Residents upset county may issue Utopiafest permit

By Lew K. Cohn

Managing Editor

Burnet Bulletin

Residents who live along County Road 200 (Shady Grove Road) near a proposed festival site are voicing their concern that Utopiafest Down in the Oaks will bring unwanted traffic and safety problems to their neighborhood.

Festival founder Travis Sutherland, as well as his partners Down in the Oaks Entertainment's Patrick and Brandon Harrison and Jeff Dena, are expected to host a 6 p.m. informational meeting Wednesday, Sept. 19, at the Burnet County AgriLife Extension building, 607 North Vandeveer St., Burnet, to answer questions and perhaps assuage residents' fears about the nearly weeklong festival.

The festival must obtain a mass gathering permit before it can be held and the decision about whether to grant such a permit will be up to Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd, County Judge James Oakley said.

The festival is scheduled for Nov. 2-4 at 1301 Hidden Ranch Road, located between County Road 200 and Ranch to Market Road 963, on a private 105-acre ranch outside Burnet near the Russell Fork of the San Gabriel River. Organizers just applied for a mass gathering permit on Aug. 28, though the festival was initially announced in the Austin Chronicle in April. Campgrounds are expected to open on Halloween, Wednesday, Oct. 31.

Mark and Kennetha Noble, who live off Shady Grove Road near the property where Utopiafest will be held, said they “do not understand how is this being permitted to happen without any consideration to the community.”

“We moved out to this area to get away from the 'city life;' it's quiet and peaceful,” the Nobles told the Burnet Bulletin. “The county road is a very narrow, winding road. The traffic this music festival is going to generate is more than this country road can handle.

“There are many elderly residents in this area. The stress it puts on them for their safety and being able to get access to town for any reason is more than they should have to deal with, not to menton the noise and destruction it will do to the environment.

“We were not advised of this before it was already granted a permit,” the Nobles added. “This is not what Burnet County is about. It seems there's more than meets the eye here. You would think the people of the community would come before a money-making venue such as this. Who is benefitting from this?”

Burnet County commissioners were expected to discuss the mass gathering permit process and the tenth annual Utopiafest Down in the Oaks at a special called meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Burnet County Courthouse, 220 S. Pierce, Burnet. Boyd and Oakley are also expected to attend the 6 p.m. meeting at the AgriLife building.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Patty Griffin, STS9 and Medeski's Mad Skillet are among the announced festival headliners as 36 acts are expected to perform during the three-day festival, which also will have a preview performance Thursday, Nov. 1, headlined by hip-hop icon Grandmaster Flash and Keller Williams.

For the past nine years, Utopiafest was held at the Four Sisters Ranch in the small Uvalde County community which lent its name to the festival and attracted around 2,000 people, but festival organizers are expecting as many as 6,000 people to attend now that the festival will be closer to Austin.

Organizers have even arranged for shuttles to and from Austin to bring festival goers to the site. The majority of festival goers — about 70 to 80 percent — reportedly come from the greater Austin area.

Sutherland and his partners are billing the event online as being “family friendly” and an “intimate camping music experience.” The Harrison family owns the ranch where the festival will be held.

A group calling itself United Shady Grove Corridor LLC has circulated a petition opposing Utopiafest, citing concerns about potential damage to the area caused by festival goers as well as traffic on Shady Grove Road, which the group said is not a big enough road to accommodate the large number of vehicles that would be using it to access the festival site.

United Shady Grove Corridor organizers also noted the weekend of the festival is also the opening weekend of both deer and turkey hunting season, which could create safety concerns. They indicated they were not notified of plans for the event in advance.

“This is a rural agricultural residential community,” the petition states. “The main reason residents live here is to enjoy a safe, secure and peaceful life. Our community is not located in “the wilderness” … and we do not welcome this event in our backyards.”

Oakley said the item on the commissioners court agenda for “discussion concerning the proposed Utopia Fest mass gathering permit process” is a discussion-only item as the process for a mass gathering permit does not provide for either a public hearing or vote by commissioners court.

A mass gathering, or festival, permit must be issued by either the county judge or his designee, based upon requirements for the application being sought. Oakley has designated Boyd to handle the permitting process to make sure safety and law enforcement concerns regarding the event are satisfied.

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