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Chaffee County Sets Event Attendance Limits, Continues The Meadows Major Impact Study to August 17

As the state and county begin to shift out of COVID-19 pandemic mode to a post-pandemic environment, the county is beginning to receive dozens of event applications. The latest challenge; due to the tenuous nature of the pandemic, the county had not yet established parameters for the numbers allowed for outdoor events, or what numeric it would use for setting occupancy limits for indoor events.

Last week the state retired its COVID dial, and Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) issued revised public health orders, minus clarity on special events.

County leadership has been discussing during the COVID Roundtable how to adjust local public health orders as the state eases its requirements, including how or whether to assign event size limits. The topic was raised again during the April 20 Chaffee Board of County Commissioner (BoCC) regular meeting.

“This has been a real gut-wrencher for the event planners,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. “I heard over the past two weeks that the uncertainty is stressful. The biggest number that I have heard is 2,000, so there is the concept of a county-wide cap … that is the landscape of this conversation for me.”

“I’d rather see a max of 5,000 and with that number comes a responsibility of taking care of those people…. masking up, social distancing, cleaning, it becomes a substantial burden – a substantial cost – to anyone thinking of holding an event,” said Commissioner Rusty Granzella.

The BoCC settled on a 2,000 attendee limit, for outdoor events, for the time being, promising to regularly review that number as pandemic conditions change. The new limit comes with the requirement that event organizers file their public health and safety plans with Chaffe County Public Health (CCPH).

It also comes with this caution from CCPH Director Andrea Carlstrom; “There is risk in reopening these elements of society. Will vaccination certificates be required [at some point]? Reducing the transmission and severity of this virus is the question – this is a conversation across our country right now … I don’t want that risk to be somehow ignored if public health approves a plan. Approving a plan is not a guarantee that there will be a seamless event. It comes down to capacity – my team has been working 24-7 for 14 months. We’d like to see the responsibility and the accountability to be on the sectors that want to reopen.”

The Meadows Farm Major Impact Review

Seven Peaks Festival crew members work to finish setting up the main stage Thursday at The Meadows in 2018. All staging for the events at The Meadows are temporary structures. (photo by Joe Stone).

Jed Selby, the applicant of The Meadows Major Impact Review, and Western Slope Consulting’s David Ferrar, who is representing him, asked for a continuance of the public hearing which will determine whether their application for a special event permit to hold at least 12 major special events on the 140-acre parcel will be granted.

It was initially on the BoCC April 6 agenda, which will now hear the application on Aug. 17. All application materials for the major impact review are due by June 11, and the Chaffee Planning Commission had already continued its hearing on the application to July 27.

The full application documents include Site Plans and the Meadows Farm Major Impact Review (MIR) Application Packet, Redacted.

The site has been used in the past few years for a few large events, including the popular Seven Peaks Festival and Campout for a Cause (neither of which were held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). After the 2019 events, a few citizens filed complaints when some private weddings run by outside wedding vendors were scheduled for the site. The county informed Selby that he would now need a special event permit to continue to rent it to smaller event organizers; he had obtained a special event permit for each of the large events held at the Meadows.

The county’s land use code does permit a major outdoor theater venue, which requires a major impact review. In fact, the county notified Selby in 2019 that it would require him to file the specific type of application now under consideration.

Dierks Bentley greets fans at the 2018 Seven Peaks Music Festival. Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.

While the application is being submitted as an outdoor theater venue, this is somewhat misleading; the residentially-zoned parcel (county land next to town of Buena Vista property) is in agriculture use for most of the year, and for that reason, all the stages and facilities are purposely temporary.

Asked by Commissioner Rusty Granzella to clarify why this application required a major impact review, Planning Manager Jon Roorda replied; “A major impact is for a review. It is not a rezoning, but a request to turn the Meadows into a permitted venue for relatively large-scale events.”

The BoCC spent extensive time on the event size parameters surrounding the Meadows Farm Outdoor Theater and Event Venue application. In the end, the decision was made to set a timetable to address the decision with Seven Peaks Festival leadership in later June, 60 days prior to the proposed Sept. 2 opening day. This will include the allowable size of the 2021 festival (if it were to be approved) depending upon the state of the pandemic, and the county’s public health orders.

The wisdom of scheduling large events such as Seven Peaks, during what is still a pandemic, was raised because it brings in an audience from outside the county. Also questioned; the fact that the initial application doesn’t include a public health plan.

“We hope to have three happenings in 2021 and Live Nation Seven Peaks is one of them. We didn’t submit a COVID plan with our application, because this early, we know things will change,” said Live Nation Chief Operating Office Julie Matway, speaking from Nashville. “We will have hand washing stations, masks if they are required. We will not be able to enforce social distancing in the way that restaurants do … some of the ways we operate with capacities, we take the square footage [of the area] and divide it. I have a map – the area that we use is 473,295 square feet of the meadow. If it was 15 square feet per person, that would be 31,553 people [which she assured the meeting was not under consideration]. It sounds like you’re considering three square feet or a 9 ft. radius for restaurants.

“We are all living in this same world of the unknown – Id like everybody to take away from this – we are not interested in producing, presenting, procuring any event that is unsafe for any community,” said Live Nation President of Country Touring Brian O’Connell, speaking from Nashville. He said that Live Nation is watching how baseball organizations are handling things, as well as some major events scheduled for Las Vegas. “I am producing all across the country. We will be following state and local guidelines, and if we are in the position to hold an event on Labor Day Weekend, in a manner that represents Seven Peaks, we want to.”

Selby has clarified the plans for The Meadows Farm special event permit, saying “The intent is not to do a dozen 20,000 person events; it is to do our three major events [which have been permitted in prior years) and add maybe four or five smaller events of 5,000 or 6,000.”

Public comment included the sentiment that the county first needs to let county residents get out and about and get to know each other again. Carle Linke said,  “Open all businesses and churches and schools. Open all public building and in-person options for County Commissioner meetings … I don’t even know for sure why we’re even talking about large events at all with the restrictions … we need to open up for us.”

“This is still a pandemic,” commented Commissioner Keith Baker, who pointed out that social distancing can be almost impossible in large groups.

Apparently, another objection has been filed, asking that given its use, should the commissioners not review the applicant under the county’s 1041 permitting authority?

“This is not in any way replacing [the application] where we are discussing whether a major impact review for an outdoor theatre requires a 1041 permit,” said Commissioner Keith Baker.

A 1041 permit review would by definition focus on The Meadows Outdoor theater and camping area for any impact on natural resources. Commissioners haven’t decided whether that applies or not.

“The county administrator can make a determination of impact, but the board can decide or not whether the board thinks this should go through the 1041 process,” said Chaffee County Assistant Attorney Daniel Tom. “By continuing the outdoor theater permit, the applicant is going to give us more info about the application and that’s when wildlife management would weigh in.”