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Special events ordinance on pace for April 2019 implementation

Thursday, October 25, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

After six years of drafts and revisions, it appears Austin’s long-brewing special events ordinance will go into effect in April 2019, giving event producers during spring festival season – cityspeak for South by Southwest and spring break – another year to plan for the changes.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board, representatives from the Austin Center for Events gave a progress report on the ordinance, which was approved on its third reading by City Council in May but had to undergo a separate rules-making process guided by staff and a series of community feedback sessions before it can be implemented.

The current timeline has the first draft of the rules for enforcing the ordinance expected to be posted by mid-November for comments and feedback, with revisions made through January. The updated rules reflecting that feedback will be posted in February, allowing for the ordinance to finally go into effect in April.

Since it was first proposed in 2012 the special events ordinance has been a problematic and mercurial piece of policy, with a host of city departments and law enforcement trying to find a way to manage the city’s thriving events economy – especially large gatherings that call for heavy use of municipal resources – while event producers and community groups have pushed to keep the regulations from making smaller events hard or costly to execute.

The ordinance has also dovetailed with an attempt by ACE to consolidate and streamline the permitting and approval process for events, with the goal of creating something of a one-stop shop for organizers who for years have had to submit plans and seek approvals from an assortment of departments with little coordination.

The ordinance, which will provide requirements for notification to neighbors, insurance minimums, and determining how events can be approved, has not been without its detractors. In May the city’s Music Commission approved a request to Council asking it to hold off on its final approval because of concerns it was still too vague, and that city staff would have too much input in crafting the rules. Despite that request, the ordinance’s third reading was approved 9-0.

Tuesday’s presentation included a breakdown of the nine community sessions held through the summer and early fall to let the public review and weigh in on how the ordinance will be enforced, with the biggest concerns including the fee structure for permits, the approval and its appeal process, and the host of requirements put on events in the tiers created to help apply the appropriate regulations for events with varying levels of community impact.

Council members will also appoint members to a task force that will meet for one year to evaluate the implementation and impacts of the ordinance once it goes into effect. ACE is also in the early stages of conducting a comprehensive review of the costs and fees associated with the city’s events economy, which could result in a reworking of the costs for event organizers to cover the city’s expenses for providing law enforcement, fire protection and other needed services. That fee change would not go into effect for at least a year because the review is expected to last well into 2019, and changes in applications for events will be rolled out gradually throughout next year, rather than all at once on April 1.

An ongoing concern for event producers in the city – especially expensive, large corporate events – is that the rules of the ordinance would be too vague and leave open the possibility of an event with months of planning being shut down or drastically altered by the regulations at the last minute.

ACE reps said they are also working to create a comprehensive online portal with all the applications and information related to the new ordinance, in an effort to make the process easier to navigate for event producers.

Photo by Ralph Arvesen made available by a Creative Commons license.

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