After Months of Debate, Presidio County Officials Approve Process For Large-Scale Events

By Sally Beauvais

After seven months spent debating what should go into permitting procedures for major events and outdoor music festivals, Presidio County officials unanimously approved Wednesday a set of formal processes.

The county passed two applications — one for something called mass gatherings, and another for outdoor music festivals. For years, the county didn’t have any formal permits for large scale events.

For the last seven months, Presidio County officials met to discuss permitting procedures for large-scale events in Presidio County. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

As defined by the Texas Health and Safety Code, mass gatherings apply to prospective events attracting more than 2,500 people, or more than 500 people if more than half of those in attendance are under 21 years old and alcoholic beverages are expected to be consumed. The second application, the outdoor music festival permit, applies to events where there’s live music on two or more consecutive days and more than 5,000 people are attending.

The nearly 20-page mass gathering permit (which you can see below, along with the permit for outdoor festivals) for Presidio County is largely based on the permitting application created by Grimes County. The Houston-area county has what some consider one of the most thorough applications in the state.

Applicants filling out Presidio’s mass gathering permit will need to provide, among other things, layout and floor plans, medical and safety plans, an emergency action plan and must comply with the local dark sky ordinance. Additionally, there’s a section requiring a copy of the proposed contract between the promoter and the property owner, but applicants are exempt from disclosing any financial agreements.

As they drafted the mass gathering permit, the commissioners realized there were some smaller-scale family events, like family reunions or high school graduation parties, that could technically fit the definition of mass gathering and would be subject to some of the more stringent requirements set out in the permit. So at the urging of Commissioner Frank “Buddy” Knight, officials added language exempting these kinds of events from the requirements in the application process that would be unreasonable.

As the permits for mass gatherings and outdoor music festivals passed Wednesday morning, cheers erupted from both commissioners and the vocal residents who expressed concerns throughout the entire process. Even Commissioner Knight got in on the fun, telling everyone present that he was going to hold a mass gathering at his house to celebrate.

The Not-So-Quiet Elephant

The discussion around developing these application procedures has been contentious at times. And throughout the whole process, the not-so-quiet elephant in the room — and the thing that kick-started these procedures for the county — was the looming prospect of an event organized by C3 Presents, the group behind some of the country’s largest festivals.

The Austin-based company, which puts on festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, was originally planning for a festival of up to 6,000 on a ranch outside of Marfa for May 2020. The number of expected attendees has fluctuated greatly and the company has since nixed their plans for a festival next year, but said in April they still plan “to move forward with the event.”

Many in attendance at the public workshop in October wore buttons in support of Marfa Says No, the local group opposing C3 Presents’ planned festival. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

Immediately after local officials confirmed the company was planning something, there was push back from residents. Concerned locals began asking what the community would gain, what would the impact be to the region’s natural resources and whether the area could safely host an event of that size considering the region’s limited resources. Soon, locals formed a group dubbed Marfa Says No to oppose C3 Present’s festival.

As officials began drafting permits, the proceedings became unofficially tied to C3 Present’s proposal — even though the permits can’t be tailored to a single event, but rather created for large-scale events in general.

Drafting The Permitting Procedures

During their initial round of discussions, the county was looking to copy Travis County’s application process. County Judge Cinderela Guevara believed this was a good move because the Austin area hosts several festivals. But local residents were concerned that the permitting procedures in Travis County wouldn’t fit the needs of rural Texas. They urged commissioners to make a stricter permitting process that reflected the unique needs of Presidio County.

Although the county believed it would be unlawful to create a formal citizens’ advisory committee to research potential liabilities and other examples of permitting procedures, officials slowly began to include citizen input. In early October, there was a public forum dedicated solely to collecting local concerns about the permitting procedure. And more recently, there were two workshops, one in the city of Presidio and one in Marfa, to go through the language of the application officials drafted.

At the October meeting, Marfa resident Allison Scott argued the delicate ecology of the grasslands poised to host C3’s festival would never recover from that volume of people and activity. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

With an official permitting process now in place, the crowd of locals who oppose C3 Presents’ festival says there will now be more transparency when it comes to planning this event and future ones.

The months-long process also brought up a larger argument in the community. Some voiced concern that Marfa was becoming anti-tourism, which could damage the local economy. But some, like those with Marfa Says No, said the intense debate surrounding the permitting process wasn’t against tourism. Tourism, they said, brought great things to Marfa and the Big Bend community at large, but they were advocating for something that would be sustainable.

Read Presidio County’s permits for large-scale events below:

About Sally Beauvais

Sally Beauvais reports on rural issues in Far West Texas. She also runs Marfa Public Radio's engagement efforts.
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