STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
About 100 people pelted UTOPiAfest Down In the Oaks organizers with nearly 90 questions about the music festival, which is scheduled to take place Nov. 1-4 on ranchland off CR 200 northeast of Burnet.
Adjacent landowners expressed their concerns over a number of issues, and lawyers on both sides argued the legality of the event during a public meeting hosted by festival officials Sept. 19 at the AgriLife Extension building in Burnet.
The uproar is over the permit that event organizers are seeking from the county to host a “mass gathering,” as defined in the state’s Health and Safety Code.
Many in attendance at the meeting voiced their frustration over not hearing many details about the event until recent weeks, even though it has been planned for months.
Founder Travis Sutherland opened the meeting by speaking for about 12 minutes on the history of UTOPiAfest, covering the first nine years of the event on his family’s ranch near the small community of Utopia.
Noticeably nervous, Sutherland gave statements from previous festival attendees and reassured those at the meeting that the event aims to be family-friendly.
“Last year, we had over 250 kids,” he said. “And they all had an incredible time.”
Sutherland said he began seeking a new location so the festival could grow.
“It started to become evident the festival would have to take another incremental step,” he said. “It would have to be sustainable, or it was going to go away.”
He wanted a location where the festival could welcome more attendees as well as sell alcohol, and he found it in a 97-acre Burnet County ranch owned by the Harrison family.
The message he tried to communicate during the meeting was that the festival’s goal is to be the opposite of Austin City Limits and Woodstock with a target of only 4,000 patrons.
Later, Sutherland again answered questions about his reasons for moving to the location.
“Sustainability reason, closer to Austin … ” Sutherland began to answer.
He was quickly cut off by a person in the crowd, who perhaps said what many thought: “Sure, to bring in more people we don’t want around here.”
During the open-questions portion of the meeting, the event’s public safety director, Scott Davidson, had nearly every part of the festival’s process dissected.
He began by addressing a couple of topics on most attendees’ minds: traffic and the opening weekend of deer season, which falls on the same dates as UTOPiAfest.
With a target of 4,000 vehicles, Davidson said he expects 1,600 cars at most on the property during the course of the festival and promised no traffic delays.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but I assure you we won’t have static cars on (CR) 200,” he said.
As for deer season, Davidson said the organizers and property owners simply weren’t aware of the conflict as they are not hunters themselves.
The date can’t be moved as contracts with the artists all have been signed, he said.
“We don’t anticipate too big an impact to hunting season, but I do want to apologize,” Davidson said.
Moving forward, future dates will not interfere with deer season, the room was told.
Davidson, who puts on large events across the state and country, said the nearly 100 acres was plenty of room for a festival of this size.
The previous location was held on a ranch of about 1,000 acres but only took up 32 acres.
“I’ve done camping at music festivals for 20,000 (people) on 45 acres,” he said. “That’s commonplace. This is more than enough room to satisfy the needs.”
Some of the tension came from locals and landowners who felt powerless to stop an event they don’t want near them. Davidson said that should the permit, which is for gatherings of 2,500 people or more, not be granted, the festival would consider capping ticket sales to just 2,499.
“It doesn’t sound like you’re working with the community. It sounds like Plan B is ‘Welp, we’re gonna shove this through anyway,” one woman said.
That’s when the meeting reached the two-hour mark, and Burnet County Judge James Oakley spoke up.
“Let me clarify. Assuming the permit gets issued, there are provisions for the permit to be revoked prior to the event,” Oakley said.
And if the event admits fewer than 2,500 people, the sheriff still has the authority to shut it down, he continued.
To address that point and the crowd, Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd took the mic.
The organizers, he said, were all good people. The permit process and his decision whether or not to grant it would not be for political reasons, he said.
“I don’t make decisions that way, anyway. If they meet everything they’re supposed to meet, they’ll get a permit,” Boyd said. “If they don’t, then they won’t get a permit.”
He continued by elaborating on the festival’s safety plan, which Davidson couldn’t completely divulge so as not to jeopardize information about policies and procedures.
“I can assure you that if this thing goes off, the security is going to be more than sufficient inside the festival, and we’re going to have people outside the festival,” Boyd said.
Davidson previously said he has shared 150 pages of documents with the sheriff to cover the safety and contingency plan.
“They have a remarkable reputation,” Boyd said. “So, if this thing happens, I can assure you it’s going to be safe.”
As festival organizers continue to improve the right of way off CR 200 up to the festival location, Burnet County commissioners will hold a public hearing on the permit application during the Sept. 25 regular meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. at the Burnet County Courthouse, 220 S. Pierce St. in Burnet. More questions about traffic, the festival’s impact on deer season, noise levels, and the legality of promoting the event before the permit is approved are sure to come up.
Oakley said that, sometime after that meeting, with no specific timeframe, Boyd will make the determination on the permit.