Blue grass festival organizers vow to play on

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Matanuska-Susitna Borough last week refused to ease special event permit restrictions for organizers of the Talkeetna Bluegrass and Music Festival, but organizers expect the event to proceed next month.

The borough denied a permit halfway through the four-day event last year. If the borough denies the permit again this year, organizers would find a way around the special events ordinance adopted three years ago, said Christopher Canterbury, attorney for Ernie Wheatley, the festival's director.

The ordinance was pushed as a way to control all-night raves. But the bluegrass festival, which drew about 4,000 people last year, is the only event that has requested a special events permit under the ordinance, borough officials said.

The ordinance targets the festival, Canterbury claimed, and bonding and other restrictions are too strict for organizers to meet. So instead, he said, Wheatley could become exempt from the permit by fencing the entire festival site, erecting permanent open-air structures, or limiting crowds to less than 500.

''They're making a big mistake if they back operators into a position where they're just going to figure out a way to do it so the ordinance doesn't apply,'' the lawyer said. ''Then you have unregulated activities out there.''

The ordinance covers gatherings of more than 500 people who pay admission to events outside city limits. It requires that organizers pledge a certain level of insurance bonding, security and other provisions such as solid-waste disposal and water.

Among other things, Wheatley had hoped to reduce by one-fifth a bond required for cleanup and other post-festival costs. The required bond now ranges from $25,000 to $125,000, depending on attendance.

He also wanted to shorten the permit deadline to 30 days before the event. The ordinance requires 90 days before the first day of advertising.

In February, Assemblywoman Kelly Ladere, who represents Talkeetna, proposed the amendments Wheatley requested last September.

But borough Mayor Tim Anderson last month vetoed the next step, introducing the amendments to the assembly, saying the changes must first go before the planning commission. Last week, the assembly upheld Anderson's veto.

Critics of the bid to weaken the permit say Wheatley's proposal would limit the borough's ability to hold any event organizers responsible for trash and damage.

Alaska State Troopers at the festival last year arrested more than 40 people and issued about 200 traffic citations.

The festival is to begin Aug. 7 and end Aug. 10.

Wheatley has been unable to find an underwriter for the $125,000 bond on which he would pay a premium, Canterbury said.

On Friday, he gave the borough a $25,000 cashier's check and a deed of trust putting up the 140-acre festival site as collateral.

Last year, the same deed of trust tactic was denied by the borough halfway through the festival, Canterbury said.

He expected the borough to accept or deny the permit this week.

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