Post Planning Commission – Outdoor Event Ordinance Needs Changes

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By Lynn Jensen

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VC CoLAB expressed our concerns over a new surprise Outdoor Event Ordinance found on the agenda of the June 21st Ventura County Planning Commission. The item was revealed with little notice on the Friday night before the Thursday hearing. On analyzing the draft language of the ordinance, we found rules that would limit the right to hold more than three (3) social, political or religious gatherings per year with more than 50 attendees on parcels across the unincorporated county.

This new ordinance is being rushed through the County and will be heard by the Board of Supervisors for a final decision on July 17 at 3:30 pm time certain in the Board of Supervisors Room in the County Administration building. It is imperative that our members, non-profit partners and representatives of the hospitality industry attend this hearing ready to speak for our right to hold events and fundraise for our political, religious and charitable causes.

The proposed ordinance would replace sections of the Non-Coastal Zoning Code that define temporary outdoor events. The existing code allows outdoor events such as weddings in OS, AE, RA and CPD zones. The Planning Division’s interpretation has required a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for businesses that charge for such events. The County currently does not regulate the size and number of uncompensated temporary outdoor events.

The new ordinance would place restrictions on the size and number of outdoor events without permits, and does not distinguish between compensated and uncompensated events. This broad new definition of “outdoor events” includes: “harvest festivals; carnivals; historic re-enactments; animal events; art shows; athletic events; concerts; craft fairs; farmer’s markets; receptions; ceremonies; fundraisers; social, political, spiritual or organizational gatherings: and similar events…”

And, the new ordinance would add compliance requirements for parking, protected trees, hours of operation, amplified noise, portable restrooms, lighting, notification to neighbors, and standards for hazardous fire areas.

The ordinance language lumps together family social gatherings and fundraisers with for-profit wedding venues, requiring a discretionary permit (CUP) for over three outdoor events per year with more than 50 attendees. The ordinance would restrict our ability to gather, organize and fundraise, causing harm to the Ventura County economy as outdoor events support charitable organizations and tourism, providing patrons for hotels, restaurants, catering services and rental companies.

As written, the new language will severely limit political and religious speech, an infringement on our civil rights. Parcels targeted by the ordinance are zoned OS, AE, RA, and CPD. These zones contain almost all of the parcels in the County that are over 40 acres in size, placing limits on the very parcels that are most appropriate for outdoor events. Many of these parcels are remote and have no close neighbors.

The ordinance would limit the ability for families to celebrate important events and milestones for themselves and friends such as birthdays, retirements, family reunions, celebrations of life, family weddings, political rallies, and fundraisers to name a few.

The rules could also force private schools into the costly and lengthy CUP process for no apparent gain. These established schools have been holding outdoor events for decades without issues or complaints.

The Planning Commission staff report for the outdoor event agenda item was co-signed by Assistant County Counsel, Jeffrey Barnes and Planning Director, Kim Prillhart. CoLAB believes the participation of County Counsel in the staff report was in response to a court ruling against the County in the appeal of their decision to deny a CUP to a wedding venue in Hidden Valley (see Epona, LLC et al v County of Ventura).

We have not seen any evidence of widespread complaints from family social or fundraising events in the County and we fail to see the reasoning for setting such low limits on exempt events on large properties. The ordinance as written is an unnecessarily restrictive solution seeking a problem.

VC CoLAB represented our members at the Planning Commission hearing on June 21, submitting a letter and organizing speakers, despite the short timeframe. The Planning Commission responded by a motion recommending the following ordinance changes that passed in a 5-0 vote:

  • Increase the baseline number of attendees for exempt events countywide from 50 to 75. The proposed ordinance does not apply to events below the baseline of 50 attendees, including guests, staff, and vendors.    CoLAB made the case that 50 attendees is not an event, it is a dinner party or a backyard BBQ. Events have caterers, servers, bartenders and volunteers and 50 attendees, including staff is not a reasonable default base. We asked the Commission to raise the default number of attendees to 75, which they voted to recommend.
  • Increase the number of allowed events from three (3) to five (5) per year per parcel. CoLAB recommended an allowance of ten (10) events per year after conversations with many non-profit organizations, partners and landowners. CoLAB has many members in remote locations who support at least 10 charitable organizations per year by providing free event space. The Commission recommended only increasing the number of allowed events to five (5).
  • Change the requirement to cease amplified noise from 9:00 pm to 10:00 pm. The standard of 10:00 pm is already established by code countywide. None of the speakers supported ending events by shutting down music at 9:00 pm.

Recommendations to the Board of Supervisors:

Additional changes are needed to the Outdoor Event Ordinance by the Board of Supervisors to achieve the following goals: 1) maintain individual civil rights, 2) allow freedom of religion and free political speech, 3) encourage family celebrations, 4) support non-profit charitable organizations, 5) support a thriving tourism economy, 6) place reasonable limits on unpermitted events, and 6) maintain reasonable use and enjoyment of property with sufficient requirements to protect public health and safety. The following are our recommendations:

  • Increase the number of events allowed from five (5) to ten (10) per year. The key to a reasonable outdoor event ordinance is to allow up to ten (10) outdoor events per year in the specified zones to take into account the personal social, political and religious needs of our County residents and support the important work of non-profit organizations in our community.

Outdoor events are sufficiently controlled by limiting the number of attendees based on parcel size and adding compliance requirements with respect to parking, protected trees, hours of operation, amplified noise, portable restrooms, lighting, notification to neighbors, and standards for hazardous fire areas. Exceeding a 10 event per year maximum is a reasonable threshold to require a CUP.

Permitted event venues will need significantly more than 10 events a year to justify the cost of a discretionary permit. We agree with increasing the maximum number of events that can be permitted with a CUP from 60 to 90. Further we recommend the renewal time for event CUPs be extended to 20 years as they are already subject to a code enforcement process where operations can be shut down non-compliance.

  • Change the allowance for events on parcels less than 5 acres to be 76 – 150 attendees from 51 to 150 attendees as per the Planning Commission.
  • Change the allowance for events on parcels from 5 acres to less than 40 acres to be 76 to 250 attendees as per the Planning Commission.
  • Increase the allowance for events on parcels 40 acres or greater to be 76 to 400 attendees from 51 to 250 attendees. The 250 attendee limit is unreasonable for parcels 40 acres and above as it will not accommodate large events such as milestone birthdays, retirement celebrations, family reunions, family weddings, political rallies, fundraisers etc.
  • Exemption for Land Conservation Trusts for the size and number of events – Land Conservation Trusts need to fundraise on their properties to keep the land preserved which is an important goal in the County General Plan. Fundraising efforts include a variety of gatherings that allow public access and foster education that is critical to preserving these lands in the County. Because these are land based non-profits, fundraising, education and public access to the land should not be counted as outdoor events.
  • Remove the requirement for hooded lighting at events – In checking with local lighting vendors there is no availability of hooded rental lighting fixtures for outdoor events. Since such lights are unavailable and the events are temporary the requirement should be removed.

The County of Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors considered an events ordinance several years ago and voted not to adopt it with overwhelming opposition from the tourist industry. Please help us in maintaining our tourism industry while preserving our constitutional right to organize for political, religious and social objectives through our recommended changes to the outdoor event ordinance.

The Outdoor Events Ordinance is scheduled to go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval on July 17. It is critical that we have an organized effort to modify the restrictions in the draft ordinance.