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Festival raises neighbor issues: Farmland is not festival land, says land owner

Plans to hold a large music and art festival outside of Dufur this summer drew criticism during a two-hour public hearing this week.

Owners of neighboring properties encouraged the Wasco County Board of Commissioners to deny a mass gathering permit application from What the Festival, which is expected to attract between four and five thousand people to Wolf Run Ranch, 10 miles west of Dufur, from July 25-28.

“The neighborhood does not want this event this year or any year,” said David Wherly.

He said the agricultural area was “not a venue for a festival” and recalled his experience owning property near where Woodstock was held, which he said caused damage to the community that was still being felt decades later.

Wherly said the traffic from attendees and heavy trucks bringing in equipment would damage Dufur Valley Road. He also said he worried legal marijuana across the river would make its way to the festival and said that after the Rajneesh made their home in Wasco County, the area “has had enough mass gatherings.”

Wherly’s biggest concern was fire safety, which was the number one topic of discussion at the hearing.

“The time of year is our biggest concern,” said David Jacobs of the Oregon Department of Forestry. “It’s at the end of July, and the fire danger is extreme then … It’s in the midst of fire season and the way the weather is shaping up at the moment it could be a long and dry one.”

He said submission of a fire prevention plan, which organizers agreed to follow, should not be interpreted as endorsement of the festival.

Property owner Kathleen Olson worried about her home being destroyed by fire, but she also said she would probably have to deal with people trespassing on her land in an attempt to sneak into the festival.

Ken Thomas said he believed the festival preparations taking place were already breaking state laws about forest land, and said he would be submitting a formal complaint about the planning department’s approval of a “driveway” he said was actually a permanent road.

“When you put it all together it looks an awful lot like a big commercial enterprise, similar to an amusement park. They have already made permanent alterations to the land,” he said.

Wasco County planner Joey Shearer said the application for the extra entry point being constructed on the property fit the legal definition of a driveway.

Not all of the comments about the event were negative. County staff noted that last year’s What the Festival, which was about half the size and took place near Tygh Valley, went smoothly from their point of view.

Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Lane Magill said out of about 2200 people who attended last year only four were arrested and two of those were for trying to sneak into the festival. He said he could say with confidence based on the festival’s traffic plan that there would not be any traffic issues, and organizers’ plan to have one security guard for every 100 people is above and beyond what was expected of them.

Kevin Dworschak of the health department said the festival could bring in a great economic benefit to local businesses. He said last year on the first day of the festival he saw various people at Safeway in The Dalles who told him they were stocking up on snacks and drinks before heading down to the festival.

“This organization does a great job,” he said of working with them in the past. “We don’t always stop every event just because there are things we have to plan for.”

Event organizers said they were willing to do whatever was necessary to make the event a safe one. Peter Clark noted their application far exceeded the legally required number of toilets, security guards, garbage receptacles and other items.

He said when it became clear that what they had been told earlier about the capacity of the property’s well was incorrect organizers made plans to truck in and store water to make sure there was enough for attendees as well as fire suppression. They agreed to pay to have an ambulance on site 24 hours a day.

Clark said security would be strictly enforcing rules about not smoking or lighting a match anywhere outside of the designated smoking areas, the grass would be mowed and irrigated to keep risks down and organizers would also keep a fire truck and full crew on site if necessary.

“We will keep our fire prevention team on high alert,” he said, noting that 4,000 attendees would also mean “8,000 eyeballs looking out for fire.”

He also said that organizers have been buying from local businesses and are contracting with more for the weekend of the event.

Clark said last year What the Festival, with tickets costing hundreds of dollars, does not draw the same crowd as Woodstock. He said there will be some music stages but there will also be art installations, dance classes, yoga classes and other experiences. Security will be on the lookout for illicit drugs and re-entry to the festival will only be allowed during the day, with high fees to discourage it.

“These are not hippies from Woodstock. These are upwardly mobile people who have come to enjoy an event with their friends in the great outdoors,” he said.

At the end of the two-hour discussion Wasco County Commissioners decided to look into a few matters brought up by the public before making a decision. A continuation of the discussion is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8 at 9 a.m. in the Wasco County Courthouse.

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