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Festival organizers sue Travis County

Monday, September 28, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County’s controversial new restrictions on mass gatherings have formally drawn their first legal challenge.

The organizers of the Euphoria Music & Camping Festival, held in the last two years at Carson Creek Ranch, filed a lawsuit against the county in the 98th District Court last week. Scott Davidson of Code 4 Event Management, which handles mass-gathering permit applications for Euphoria, told the Austin Monitor on Friday that the filing is “our first step in the process to challenge the constitutionality” of the county’s attempt to regulate hours of operation at outdoor festivals.

The suit claims that Euphoria is “faced with imminent and irreparable injury” by the county’s new curfew for amplified music – 11 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays – and seeks an immediate restraining order ahead of a permanent injunction.

“Euphoria cannot secure all of the performing talent for the festival if the hours of operation are restricted, and most such top talent must be secured many months in advance, because of the competing demand for their services,” the suit explains.

The action is the latest twist in one of the defining policy initiatives of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s first year in office. Eckhardt proposed the revisions to the mass-gathering permitting process in the spring after hearing repeated festival-related concerns from neighbors of Carson Creek Ranch, the venue where Euphoria and several other major outdoor events are held. The Commissioners Court unanimously approved the revisions in early August.

The bulk of the reforms – including the consolidation of the permit application process in the hands of the county fire marshal – are left unchallenged by Euphoria’s legal action, which cites Texas statute as well as division on the dais at past Commissioners Court meetings.

In its petition, Euphoria included Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s prediction just before the vote in August to approve the revisions that  “(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, because that is what we have in the state of Texas and that’s what we have as county government.”

On Friday afternoon, Daugherty, who ultimately voted in favor of the revisions, was less fatalistic. “Obviously, our opinion hinges on what our county attorney told us,” Daugherty explained to the Monitor. “He told us what he thought we had the right to do, which is regulate the hours of music. I realize they differ with that, and that’s why they got the courts involved. I quite frankly think that’s the only way to solve this thing.”

Eckhardt’s office declined to comment pending further review of the lawsuit.

The county’s argument for assuming the right to impose its own curfews on amplified music pivots on its responsibility to ensure public health at mass gatherings as imposed by the Department of State Health Services in the Texas Administrative Code. Euphoria, however, claims that the “health department does not include ‘hours of operation’ or any other similar restriction in the minimum standards.”

The suit maintains that a 2005 amendment to the Texas Mass Gatherings Act indicates the Legislature’s intent when it comes to hours of operation. “Clearly,” the suit declares, “This language anticipates that a mass gathering can run between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.”

Previous iterations of Euphoria Fest have run until 4 a.m., but on their most recent permit application – filed in late August – the promoters indicated that they were willing to pull the plug at 2 a.m. on weekend nights. Eckhardt had previously described the prescribed 1 a.m. curfew as a “baseline parameter” that could be renegotiated if the promoters could get neighbors on board.

However, Brenton Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Backyard Farm and a neighbor of Carson Creek Ranch, dug in and refused to agree with Euphoria’s request for extended hours. Based on Johnson’s dissent, the commissioners approved Euphoria’s permit but amended the hours to the original “baseline parameters.”

In addition to the restraining order and the injunction, Euphoria is also suing for attorneys’ fees and other legal costs.

Photo by Carriegates (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 

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