints earlier this year about large events at the outdoor venue – which is near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – that he says have disrupted his family’s peace of mind.

“I work really hard, and when I have a little bit of time off, I want to spend it outside in the yard with my family,” Johnson explained. But several weekends in the spring are now given to the thunderous rumblings of outdoor concerts such as Euphoria and Austin Psych Fest.

Johnson aired his grievances before the commissioners several times this spring. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt found his case compelling enough to take a deeper look at how the county handles large events. After several months and to the initial chagrin of several stakeholders – including many associated with events at Carson Creek, as well as the musician advocacy group Austin Music People –the commissioners consolidated mass-gathering permit applications into the hands of the Fire Marshal’s Office and added what Eckhardt called “baseline” rules. Most controversial among them is an amplified music curfew of 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends.

Code 4 Event Management, which handles the mass-gathering permitting for Euphoria Fest, is requesting a variance to keep the music going one hour later than Eckhardt’s baselines would allow. During the discussions over the revisions, the judge repeatedly promised that the court would happily grant variances if all interested parties were on board.

In this case, Johnson is not on board.

“I love live music, and I’m all for it,” he said. “I have events at our farm. But it’s the time period. I wouldn’t try to play music on my farm until 2 a.m. because we have neighbors here. It’s out of respect.”

Johnson’s tenacious refusal to bend on the issue belies his soft-spoken, down-home demeanor. Tall, sinewy and possessed of a boyish grin that makes him look at least 10 years younger than the father of four that he is, Johnson has brought the air of a modern Tom Joad to the Commissioners Court meetings. But he himself is quick to point out that his Backyard Garden is no mere subsistence operation.

“It’s the largest organic vegetable farm in Texas,” he told the Monitor, adding that what literally began as his backyard garden in East Austin has now grown to several hundred acres in Denton, Garfield and his home base near Carson Creek. He says his sales last year topped out at $5 million.

While his business appears to be thriving, his determination to keep the noise down could hurt his neighbor’s bottom line. Joan Havard’s family has owned the Carson Creek Ranch property since the middle of the 19th century (a PR victory in a community where one’s status is indexed to which now-shuttered restaurants, bars and venues were open when one first moved here). Situated along the southern banks of the Colorado River and beneath a constant stream of commercial jetliners flying in and out of ABIA, it otherwise seems like an ideal location for all-night EDM bacchanalia – a little piece of scenic hinterland that’s just a semi-affordable taxi ride from downtown Austin.

While it’s been in the family since the Pierce administration, Havard didn’t start hosting big concerts at Carson Creek Ranch until three years ago, well after Johnson, in 2006, moved in next door. Havard told the Monitor that Johnson’s opposition to the noisy festivals could sink her venue’s burgeoning viability.

“I think it could hurt my business as far as new events and could discourage these festivals if it keeps up and something opens close by outside of Travis County,” she said.

During a tour of the property last week, Havard pointed out that Johnson’s house is more than 2,000 feet from their shared property line. The distinction is important because the new mass-gathering rules require potential nuisance sound levels to be measured from the nearest residence. In this case, throbbing bass and screaming vocals have a fair chance to be muted below the 70 dB limit as they travel up the long, thin strip of field separating the stage area and Johnson’s house.

But Johnson’s avowed plans for that field underscore his determination to maintain his tranquility (peppered as it is by the deafening roar of the overhead flight path). Two weeks ago, he told the commissioners that he is considering moving a travel trailer to the property line and letting an employee live in it, all but ensuring noise readings well above the limit at the ad hoc residence.

The suggestion seemed to irk Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who noted that it seemed to be bad-faith obstructionism. Johnson, however, assured Daugherty that he has long had plans for the field. He claimed that he is working with the nonprofit group Farmshare Austin to build housing for students who want to learn the ropes of organic farming.

However, Havard provided an email to the Monitor that she said was written by Lorig Hawkins, Farmshare’s program manager, and denies any plans to build housing on Johnson’s property. Update: The email was, in fact, written by Farmshare’s executive director, Taylor Cook.

Whether the Backyard Garden complex increases its number of residents or not is largely moot insofar as Tuesday’s vote on Euphoria’s mass-gathering permit is concerned. But it is indicative of the intractable disagreement between two neighbors along the Colorado River. On the one hand, Havard, the music industry and its fans are trying to enjoy their slice of Austin’s signature cultural contribution. On the other, a farmer, business owner and father wants rural tranquility on the edge of urban megagrowth.

For his part, Johnson calls himself an eternal optimist.

“I just want to be friends with my neighbors, and I want us to come to a compromise that works for both of us,” he said. “I don’t want to fight.”

Update: In an email sent to the Monitor on Wednesday, Johnson wrote to clarify his comments to the commissioners about his plans with Farmshare. He says that he and the nonprofit had at one time been in talks to house farmers-in-training on his land adjacent to Carson Creek Ranch, but Farmshare later changed course. Johnson says he brought the episode up as an example of just how long he has been planning on building residences on his back field, and he dismissed the suggestion that he was attempting to put housing closer to Carson Creek’s stage area simply for louder noise readings. “Overall, I do not think my own plans for my property should be deterred by the noise levels of a neighbor,” Johnson wrote.

As for the future, Johnson also added that while he doesn’t believe the mass gathering permit process revisions adopted by the commissioners last month are ideal, he is “willing to respect the decisions made by the court.” Johnson concluded by saying, “Regardless of where exactly on my property there is a residence, my effort will simply be to ensure that the regulations as set by the court on Aug.11 are followed.”

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