Although the county administrator has denied the special events permit for the 2020 metal festival Fire in the Mountains, Teton County Commissioners will have the final say.
Festival organizers, who have already booked bands for this year’s show, will appeal the decision Monday morning to the Board of County Commissioners. Buffalo Valley neighbors, who have complained about the disruption they say the festival causes, are hoping the denial sticks.
County Administrator Alyssa Watkins’ decision to deny the permit focused on two points: a potential dearth of county law enforcement the weekend of the event and concerns related to noise, which have plagued neighbors and festival organizers since the metal fest was first hosted at the Heart Six Ranch in 2018.
Though Monday’s hearing will focus on the concerns outlined in Watkins’ letter, some see the continuation of special events like Fire in the Mountains as impetus for policy change.
The law enforcement shortage centers around Teton County Sheriff’s Office resources. With Targhee Fest set for the same weekend as the metal festival — July 10, 11 and 12 — the concern is that the sheriff’s resources may be spread too thin to guarantee that officers will be available to police the festival. Those who choose to work events like Targhee Fest and Fire in the Mountains do so on overtime hours, which are paid back to the county by event organizers.
In the appeal letter that kicked the process up to the board for review, Fire in the Mountains organizers said they hoped to address that issue, in part, by compensating officers for travel and providing them dinner. The festival also plans to hire a private security team and said at least three officers from Wyoming State Highway Patrol will be on duty in the area.
Still, Sheriff Matt Carr said his staff’s availability is a moving target. If illness broke out among officers, or there was a major search and rescue operation that weekend, there might not be bandwidth to staff the festival, even if officers choose to sign up.
“Nothing in life is guaranteed,” Carr said.
A noisy dispute
Noise also remains an issue.
Organizers have proposed a number of remedies to mitigate the loudness. One, ensuring decibel levels don’t exceed the county limit by sending an independent sound engineer to neighbors’ properties during sound checks, is intended to respond to neighbors’ assertion that sound levels have exceeded the limit on their properties in years past.
“We’re proposing to work with the neighbors on this,” festival organizer Jeremy Walker said. “There’s no reason we can’t both live in the same space communally and together for one weekend a year and both be happy.”
Still, Buffalo Valley resident Mickey Babcock said she didn’t have a lot of “faith” in the proposals. Though she did not stick around for the festival when it happened in 2018 and 2019, she had heard about the decibel issue from other residents — organizers say they were in lock step with county ordinances — and how others have had their weekends ruined by the noise.
“You’re disrupting someone’s quality of life,” Babcock said.
The Buffalo Valley resident welcomed Watkins’ decision to deny the permit.
“It’s clear that those of us who have spoken up and the county commissioners who have paid attention to the issue realize that a process needs to take place before any more events can take place in rural lands,” she said.
The broader conversation
A discussion of that process, though, is unlikely to occur during Monday’s hearing, which will focus on Fire in the Mountains specifically rather than the permitting process as a whole.
“The parameters for our decision making are very narrow,” said Natalia D. Macker, chair of the Teton County Board of Commissioners, “but I think the majority of the board members are very interested in looking at what our parameters are.”
An issue like this came before the board in 2018, when commissioners were required to review Highline Sports and Entertainment’s proposal to host a Dead and Co. concert in the South Park area. In that session, Highline explained its plans to mitigate the county’s concerns, which were discussed by the board and approved, though the concert ultimately did not happen.
Monday’s conversation will likely be similar. It will be focused on Fire in the Mountains’ plans to ameliorate the issues — organizers’ appeal includes proposed mitigation plans — rather than policy surrounding special events of this size.
That narrow focus does not, however, mean the county isn’t considering how special events of Fire in the Mountains and the Dead and Co. show’s size should be regulated. Commissioners have asked the planning department to develop a policy that will apply to similar events.
“Nobody ever expected that there would be big multi-day concerts with some several thousand attendees held potentially anywhere in the county,” said Commissioner Mark Newcomb, who was on the board for the Dead discussion. “After Dead and Company, it’s right in our face.”
The guidelines for the requested policies are loose (Newcomb said the planning department was only asked for a regulatory structure) but they won’t be ready by Monday.
In the meantime, Walker said he sees the festival’s commissioner time as a chance to make the case for Fire in the Mountains publicly.
“This is a great opportunity to plead our case to the community and show them who we really are beyond just the metalheads who throw a party up in Moran,” Walker said.