Nevada County outdoor events debate comes to head in advance of Aug. 12 vote
August 5, 2014
As the Aug. 12 vote on Nevada County's proposed amended outdoor events ordinance draws closer, civic, neighborhood and community groups on both sides of the heated debate are lobbing salvos.
Some say the ordinance, which would require "mini-permits" — limited to four per year — for any commercial outdoor wedding or other event at a private residential property, would have a chilling effect on the local wedding and tourism industry. Others say the proposal, which a committee of stakeholders and county officials has been rewriting for the last two months, doesn't go far enough.
"The land use issues raised by the proposed ordinance are already addressed by county zoning regulations … which address the rent or lease of facilities for social and entertainment events," says the Federation of Neighborhood Associations, a group representing 12 Nevada County neighborhoods in an official statement.
"That section could easily be amended to more comprehensively address infrequent events with a lesser permit," the federation says. "One comprehensive ordinance would be less confusing."
“Commercial activity is prohibited in residential areas anyway – Grass Valley and Nevada City already don’t allow it. This will offer more balance in the residential areas of unincorporated Nevada County.”
The federation's statement does not dispute the need for stricter controls to protect neighborhoods against problems of noise, dead-end roads, camping and parking issues. However, it argues against the current proposed regulatory format, which, it said, causes more problems than it solves.
"The draft ordinance significantly expands the language of the general code 'outdoor festivals' section, increasing the potential number of and types of events that could be held county-wide without respect to zoning, parcel sizes or road maintenance. …" says the statement, submitted to the county earlier this summer.
Since the federation's statement, the committee has added a clause to restrict the "mini-permits" eligibility to properties that are 5 acres or larger, said Don Bessee, a committee member. Smaller properties in residential areas will not be allowed to host commercial outside events at all – unless they fall within one of the exempted categories, such as fundraisers.
"Commercial activity is prohibited in residential areas anyway – Grass Valley and Nevada City already don't allow it," Bessee said. "This will offer more balance in the residential areas of unincorporated Nevada County."
Another change is that a requirement to give notice to surrounding property owners would be submitted at the very beginning of the process — instead of 15 days before the event as earlier proposed.
"The wedding planners said that people often book their events a year in advance," Bessee said. "This would give time for the neighbors to raise any issues in advance."
The increasingly intense debate has picked up steam in recent days. On Friday, the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, which is opposed to the ordinance because of its feared negative economic impact, ran a substantial display ad in The Union calling for residents to tell supervisors to "Just Say 'No.'"
"Don't let our local economy be damaged by a faulty piece of legislation aimed at problems that do not exist," the ad says. Numerous other editorials, letters to the editor and op-ed pieces have also run in the newspaper in recent days, both for and against the proposal.
"Eighty percent of the wedding industry is fine, they are in conformance with codes and have permits," said Supervisor Chair Nate Beason in a July 26 op-ed piece. "What is at issue is the 20 percent that are conducting commercial events in residential areas without permits."
The issue of private property owners running weddings and other events for profit at their picturesque country estates is apparently a nationwide problem, according to a front-page story Monday in the New York Times.
The article, entitled, "Neighbors Say Barn Weddings Raise a Rumpus," says couples throughout the Midwest are booking nuptials at rehabbed old barns for their "unfussy vibe, picturesque setting and rural authenticity." As in Nevada County, some neighbors told the newspaper they are not happy with intrusions to their quiet bucolic lifestyles.
"Unlike other businesses, the barns are often not inspected to ensure that they are up to code," the article says, "and many lack proper sanitation, fire doors and sprinklers, accommodations for disabilities and licenses to serve liquor."
Final copies of the proposed Nevada County ordinance are expected by Thursday, when the agenda for next Tuesday's board of supervisors meeting is released.
Committee member says he is interested in property rights
Bessee was appointed by Beason to the committee after a resident involved in a lawsuit against a neighbor operating weddings in the American Ranch Court neighborhood withdrew.
"She felt like she was steamrolled (by the other committee members)," Bessee said. "The two homeowners (the American Ranch Court resident and another person in the Squirrel Creek Road area) wanted me to come in – they felt I had more of a macro knowledge (of the issue)."
Beason said he agreed to appoint Bessee after getting three phone calls from different people recommending him. Beason said he contacted Bessee, but stressed that the Alta Sierra resident, who serves on the boards of both the Alta Sierra Property Association and Federation of Neighborhood Associations, was strictly representing himself as a county resident.
"I told him that he was not to represent any group," Beason said.
Leaders of both Federation of Neighborhood Associations and the Alta Sierra Property Association said Bessee did not speak for their associations.
Federation of Neighborhood Associations is an umbrella group that represents homeowners and property owners associations in Alta Sierra, Cement Hill, Rattlesnake, Banner Mountain, Cascade Shores, Bubbling Wells, Lake Vera, Greater Champion, Nevada Street-Willow Valley, Osborne Hill, Pleasant Hill and Rural Quality Coalition.
Bessee said he has a longstanding interest in issues involving private property rights – such as the medical marijuana grow ordinance, a proposal limiting use of construction equipment on private residential property, a recall movement last year involving the Alta Sierra Property Association, and the current debate about outside events.
"The fundamental thing that you see in all these cases is that every homeowner has the same private property rights – up to the point where they intrude on neighbors," he said. "You have to find a middle ground, and not everyone is getting everything they want."
He said the outside events complaints had been "bubbling up at the homeowners meetings" over the years along Dog Bar Road, Squirrel Creek Road and Cement Hill Road areas.
New Earth Festival triggered ordinance, some say
Bessee and Nevada County Counsel Alison Barratt-Green acknowledge that the three-day New Earth Festival on Cement Hill Road in the summer of 2012 might have been one of the final triggers leading to the original "outdoor festivals" ordinance, the forerunner of the current outdoor events proposal.
"That was one of the events, but it wasn't the only one," said Barratt-Green, who wrote the original ordinance and who is doing the rewrite with the committee's and public's input.
Jill Fox, whose 8-acre property on Cement Hill Road was leased by neighbor Kevin Ide for the festival, said she agreed to the event because it started out as a beautiful plan to "bless the land" with high-minded music, dancing, crystals, chakra clearing, food, crafts, massage and spiritual ceremonies. Several hundred people arrived from all over – San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Hawaii. Someone brought in a huge dome that had been displayed at Burning Man; many people camped on the land.
"It was a lovely festival," Fox said. "There were no mishaps, no problems, and it seemed to bring a lot of blessings to the land."
When one of the bands played music late into the evening, Fox asked them to turn it down and they did. If people lit a cigarette at the no-smoking event, Fox or Ide would tell them to put it out, and they did, she said. They also made sure that shower water did not flow on the land and was instead directed to outhouses, she said.
"The main concern was fire," she said, adding that she and Ide purchased water tanks and a generator to pump water if necessary "We became the smoking police."
Fox said although they were first told they didn't need a permit, Nevada City officials later told them they would, in fact, need one. Ide, who has since moved out of the area, declined and said he would hold it anyway, without a permit.
"It was really confusing," she said. "There really wasn't any place for this kind of event."
Although the festival was very safe and ended without any major problems, Nevada City fined both Fox and Ide a total of $4,000 – all of which Ide paid, Fox said. That was the last event on her property, she said.
"He asked me to do another one but I said 'No,'" she said. "It was too stressful; there's too much liability."
Fox said she wouldn't be surprised if the festival, despite its success, was the impetus for the original outdoor festivals ordinance.
"Out in the country, sound really carries," she said.
"If you're a farmer, and you have to get up at 4 a.m. to go to the farmers' market, you don't want to be hearing music at 11 p.m."
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.