Friends of Marion County fights massive festival planned on farmland

Alyson Marchi-Young
Sun, 04/29/2018 - 9:00pm
Aerial photo of the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival in Brownsville from Billy Newman Photo. 

In its tenth year, the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival is looking to relocate to a new, bigger venue. After years in Brownsville, the four-day festival, which sees around 25,000 attendees per day, has outgrown its location and worn out the local residents’ patience. So says Friends of Marion County President, Roger Kaye. The Bi-Mart Festival planners are setting their sights on a new location, in the heart of farmland in Marion County, abutting the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge. Friends of Marion County along with a coalition of farmers and other concerned community members has spent the last 6 months objecting to the presence of the festival. I spoke with Roger about this case and what it means to the local farmers in Marion County. Following is our interview edited for length and clarity.    

Alyson (AMY): Tell me about Friends of Marion County.
Roger (RK): Friends of Marion County (FoMC) was established in 1998 by Bob Lindsey, former mayor of Salem. He formed FoMC with Anna Braun (now Legislative Director for state Senator Peter Courtney), and Sid Friedman, who’s now over at Friends of Yamhill County. I met with FoMC in the early 2000s to discuss a gravel overlay zone in the county. That was my introduction. We needed help.

Bob retired after I joined the group and he asked me to take over, so I’ve been the President ever since. We have five board members and four officers. We become energized whenever we see a land-use issue arise in the county.

We also do a lot of letter writing and present testimony at the Legislature. We spend a lot of time fighting bad proposals there.

(Friends of Marion County is an Affiliate of 1000 Friends of Oregon, and works on local land-use issues in their county, with support from 1000 Friends as needed.)

AMY: You are involved in blocking the relocation of the Bi-Mart Music Festival on private farmland adjacent to a wildlife refuge. Can you talk about how FoMC started getting involved?
RK: In November or December last year, it came up. Barbara and Gordon Hilton had called 1000 Friends and 1000 Friends said “Call Roger” (he laughs).

Early on, the festival had a very contentious first meeting with farmers and people just blew up. It was not going well. I attended the second meeting - people didn’t come back because that first meeting went so poorly. At the second meeting the concert organizers brought in their experts on traffic and infrastructure, but you know those aren’t always reliable.  

At first I wasn’t concerned about it. Never even heard of the festival before - I don’t listen to Country music. But we live close to the site. George Meyer, a farmer with 2,000 acres right next to the proposed site. He will be most severely impacted, and I’m organizing on his behalf.

Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival in Brownsville from All Music Fests.

AMY: So what are the objections now? What impact will the festival have?
RK: The proposed site is on 650-plus acres of prime farmland. The issues are traffic flow, 30,000 people per day camping overnight could have trespassing issues, litter...You may think it’s only four or five days, but really it’s a couple of months with set-up and clean-up that will affect farming activities for a large part of the summer season. We called folks in Linn County and they reported that some festival attendees will fly in from out of town, buy camping equipment then leave it right there on the farm after the event. They are building a temporary small city to support that number of people. I don’t know how much farming could even be done.

The proposed traffic flow would block farming equipment for seven to eight miles. The County says Bi-Mart would set up a call center to ask farmers what they’ll be doing that day, but it’s impossible to predict. Major farming activities could change based on the weather, wind, irrigation, and the time it takes on one field might be more than anticipated. Farmers need the space to operate with flexibility. That means they might need to get equipment on the road to a site quickly, and they couldn’t do that with this festival, and we don’t think the festival understands.

For instance, a traffic engineer came out and asked a farmer, “why can’t you just do that on Tuesday?” Moving farm equipment that takes the whole road will need open roads - you can’t have them backed up with that much traffic.

Neils Jensen is also there. He’s also severely impacted. He’s a grass seed farmer and owns a warehouse and trucking company, stores seed for local farmers. He’s providing that farm infrastructure. We need to be sure that his business can remain open too. Once you lose the basic structure, the whole thing falls apart.

We have a good coalition opposing the permit; local farmers, the Marion County Farm Bureau, and others – which have been a big help - and community members who are also concerned about the Wildlife Refuge. 

Ankeny Wildlife Refuge, Statesman Journal

AMY: Can you talk about the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge?
RK: The community is really fighting for the refuge. It’s home to a lot of birds and the local Audubon Society is involved with it. There are concerns about disturbance of wildlife, increased risk of wildfires in the third week of August, litter and trespassing - the same kinds of concerns as we have, but on protected wildlife lands. Also, local visitor access will be limited, and in 2019 they plan on opening a new visitor’s center with Audubon. The festival organizers have said that they’ll mitigate any concerns with the refuge staff, but I don’t trust that will happen. Right now the refuge staff are in a wait and see mode. One of our board members, Laurel Hines is focusing on the refuge and protecting it, and community members are really leading the charge here.

AMY: This is an interesting case, in that Marion County is the only county in the state that we know of, to require a public hearing before issuing a mass gathering conditional use permit.
RK: By some miracle, the county adopted a mass gathering conditional use permit. We are really grateful the county allows hearings on these types of issues. This goes back to 2011, I think. Steve McCoy (former 1KF Staff Attorney) came and gave a presentation on mass gatherings where I learned more - nothing has changed since then. Because of this, we can cite issues for health, safety, and economic impacts.

AMY: Have you ever had a challenge like this before?
RK: No. Nothing like this scope - 30,000 people per day, which they scaled back from an initial plan with 60,000 people. Other events are shorter and smaller, which falls under ‘gatherings in conjunction with farm use’. We did testify once against a small mass gathering in Woodburn, because there was no control on attendance or alcohol. It was shut down.

"Surrounded by Grain" by Ian Sane. Marion County Farm.

AMY: What are the next steps?
RK: The deadline to submit testimony to the hearings officer was Friday the April 20th. So, they say a recommendation should come out no later than June 15. The next thing I have to do is work with the farmers again to better know who will be impacted by the festival and how. We have 9 farmers who provided testimony. There may be more public input after the hearings officer's recommendation comes out.

AMY: What happens if their permit is approved?
RK: In Brownsville, they increased the attendance year by year, so it gets harder for the county to turn them down because it’s incremental. Once they get their foot in the door, we’re stuck with them for the next 10 years. The festival organizers want as many people as possible. It keeps growing, and that will add more stress on our farmers year over year.

They can still go back to Linn County. They have a permit there.

AMY: How has 1000 Friends helped you so far?
RK: Meriel has been a great deal of help for us. She helped us focus our arguments. We kept her up to date on testimony and she helped to comment on testimony. She was honest about the challenges going in, so we know what to expect more or less.  

AMY: How are you feeling now?
RK: We just got a Traffic Impact Analysis back; it has many problems. It’s all about the traffic flow, and burden on the road. ODOT reviewed the analysis that the organizer provided. In that analysis, a farmer would be contacted at 6 am to arrange that farmer’s ability to move vehicles.

In Brownsville there is a long road that leads from 1-5 to the festival. It’s a straight road, and fewer farmers are impacted. It’s different site characteristics.

Here, they are coming off the I-5 freeway and onto Talbot road interchange. They are going to try and loop people around nearly 8 miles from the highway through farmland and the Ankeny Refuge.

AMY: If there were one big takeaway lesson from this, what would it be?
RK: I would love the legislature to change the statute on large mass gatherings.

AMY: …In what way?
RK: Mass Gatherings of this size and type are too disruptive to farming and other activities in rural areas.  Permits should not be considered at all.  It would have to be a very collaborative process with a lot of voices in the room to figure out the best way to change it.