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County’s mass-gathering rules now in judge’s hands

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County and an outdoor music festival had their day in court on Monday, and now the future of controversial revisions in the mass-gathering permitting process rests in a district judge’s hands.

The organizers of the Euphoria Music & Camping Festival sued the county in September seeking an injunction against the month-old permitting guidelines, which include a curfew on amplified music at major events.

On Monday, attorneys representing both sides brought their arguments before District Judge Tim Sulak on the fifth floor of the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse.

“It’s our position that the county simply does not have the authority to write regulations,” declared Euphoria’s lawyer Craig Barker in his opening statement. “We don’t believe what they’re doing is enforcing those regulations – although certainly they’re doing that after the fact – but they wrote new regulations.”

The commissioners adopted the permitting process revisions in August after months of input from stakeholders, including county officials, property owners and live-music advocates. The entire saga began earlier this year when a handful of neighbors of Carson Creek Ranch showed up to Commissioners Court to complain about noise and other disruptions from festivals held at the venue, which is just north of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

The most notable of those neighbors was Brenton Johnson, the owner of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, who lives with his wife and children on a property that abuts Carson Creek Ranch.

“We understand that Farmer Johnson … would rather not have this going on next door,” said Barker. “His recourse is to rally up a bunch of other constituents and go to the Legislature and have the law changed. You can’t go to the county and have the county create new laws.”

Assistant County Attorney Andrew Williams disputed Barker’s claim that the revisions and guidelines cooked up by the commissioners could be characterized as either law or ordinance. Said Williams, “The Legislature has said, ‘You can consider the minimum standards of state law, local law, rules and orders. And the Commissioners Court entered an order that gave guidelines. It was voted on unanimously. The order was entered that said that, ‘Without a waiver, we expect you to abide these limits on amplified sound.’”

Williams also echoed previous statements from the County Attorney’s Office that point to several statutes in addition to the Mass Gathering Act that he says provide a sound legal basis for the county’s action.

Sulak adjourned the hearing without revealing when he would make a ruling. However, both sides submitted several large binders full of documents for his review, a sign that could mean a delay of days if not weeks before he hands down his decision.

After the hearing, Scott Davidson of Code 4 Event Management, the firm that handles mass-gathering permit applications for Euphoria, gave the Austin Monitor his guarded take on the day’s proceedings.

Said Davidson, “We are pleased to have had the opportunity to present to Judge Sulak and feel optimistic that our straight-forward case will result in a favorable ruling. Our continued focus is on producing the best experience possible for the patrons of Euphoria 2016.”

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