Tacking on one extra noise-focused condition, the Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved Fire in the Mountains’ special event permit, overturning the county administrator’s original decision.
In a 3-1 vote during the second of two Monday meetings, Commissioners Mark Barron, Luther Propst and Greg Epstein voted in favor of the amended permit. Mark Newcomb voted against it after fretting about crowds and the use of rural lands for events. Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker was absent.
Organizers can now move forward with preparations for the festival, which will more or less be able to proceed with the mitigation strategies for sound and policing outlined in the appeal that kicked County Administrator Alyssa Watkins’ original denial up to the elected board.
“I’m excited to start the process from here,” festival organizer Jeremy Walker said after commissioners reached their decision. “We’ve been in a bit of a stalemate” — the festival had booked bands for the 2020 season though organizers vowed throughout the hearing not to proceed until they had a permit in hand — “and now we can actually move forward.”
Commissioners accepted Fire in the Mountains’ policing mitigation strategy, designed to compensate for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office being split between Targhee Fest and the metal festival on the weekend of July 10, 11 and 12. They instead spent much of the Monday session taking public comment in a packed commissioners’ chambers and discussing how the festival would reduce noise levels before ultimately signing off on the proposal.
Though Commissioner Newcomb proposed capping 2020 attendance and requesting a formal document spelling out mitigation plans, the only addendum to organizers’ plans that commissioners approved was the noise-related requirement. That stipulation requires sound levels to be tested every five minutes throughout the festival.
After 14 people commented at the festival-focused Monday morning session, commissioners tabled the discussion because of other agenda items and reconvened for a second session at 3 p.m. to finish the deliberation and ultimately approve the permit.
Based on Buffalo Valley residents’ remarks, Fire in the Mountains’ rural neighbors are unlikely to share Walker’s optimism.
At the meeting they worried about fire risks and the difficulty in responding to public safety issues in remote Buffalo Valley, more than 30 miles from town. Neighbors also asked commissioners to consider the impact on wildlife, a dearth of written agreements to hold organizers and the groups they contract with — law enforcement being one — accountable, as well as the proposed growth of the festival. Up from 850 people in 2019, festival organizers hope someday to expand the festival to 3,000 attendees, though they don’t plan on exceeding 1,600 in 2020 unless a conditional use permit for camping is approved before July. If that comes through, they’ll sell up to 2,000 tickets.
Noise was the main issue
The central issue, though, was noise. July’s festival will be Fire in the Mountains’ third year in Buffalo Valley. The issue had not been mitigated to neighbors’ satisfaction in years past.
“I’ve worked with noise limits in other venues, and I know how hard it is to control noise,” 25-year Buffalo Valley resident Andrea Riniker said during the meeting, responding to Walker’s defense of his crews’ attempts to hold sound below the county’s 55-decibel limit in 2019. Addressing the commissioners, Riniker said they originally set limits “not because you had in mind how you accommodate a heavy metal concert, but because you had in mind how do you in fact protect residential neighborhoods from these kinds of incursions.”
Despite neighbors’ objections, 10 of the 14 people who spoke at the Monday morning session supported Fire in the Mountains. Some supported placing restrictions on festival operations and measuring organizers’ compliance to avoid what they saw as subjectivity in the decision-making process.
“Third time’s the charm,” said Leif Routman, a local musician who attended the festival in 2019. He spoke favorably of the festival’s plan to hire an independent sound engineer to monitor and record sound levels as a way to create uncontested written records of the festival’s most hotly debated issue. “There’s a chance to get it right here.”
Katie Wilson, who had also attended the festival, agreed.
“I think that a few thoughtful conditions on the permit rather than a denial would be worth considering,” she said.
The decision made
Ultimately commissioners sided with that sentiment, though the sound monitoring requirement was the only condition added. Commissioner Mark Barron outlined that proposal while expressing support for the festival.
He said that he appreciated neighbors’ concerns, but compared the festival to events that cause similar disruptions: the rodeo and Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding’s “Stomping the Divots” fundraiser, which takes place in Melody Ranch. He dismissed suggestions that Snow King was a more appropriate venue — it “isn’t where the organizers chose to contract,” he said — and illustrated that decibel limits are hard to pin down. He said a sound level reader on his phone had recorded levels higher than 55 decibels throughout the public comment session.
“Summertime tourism and special eventing is part of what we do in this community, and it’s not just because of tourism,” Barron said. “It’s because that’s what we want to be doing.”
Newcomb, though, highlighted the difference between the area surrounding Snow King Mountain and rural lands like Buffalo Valley in his dissent.
“We zoned for resorts, and we zoned for parts of the county to have a very vibrant, much more lively nightlife,” he said. “I really do think that the rural parts of the county were set up so that folks could by and large enjoy their quiet habitation of their residences.”
Despite his vote in favor of Fire in the Mountains’ permit, Commissioner Propst supported Newcomb’s worry about protecting rural lands. That sentiment is shared by Buffalo Valley residents, who have called for a new process for events like Fire in the Mountains. Regulation to that effect is in the works, though it wasn’t ready Monday when Propst asked how Teton County would handle a situation where 10 events like Fire in the Mountains applied to be held over 10 separate summer weekends. What would happen in a hypothetical scenario where the metal festival’s organizers blew past their 3,000 attendee cap and targeted a 50,000-person crowd?
“I’m being somewhat facetious, but the point is — what happens as all of this continues on down the road?” Propst said. “I think it’s important for us to come up with certainty about this generally.”