Wasco County Commissioners were threatened Wednesday, March 19, with political opposition by citizens if they approved a permit for What the Festival near Dufur and legal action by event organizers if they did not.
The elected body decided after hearing three hours of public testimony to table the matter and consult with an attorney about their options. They will reconvene for consideration of the mass gathering permit on Wednesday, April 2, at 5 p.m. in the Northern Wasco County PUD meeting room, 2345 River Road.
“I need to talk with an attorney about this because I feel we’re caught in the middle and I want some more help,” said Commissioner Steve Kramer, who resides in Dufur.
Although the county board expressed statements largely in support of the festival last year, they focused at the March 19 hearing on complaints registered by 12 neighbors of the 234-acre property where the event will be held.
Glen Boyd is the landowner of Wolf Run Ranch, about 10 miles southwest of Dufur, where the 2012 festival was sited and the 2013 event from June 19 to 23 is proposed to take place. The first festival in 2011 was located on the Justesen Ranch that borders the White River.
Runyon and Scott Hege, commission chair, are seeking re-election to their respective positions. Several citizens said they would campaign on behalf of the two men’s opponents if they voted for the permit.
Planning staffers have recommended approval of the permit based on Moonshine Events, LLC, which organizes the festival, exceeding requirements for traffic control, security, sanitation services and fire prevention. Regulatory agencies have signed off on plans involving 3,000 to 5,000 attendees.
“I think the board is in somewhat of an awkward position because your role is limited to authority defined by state statute, which dates back to the 1970s,” said attorney Elaine Albrich, who represents Boyd and Moonshine.
She said the commission’s “hands were bound by state law” because land-use matters could not be considered and there is no local noise ordinance in place to regulate the volume of music.
However, she said organizers had taken steps for the 2014 event — reduced hours of operation and reorientation of stages to stop sound from travelling — to address the concerns of neighbors.
“I’m open to all suggestions,” said Boyd. “It seems worse because it’s so darned quiet out there and all of a sudden you hear thumping in the background.”
The festival will feature a variety of bands, as well as a film festival, artisan and food vendors and both art and yoga classes.
Residents of properties as far as 10 miles away told the commission Wednesday that they had been kept awake every night by the high volume of music. They said windows in their homes had vibrated and both domestic animals and livestock had been agitated.
They said the stress caused by exhaustion and frustration posed a health threat that also needed to be given consideration.
Hege said in a follow-up interview that county officials are working to develop a noise ordinance and, until it is complete, are relying on the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office to address issues in outlying areas.
Chief Deputy Lane Magill said noise levels have to reach the criminal realm of disorderly conduct before deputies can act. He said the conditions of a permit granted by a lawful jurisdiction, such as the county, set out guidelines for an activity and his agency only gets involved when there is a violation of law.
This year, the festival will begin at 11 a.m. and wind up music by 2 a.m. each day, a change from last year when bands played all night.
When Runyon asked why the music couldn’t be shut down at midnight, Boyd replied, “Our participants tend to be very nocturnal.” He said reducing the number of performers would lower the value of tickets that people would be paying hundreds of dollars for.
Lisa Farquharson, executive director of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, was one of six area residents to testify in favor of the festival at Wednesday’s hearing. She said having thousands of people visit the area poured more than $70,000 into the local economy.
“From the tourism point of view, I welcome the event,” she said.
Joan Silver, a member of the Wasco County Economic Development Commission, said business owners she had talked with noted a “measurable economic impact” from an increase in customers during the festival.
“While it is unfortunate that people have difficulty sleeping those nights, there are a lot of people who benefit,” she said.
Liz Turner, who lives near the site, said agriculture was the economic engine in the county and poured more money into local communities than the festival could. She said having the event move from July to June to lessen the fire danger just made life harder for cherry producers, who were in harvest that month.
“None of us would be here complaining today if this was on commercial property, such as the fairground,” she said.
Jeff Handley, another Dufur resident, pointed out that everyone who had spoken in favor of the festival either stood to gain economically from involvement or lived in another location. He reminded the commission that they represent the people of Wasco County and needed to heed the concerns of their constituents first and foremost.
Ken Thomas, who owns a tree farm bordering the festival site, lost a circuit court bid to overturn the issuance of the 2013 permit because the festival violates state forest protection rules. He has since asked the state Land Use Board of Appeals to take up the issue but a decision has not yet been made about whether that will happen.