New festival, event process outlined, but talk on specifics will go on

Austin approved new rules for handling festivals and events in the city after six years of discussion Thursday, but watch for the talk to continue.

The special events ordinance aims to streamline planning and permitting of Austin happenings big and small, from charity park barbecues and political protests to South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. Frustration from some arts and nonprofit organizations led to last-minute tweaks to set the stage for more public engagement as the city’s staff turns the ordinance’s guidelines into procedure.

“This has been a long process, and the only thing that seems to be sure about this is that the journey is not over,” Mayor Steve Adler said. The new special events application process should be fully in place in April 2019. “The next year is going to require everyone to stay engaged.”

BACKGROUND: Why has Austin’s special event ordinance taken 5 years? It’s complicated

Thursday was the City Council’s third reading of an ordinance that began with a resolution under Mayor Lee Leffingwell in May 2012. It was ultimately drafted to organize event-permit requirements into four tiers, based on event size, and to authorize an interdepartmental team to manage applications.

The new rules were needed to help staffers stay ahead of a growing number of concerts, races, political rallies and festivals. It requires applications to be submitted up to six months in advance for the largest events and down to three days in advance for the smallest ones. It allows “legacy events” to give notice of a proposed event up to five years in advance.

But various event planners raised concerns that it still would take too much of a one-size-fits-all approach and that the plan didn’t sufficiently consider the history of long-standing events.

The process is cumbersome, too expensive and often involves frustratingly arbitrary decisions by city staff, said Stacy Suits, a Travis County Precinct 3 constable and board member for Friends of the Forest Foundation, which organizes Eeyore’s Birthday Party.

“We’re getting hit with death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “Nonprofits are being choked out in this city.”

Others said permitting fees make it difficult, if not impossible, for small and nonprofit events to be viable in the public sphere without major corporate backing.

The specifics of those concerns — the fee structure and how large and small events are distinguished within the major tiers — are exactly what staffers will have to hash out over the next year, said Alicia Dean, a city communications and marketing consultant.

“All events aren’t equal. So if you’re a Tier 1 event, which might be a small march or something, that’s obviously very different from South by,” she said. “What we’re looking at are, ‘OK, what are the resources required?’ You might have two events taking up the same space in a park, but you don’t have the same impact with crowds, or if there are street closures.”

FROM 2013: Austin to streamline application for special events

In response to concerns, Council Member Kathie Tovo added amendments to the ordinance that allows event applicants to appeal to the City Council if they disagree with a staff decision, gives staff time to launch the new rules before the new applications begin in April 2019, requires a stakeholder process in the meantime, calls for additional scalability within the tiers and establishes a task force to oversee the first year of the new applications.

Council Member Greg Casar received support for an amendment exempting impromptu events, such as political protests in response to breaking news, from the process.

Brad Spies, SXSW’s director of special projects, who spoke for a group of event planners, joked that he was 12 years old when the process began and griped that city staff had failed to listen to the events community. But with the amendments from Tovo and future engagement, the group was supportive, he said.

“It will satisfy the events community because it does allow for a robust oversight and process going forward,” he said. “There’s a huge need for improvement in the permitting process and this ordinance is really just the first step.”

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