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To say that the June 22 Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) meeting for the purpose of reviewing the Live Nation Seven Peaks Music Festival special event application was testy would be an understatement.

No decisions were reached during the tumultuous, nearly four-hour-long session to review a proposed event for The Meadows, a 277-acre piece of county land on the outskirts of Buena Vista. The session has been continued to 9:00 a.m. Wed. June 30.

Section 4.2.7 of the Land Use Code limits a property to three special events a year and requires a Special Events Permit for any event with an attendance of over 500 that impacts the normal traffic use of county roads.

The application for a potentially 20,000 person three-day event (with one day for set up and another for tear-down) is the third permit application to the county from Live Nation Entertainment; which held the same event over Labor Day weekend in 2018 and 2019. The county is just 70 days out from the potential event. While in the past there have been complaints from neighbors about noise, and general complaints about traffic control, this year the application comes with additional worries due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The verbal fireworks occurred barely an hour into the public hearing. That is when Seven Peaks Site Director Jim Reid admitted that Live Nation has already sold 6,000 tickets to a proposed event in Chaffee County which currently has 5,000 person event cap. The tickets have been sold for an event that hasn’t even had a permit review, let alone received approval.

The admission caused the normally calm and restrained BoCC Chair Greg Felt to exclaim in exasperation, “What the hell Jim – you know we have a 5,000 cap … you come in here and you already sold more tickets than our rules allow now?”

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

The unusual comment (for Felt) showed the frustration of county leaders, who have been forced into the position of defending the county, and local government at a time when trust in government is not high.

“Announcing the concert, announcing the lineup, and selling the tickets has created an awful lot of trouble – people have called the Attorney General’s office, saying we’re in collusion with you — that we’re being paid off. It’s a distraction. It damages our people’s faith in local government – we got the cart before the horse here,” said Felt.

Reid struggled with a response, admitting” I’m sorry, that people don’t know that this relationship is completely above board” and defended the move, saying “it’s just marketing.” He added that based on the opening trends of what they are seeing around Colorado and across the nation, raising the county’s event cap to 12,500 was something they thought might be possible. He reminded the BoCC that more than 10 percent of tickets to the Seven Peaks Festival in 2019 were sold to in-county residents saying, “I hope that makes it a community event.”

Commissioner Keith Baker reminded Reid that in the course of conversations about the pending application, Baker on behalf of the BoCC had said the county required “pending permit approval” on all communications materials. That did not happen.

Felt said that the county emergency responders have been going nonstop since the 2019 Seven Peaks, first with the Decker Fire that began in Sept. 2019, then the pandemic. “I’m really concerned about the health of our county, our citizens, the health and well-being of our staff, and associated agencies … Personally I got drug along to 5,000 [cap]. I didn’t feel good about it, but I’m there, and not going back on it. But …it’s going to take a lot for me to go beyond 5,000 without a vaccination element to this.”

A big meadow with bigger views, The Meadows  277 acre site is under agricultural production most of the year. Greg Wright photo.

The virtual meeting had more than 80 attendees, including an organized group that asked for and was granted a twenty-minute timeframe during the public hearing to present their view of what should be done with this private property owned by Jed Selby.

That group, represented by about 10 people in the meeting has the same complaints they have held since 2018; the music is too loud, the traffic is bad, they don’t want anything happening on the agricultural meadow and they are there for peace and quiet.

A lengthy discussion ensued regarding noise levels, with the state statutes specifying 50 to 55 dB (decibels) and neighbors saying that past events have exceeded that. The event organizers reminded the hearing that nonprofit involvement in special music events made such music festivals exempt from the state noise statutes.

Attendee Brian Conway, who has an entertainment background and supports the idea of a music festival, said he went out with a sound meter to the Meadows, and without any music, ” between wind, cars, and streams, we were averaging 65 dB and with a car going by it’s 85dB.”

Due to uncivil behavior earlier in the meeting on a different, but related topic Felt reminded the meeting that he would turn off the virtual meeting chat function if things got out of hand. “Personal attacks are not acceptable. [We commissioners] are used to it, but for the applicant or members of the public it is unacceptable and we won’t tolerate it.”

The presentation by Nathan Jones, representing a group for “Sustainable use of the Meadows” was civil and focused on sound levels, traffic concerns, and nuisance. But once again the chat function of the virtual meeting was filled with sour comments from the opposition, including some personal attacks; on the Seven Peaks organization, on property-owner Selby, and even on those who commented in favor of the permit, with conditions.

One commenter went so far as to disrespect other county residents, saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to voice opinions because “they don’t live in BV”. (Note: this event is on Chaffee County private property which is zoned rural residential.)

“Raising the event cap would be a Board of Health decision, and since we have not noticed this meeting as a Board of Health session … we can’t take that under consideration today,” said Commissioner Keith Baker.

The county’s public health cap is 5,000, and  July 12 is the next scheduled Board of Health meeting. Across the U.S. only 1.5  percent of the people being hospitalized now are breakthrough cases of vaccinated individuals. This means that 98.5 percent of those being hospitalized for COVID-19 are not vaccinated.

Asked to comment on the application, Chaffee County Director of Public Health Andrea Carlstrom, chose her words carefully. “Contrary to what you are seeing in society, we are very much still in a pandemic. I can’t overstate that enough. Keep the role of new variants in your view. The delta variant is 50 percent more transmissible and we are seeing waning immunization rates in our county, and we have a significant portion of our young population un-vaccinated because they aren’t eligible.”

She added, “We are concerned about an already exhausted responder community, pandemic, tourism, wildfires, I guess whether we need a little respite to prepare for the next emergency – our county hasn’t gotten a break from the series of events.” She paused and added, “we should ask do these events heal and unify us? Do they strengthen our community? We need resilience and recovery. It feels like we should stay the course at this time … What would make me more comfortable would be that we hold a fully vaccinated event. This vaccine is the ticket out of this pandemic. I feel that is the carrot, not a stick. Certainly, others are hosting large events, and they are fully vaccinated.”

The public hearing included comments by those both for and against the music festival.

“Seven Peaks is exactly what we voted on in the Chaffee County Envision Community action plans, said Sara Anderson. “I feel strongly the net benefit of these events for our community — cattle ranchers, musicians, small business owners … land conservation is essential if we want to maintain the open space. We as a whole have to get creative to use and preserve the valuable ranch land that benefits the whole community, not just those who border the 277 open acres they are next to.”

“Noise in excess of the statute will constitute a public nuisance,” said Cary Unkelbach to the BoCC. “You could be accused of intentionally and knowingly authorizing a public nuisance.”

“We came here to live three years ago due to the music scene – we own Coaltrain [Music Academy] and provide services to this county,” said Robin Vega, who reminded the meeting that other Colorado venues stop at 11:00 p.m. and that steps can be taken to mitigate the noise. “There is more money spent in town during festivals…NPR just did a broadcast on this… if we sent Live Nation packing, if you decide to do so — it sends a message. You take opportunities away from many musicians.  I’m confident that they can work to resolve the problems … I believe the benefits and ripple effect on this community far outweigh the inconveniences.”

Dr. Ed Hansford, speaking for himself, expressed strong opposition to Seven Peaks and any other events of this nature on the private property next to him. “There are countless reasons to decline, mostly outlining problems with infrastructure support, and decibel levels.”

But he characterized it as “stop this invasion of tens of thousands of people into our neighborhoods. It’s just wrong to allow these events to happen. Most of us who live here came to find a quieter place away from the cities. This is not the place to have large-scale events – we don’t want BV to be on the map.”

Derrick Neikam agreed with allowing some sort of music festival saying, “I am with Robin Vega; make it work with all constraints necessary.”

Alan Warholoski, asked that “if you decide to approve it, please direct the concert toward the vastly open space [not the nearby homes]. I’ve been to well over 150 concerts in my life. I take in the scenery until the show starts. After that, it’s about the music. No after-hour parties, or by the beach, pond, or venues.”