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Town seeks to regulate special events

Brick town hall of Williston Vermont

Rewritten ordinance creates application fee, permit approval

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Town leaders were apparently quite freaked out by the legendary Woodstock festival that took place in neighboring New York in 1969. 

Two years later, they passed an ordinance to regulate events lasting 18 hours or more. That ordinance is still on the books, but town administrators are not finding it useful in regulating modern-day Williston events, such as food truck nights, harvest festivals and outdoor performances. 

The selectboard recently began the process of rewriting the 50-year-old “Ordinance for the Regulation of Public Festivals” with an eye toward creating an application process, standards and a fee for one-time events or event series. 

Town Manager Erik Wells said the increase in outdoor events brought on by the pandemic spurred the town to rethink the ordinance. 

“We’ve had this on our to-do list for a couple of years, but we were trying to have more outdoor (events), especially last summer, and questions came up: ‘Can we do this?’ It gave us pause to think how we should rework how our ordinance is structured,” Wells said at the selectboard’s Nov. 2 meeting. 

The town’s planning and zoning department presented a draft of the rewritten ordinance at the meeting. The selectboard would have to set a public hearing on the ordinance before it could be adopted. Any temporary event that is not permitted under the town’s zoning regulations would require a permit, town planners said.

The draft sets a duration maximum for special events of eight hours. Event series would be capped at 12 events per year. A series could be permitted at once, but the town would treat each event in the series as a separate event subject to the conditions of the ordinance. A person would need to apply at least 21 days in advance of an event and pay an application fee to be determined by the selectboard. 

The town itself and the local public school district would be exempt from obtaining a permit for special events. 

The draft ordinance gives the town manager authority to approve or deny special event permit applications, and revoke permits if conditions of approval are violated. 

Some grounds for denial would be if the event is too big to be policed, unnecessarily disrupts traffic or “otherwise places undue burdens on town;” creates a hardship for adjacent businesses or residents; interferes with use of pubic property; or generates a level of noise that would require an exemption from the Williston noise ordinance.

The ordinance would allow the town manager or selectboard to impose unique conditions on an event, such as limits on hours, number of attendees, sound amplification and plans for waste disposal.

Melinda Scott of the planning and zoning office anticipates some grey area in determining whether something is a special event or just the typical offerings of a particular business or organization.

Old Stage Road resident Deb MacDonald disagreed with the allowance of up to 12 events in a series, because those events are likely to be all packed into the summer months. 

“Everyone understands that someone in your neighborhood might have a party, it might get a little loud and parking might be compromised, but if you’re talking about a series, that becomes more of an impact,” MacDonald said. “I don’t know if any of you would enjoy, down the street from you, having a food truck and concert night for three straight months every Wednesday night.”

She said food trucks should be regulated as businesses.

“Zoning is there for the protection of residents,” she said. “If you buy a home and invest your money in a property that’s residential and agricultural, you have a little bit of assurance that a food store or business isn’t going to pop up next to your house … Food trucks seem to be popping up everywhere. I think it’s important that they be recognized as what they are, a commercial business.” 

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