Fire in the Mountains

Metal heads enjoy 2019’s Fire in the Mountains. The county approved a new regulation for special events like music festivals that would require a time- and cost-intensive permit for for-profit gatherings with more than 500 attendees.

People looking to plan music festivals and other large events now have an additional regulatory hoop to jump through, but the height of that hoop might change in the next few months.

The Teton County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously July 7 to approve a new special event regulation. The rule would require event planners looking to host for-profit events with over 500 people or overnight camping to apply for a conditional use permit, a process that takes five to six months, costs a minimum of $2,500 and involves two public hearings.

The new rule was a win for Buffalo Valley residents who have campaigned for a better process to regulate special events like the Fire in the Mountains metal festival, which has taken place at the Heart Six Ranch since 2018.

About 850 people attended the festival in 2019. Commissioners approved a compliance certificate for the festival in December 2019 under the old rules that could have seen 1,600 people descend on the hamlet just east of Grand Teton National Park this summer. And though organizers canceled the event this year, those 1,600 metal heads might still show up next summer.

The commission gave events like Fire in the Mountains, which was approved for 2020 under the old regulations but canceled because of COVID-19, the go-ahead to roll their permits over into 2021.

Neighbors have decried the metal festival as a noisy nuisance and asked for a process that gives commissioners and the public more oversight over similar events.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” Buffalo Valley resident Si Matthies said, lobbying commissioners to vote in favor of the proposal. “Your approval will give you control — a little more control — over what was and is currently an out-of-control process.”

But others weren’t as enthusiastic about the new rule. They were concerned the 500-person threshold for getting a permit and the related costs — which can go up when the property is in the natural resources overlay and requires an environmental assessment — would be a barrier to entry for small music festivals.

“It’s bigger than just about my event,” Fire in the Mountains owner Jeremy Walker told commissioners. “I think it’s about the future of events that we have in Teton County.”

Walker acknowledged that people were concerned about a “slippery slope” from events like his but said he didn’t see it yet.

Len Carlman, a Wilson resident and attorney who supported the new regulation, agreed that the slope wasn’t there yet but said the new rule was good planning.

“There’s plenty of demand. The first of the pioneers go through this, show that it can be done, and the copycats come along,” Carlman said. “What you’re doing is legitimate planning work, anticipating things that will be different in the future and need to be managed.”

Nonprofit and private events, as well as those in resort areas, are exempt from the new regulation, which will expand the county’s tool kit for managing mass gatherings effective Jan. 1, 2021.

Under the old rules, event organizers had to apply for a special event permit when they were hosting a public event or parade with more than 50 people. That process took care of the basics: permits from the health department, traffic management, law enforcement and the like.

Kristi Malone, the county’s senior long-range planner, said large events like Fire in the Mountains revealed a need for “another avenue” to have a public discussion about “the appropriateness of these uses and the potential impacts to the character of the area.”

That avenue is the conditional use permit, which, before the change, was required if a property held more than three for-profit events a year with over 50 people or amplified music. More event organizers will now have to apply for the time- and money-consuming permit, Malone said during an open house on the proposed rule change: “The biggest impact is going to be that there will be more event sites that fall into this CUP requirement category.”

Anna Olson, the president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, said a 300-person threshold — what planning staff originally proposed — was too low because the “event world is incredibly fickle and difficult.” She argued that profitable events need the ability to prove themselves, and while she agreed there was a need to permit large events she said a better threshold for conditional use permitting would be 1,000 or 1,500 attendees.

“By limiting it to 300, you’re basically making it a nonstarter out of the gate,” Olson said. “No one is going to be able to go through this process and test to see if their event makes sense.”

Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron agreed, calling for at least a 1,000-person threshold.

The rest of the commission didn’t spring for that. Instead, the board met in the middle with the 500-person limit and an apparent consensus that it would revisit the rules soon to come up with a more appropriate process for events of a moderate size.

Chair Natalia D. Macker said she was interested in a process for the “300- to 999-person event.”

“What’s the best way to get there?” she asked planning staff. “I think we could do something.”

Walker said in a phone call that he was in favor of continuing the conversation: “If we were to get a nice intermediate way of permitting for events from 0 to 1,000, and then a conditional use permit at 1,000 or more, that’s a lot more reasonable and livable.”

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Previously the Scene editor, Billy Arnold made the switch to the county beat where he's interested in exploring Teton County as a model for the rest of the West. When he can, he still writes about art, music and whatever else suits his fancy.

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