San Luis Obispo County’s system for regulating events is seriously flawed, and everybody knows it.
Event organizers know it. County elected officials know it. The County Planning and Building Department knows it. The SLO County grand jury knows it. Citizens know it.
Really, people have known that the system is problematic ever since it first went into effect in 1980. In fact, the county Board of Supervisors initiated an effort to revise the system back in 2004. More than 10 years later, that effort is no closer to being finished than when it started.
In June 2014, a proposed two-day, 10,000-person music and entertainment festival known as Forever Never Land came before the Board of Supervisors for consideration under a section of the event regulation system.
The event was ultimately downsized and restricted to a maximum of 3,000 attendees. In the process, however, event regulation issues—both latent and brand new—were ignited.
Big events, big issues
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- THE YOUNGER CROWD: Some events—like the California Festival of Beers (pictured)—are exempt from having to apply for complicated licenses or permits. Those who have had to apply say the process is extremely inhibitory, and some stakeholders are worried that such regulations are hurting SLO County’s top industry: tourism.
Let’s say you want to hold an event in SLO County.
If your event is big (more than 3,000 attendees), you’ll need to apply for what’s called a Temporary Commercial Outdoor Entertainment License (TCOEL). Though that might sound simple enough, the process of complying with this 14-page regulation is expensive, complicated, and extremely difficult for most applicants.
According to SLO County Department of Planning and Building Assistant Director Kami Griffin, county legend has it that the TCOEL ordinance was put in place as a deterrent to the possibility of a Woodstock-like event, which county leaders feared in the late ’70s.
A 2013 SLO County grand jury report on the failures of various county events ordinances—initiated as the result of two citizen complaints—describes the TCOEL application process as “burdensome,” “lengthy,” and “costly.” Though the grand jury officially recommended streamlining this process and the planning department has attempted to revise the ordinance, that action remains pending—as it has since 2005.
Valerie Wang, Forever Never Land’s CEO and the most recent applicant for a TCOEL, told New Times that while she harbors no hard feelings toward the county, she views the TCOEL application as a “big gray area” and an “unclear process that cost us time and money.”
Even if you’re able to complete the lengthy application for your hypothetical large event (Wang’s was longer than 100 pages), then the significant hurdle of a public hearing before the Board of Supervisors still remains.
Above and beyond the license requirements, you have to—in essence—convince three out of five supervisors to approve of your event, which is a rather subjective endeavor.
Flawed and criticized though it may be, the large event approval process is even more problematic in light of a recent discovery: Forever Never Land was the first applicant for a TCOEL in quite some time.
Michael Mancini—a Los Angeles attorney who serves as Forever Never Land’s legal counsel—said he initiated the TCOEL application process after reviewing the county code, and county staff informed him that this event was the first applicant in more than a decade.
“Everyone has generally avoided that [3,000-person] threshold because of the TCOEL process,” Griffin said. “I can clearly see [Forever Never Land’s] point with how they consider the process to be inhibitory.”
While other large events do take place in SLO County (including the Mid-State Fair, Sunset's Savor the Central Coast, and various happenings at the Pozo Saloon and the Avila Beach Golf Resort), a combination of exemptions, de facto understandings with the county, and separate ordinances allow all of those events to avoid the TCOEL application process.
“The expensive [TCOEL] process is already a strong deterrent for big events, but when the ordinance process isn’t consistently enforced, that makes it even more undesirable to pursue a permitted large event in SLO County,” Mancini said.
Ultimately, Wang and Mancini said they were disappointed that the Board of Supervisors decided to downsize their event, especially since they went above and beyond during the application process, in their eyes.
“Most other areas have experience with big events like [Forever Never Land], and the application process is not an unknown,” Wang said. “The muddled response and negative stance we received from the county were ultimately because there was no precedent for our event, and it’s much easier to keep things the same than to embrace something new.”
In response, Supervisors Adam Hill and Caren Ray—who voted against approving Forever Never Land as initially proposed—both said that the event was simply inappropriate for the venue due to its large size.
District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold—who was the sole supervisor to vote in favor of approving Forever Never Land’s initial application—said she’s concerned about the economic impacts of the county subjectively overregulating large events.
“If we become unfriendly to these events, then we eventually won’t have them anymore,” Arnold told New Times. “I don’t want to make it too hard for businesses, and I don’t want to blanket the county with difficult regulations.
“This was a very organized event, so I think downsizing it establishes a dangerous precedent,” she added. “It would have brought enormous economic value at the 10,000-person size.”
Small events, big problems
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- PEOPLE PROBLEMS: Though large events like POPS by the Sea (hosted at the Avila Beach Golf Resort, pictured) are undeniably popular, many stakeholders from different sides argue that the county’s regulatory framework for events is fatally flawed.
As flawed as the large event approval process can be in SLO County, the county’s system for regulating small events is every bit as problematic in the eyes of many stakeholders.
The county’s regulations for small events (any attendance of fewer than 3,000 people) are similarly criticized for their inconsistent application, but whereas the large event approval process is seen as onerous, inhibitory, and overly complicated by its critics, the small event approval process is seen as the exact opposite.
According to county Planning Manager and Environmental Coordinator Ellen Carroll, small events are currently either subject to Minor Use Permits (MUPs) or no permits at all.
“The goal of all our regulations is to make sure that these events are community compatible and safe,” she said.
According to Carroll, MUPs and other similar permits fall under the category of “discretionary”—a permit classification that allows regulators to apply conditions, while also requiring public notice and a public hearing before potential approval.
While small events that are required to seek permits—Griffin estimated this percentage at roughly 70 percent—have to meet a high standard of review in order to secure approval, their unpermitted brethren follow a different path.
The approximately 30 percent of events that are unpermitted and/or exempt are still ostensibly required to meet basic county health and safety codes, but not much else.
The county’s governing land use document for small events—the so-called Temporary Events Ordinance—consists of barely more than a page of vague, bare-bones regulation, and has been the crux of discontent with the current system.
The major exemptions from permitting in the ordinance are for events in “approved public assembly facilities,” nonprofit events, admission-free events in public parks, and parades.
In essence, many event organizers and some county officials are happy with the current regulations, whose manifold loopholes, exemptions, and de facto understandings allow numerous small events to operate efficiently without much burdensome oversight.
On the other side, many concerned citizens, the grand jury, and some county officials have criticized the regulations for being outdated, ineffectual, and unfair.
“The exiting Temporary Events Ordinance is outmoded, brief, vague, and obsolete,” the 2013 grand jury report reads. “It also does not address many of the specific issues that affect neighbors who reside near properties where outdoor events are held.”
In the report, the grand jury recommended finalizing an amended ordinance in 2013—which has yet to happen—and also suggested applying the same controls for environmental impacts, public safety, and community relations whether that event was for-profit, nonprofit, traditional, or new. That hasn’t happened either.
Sherri Danoff, a land-use planner and Avila Beach resident, is one of the citizens who’s been leading the charge against small event regulations that she considers dangerously inadequate.
“We have the golf resort in Avila, and events there aren’t under any permit because of the nonprofit loophole,” Danoff said. “Because these events are unregulated and multiplying, there’s a number of Avila people whose lives are practically ruined during these events.”
Danoff detailed a litany of local complaints related to such events: traffic, vandalism, noise, congestion, and poor access for public safety personnel among them. Because these events are unpermitted and not subject to much scrutiny, Danoff said the Avila populace is unable to have any input on how they’re run.
On the other hand, Rob Rossi, owner of the Avila Beach Golf Resort venue, said his management of the venue has been exemplary and by the book.
“We have always been told by the county that we are acting properly,” Rossi told New Times. “We work within the regulations, I truly believe we have more supporters than detractors, and we are adequately addressing the impacts of Avila events.”
Danoff has recently started a citizen group called Avila Beach Advocates in response to increased events at the resort and what she describes as “hugely disappointing” inaction from local government.
“This area doesn’t belong to event ticket holders or Rob Rossi, it belongs to all of us, the public,” Danoff said. “They’re able to balance competing interests and effectively manage events almost everywhere else in this state, so I don’t know why SLO County is so backward.”
The struggle for change
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- AVOID AVILA?: The Avila Beach Golf Resort is the site of a particularly complicated regulatory skirmish between concerned neighbors, owner Rob Rossi, and country regulators/litigators.
Although SLO County leadership is well aware of the manifold flaws in the system for regulating events, the situation remains frustratingly static for a number of reasons.
Any change to the current county system for regulating events will have to emanate primarily from two entities: the planning department and the Board of Supervisors. Thought the two have intermittently been trying to iron out revisions since 2004, other more urgent issues have often taken legislative precedence.
“There’s no denying there are lots of gaps and loopholes in the current events ordinance,” Griffin said. “That said, if the issue was simple, there would have been a simple solution.”
On the Board of Supervisors, all five supervisors are wrangling with a balancing act—especially District 3 Supervisor Hill, whose district includes the Avila Beach Golf Resort.
“I’m as responsible as anyone for kicking this thing around,” Hill told New Times. “We do need more regulation, and this needs to become better, because it’s feeling like neglect with the ordinance. That said, where to draw the line is the toughest thing.”
The planning department did make a stab at a revised events ordinance back in 2011, crafting a detailed, tiered permitting system with more rules and fewer loopholes. Though the revision was praised by the grand jury and could have been approved by county supervisors, it was ultimately nixed.
After event organizers (including Rossi) complained about government overreach and a troubling “one-size-fits-all” mentality in the revised ordinance, the supervisors elected to kick the ordinance back to the planning department for further “economic impact analysis.”
“Events are an important part of the tourist picture, and that’s why we have gone as lightly as we have with the ordinance revision,” Hill said. “We don’t want to crack down on events, but we also want to have some county control so residents don’t feel threatened.”
Rossi echoed Hill’s sentiment that regulators and legislators have to tread carefully when trying to govern events.
“Not one-size-fits-all, and regulations shouldn’t be self-defeating,” Rossi said. “I absolutely think the county regulations should be updated, but it would be a shame to see the wrong kind of regulatory changes take away from a great venue.”
District 4 Supervisor Ray said she expects the events ordinance revision discussion to return to the board before the end of the calendar year, and is optimistic for some kind of resolution.
“I think we can figure out how to write this events ordinance revision to make sure local businesses are protected,” Ray said. “We put a man on the moon, after all.”
From the planning department’s point of view, they are making do with a lackluster regulatory system for now, and hoping for imminent change.
“We’re making it work, but there’s a huge amount of ambiguity out there when it comes to events,” Griffin said. “That’s an unfortunate side-effect of having a vague ordinance on the books.”
Though that potential system-wide revision will come too late for Wang and Mancini, the Forever Never Land organizers said it’s high time that SLO County got with the times.
“There’s absolutely no reason that improving the event regulation system should be toxic or controversial, because it would be a great thing for SLO County,” Mancini said. “You need to find a balance between commercial and citizen interests, and the current laws don’t do that.
“Larger, festival-type events have become a lucrative business in California and the whole nation, but those events will avoid SLO County while this regulatory situation remains the same,” he added.
Wang said that the county needs to decide what kind of tourist spot it wants to be before the events regulation system is altered.
“If SLO would like to be an exclusive, close-knit, retirement community and draw the family-friendly crowd, then there’s no reason to change the system,” Wang said. “If they want to be a destination tourist spot for all ages, though, then they need to re-write that events ordinance so it’s black and white and it makes sense.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.