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Council begins movement on stalled special events ordinance

Wednesday, August 2, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Roughly four years after it was created, the city is moving forward with a new ordinance governing special events that, among other things, is intended to make the application process easier to navigate.

At Tuesday’s work session, City Council received a presentation on the special events ordinance that was called for by a Council resolution in 2012 and even given a first reading approval in October of 2013. The prior Council commissioned the ordinance because of concerns over the way the city manages large events around the city, some of which attract tens of thousands of attendees and last for more than a week, but didn’t take up a resolution to form a subcommittee to discuss changes to the ordinance.

The ordinance was then put on hold because of shifting staff and priorities at the Austin Center for Events and the 13 city departments that play a role in approving and managing special events.

It was expected to get a second reading at the Aug. 17 Council meeting, but Bill Manno, corporate special events manager of the Austin Center for Events, said that may be delayed until later in the month.

The ordinance loosens the definition of what constitutes a special event, raising the threshold to 100 attendees in a move designed to make it easier for neighborhood gatherings and block parties to take place without navigating the approval process.

The biggest change would be the implementation of a tier system that classifies events into one of four tiers based on their crowd size, duration, physical footprint and use of city resources. Lower-tier events will have shorter application lead times and approval windows, except during the spring festival season around South by Southwest when applications will need to be submitted at least 30 days ahead of an event.

The ordinance is intended to make special events mesh with existing sound ordinances and allow the Austin Center for Events to factor event density and frequency into the approval process. It also overlays with the recommendations of the Parkland Events Task Force that include reducing event days at the city’s core parks and eventually moving some large events to parks in East Austin.

Manno said there is still some question on how the city will handle cutting off the application process for events during SXSW following concerns from event promoters in previous years when the Austin Center for Events closed off applications unexpectedly prior to the 30-day cutoff.

“We’ve tried establishing a set number but that doesn’t work very well because some events are far bigger than others, and we’ve also tried to consider the local impact of all of the events taking place,” he said. “There’s not going to be a lot of change with this ordinance because there’s only so many days you can use the parks, and the neighborhoods around them need a break in between big events like Austin City Limits Fest and Trail of Lights. The small temporary events around spring festival season are the ones that are the most challenging.”

While some Council members have pushed for the city to cut back on fee waivers for large special events or use Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to pay for public safety and waste management resources, the ordinance doesn’t specifically address cost recovery methods other than saying events will be billed unless Council approves a fee waiver.

Manno said individual city departments have reviewed their fees related to special events to cover as much of the related costs as possible, but he said some events such as Halloween and Mardi Gras will always result in costs that can’t be recovered.

Mayor Steve Adler said Council may put a hold on the third reading approval needed to implement a new ordinance, so that those interested in the ordinance can review and offer input on the rules created for its implementation.

“Some people want to see how the rules get drafted, because what the rules are will answer a lot of questions about this process,” he said.

Photo by Thomas Hawk made available through a Creative Commons license.

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