Officials ‘Concerned’ About #Fest, But Can They Do Anything About It?

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Since the day after #Fest stormed The Venue just outside Athens and closed down Route 56 for a short time, some local officials have been debating the recourse they have to, if any, to essentially keep the event from happening next year.

In essence, city, county and township officials have said they have no recourse whatsoever.

"We did get a number of complaints from folks who lived in that area, who traveled and couldn't get home," said County Commissioner Charlie Adkins.

But The Venue, where the event was held is within the jurisdiction of township ordinances, outside of city and county ordinances, such as noise control.

"The only noise control that township trustees are permitted to do (in Athens Township)…is in establishments with a 'D' liquor license," said Township Trustee Steve Pierson.

Pierson said The Venue probably has temporary "F" liquor permits. With no zoning regulations within the townships, control of things like smoke, odor and dust are out of the township's hands as well, according to Pierson. It would be a matter of the County Board of Health to deal with sanitation issues.

In order to change any of the township rules (or lack thereof), an issue would have to be placed on the ballot.

"We are your elected officials, but in a case like this, the citizens have decided that there should be very minimal land use control," Pierson said.

As far as law enforcement, the area is covered by the Athens County Sheriff's Office, but #Fest organizers said they pay first responders to cover the event.

According to organizer Dominic Petrozzi, $18,900 was paid to the sheriff's office, $3,000 to the Richland Area Volunteer Fire Department, $4,700 to the Athens County Emergency Medical Service and $300 to the Athens Police Department.

"We can't stress enough the measures that we take in hiring all the safety personnel," Petrozzi told The Messenger.

Petrozzi said in the 10 years the event has been in existence, organizers have done their best to meet with local officials and law enforcement to organize a plan for the number of people they anticipated coming to the event. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people went to #Fest this year.

Organizers spent the day after the festival cleaning up the area, they said, including public walkways and roads.

Petrozzi, who said he has not discussed any post-fest issues with city or county officials, compared #Fest to other fests that happen during the year, including Palmerfest and Homecoming, in regards to safety. He said the other events have had major events such as fires and police investigations.

"The biggest grievance against our event is the walking crowd," Petrozzi said. "For the last 10 years, we’ve never been in violation of any code or law, nothing has been brought to my attention that we were on the wrong side of any code or law."

But there are still voices that say something needs to be done.

In terms of legal action, City Law Director Pat Lang said he could not comment specifically about the event but said there are "concerns that need to be addressed."

He did not give specifics on any legal action that could be taken by the city in general for a case such as this.

County Commissioners have not asked for an opinion from Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, but efforts will be made to gather a group for conversation about next steps.

"We don't have any county ordinance, that I know of, that could stop it," Adkins said. "I also wouldn't want to be the one to say we should stop businesses for going on and…I wouldn't want to put in regulations outside of a corporation."

Blackburn declined to answer general questions about legal options or recourse for the county. An email from Blackburn's executive assistant, Kim Withem, said the Athens County Prosecutor's Office "does not have any pending requests from any of our statutory clients regarding #Fest."

Athens Mayor Paul Weihl said he has heard from city residents asking him what officials are going to do about the sanitation and noise issues, but he also knows "there's not a lot we can do."

"We don't have the manpower (to cover the event)," Weihl said.

"It's just the fact that it's an accident waiting to happen."

The #Fest will go on as long as there is a desire, according to Petrozzi. But, as they do every year, organizers will look over last year's event to find improvements that can be made.

"We are going to work tirelessly to figure out a departure strategy that will eliminate the walking crowd," Petrozzi said.