New rule would quiet events in Madison parks

And might set up a double standard for outdoor concerts.

And might set up a double standard for outdoor concerts.

The crowd at this year's Orton Park Festival. Photo by Jim Ackerman.

The crowd at this year’s Orton Park Festival. Photo by Jim Ackerman.

Concerts in Madison parks would have to lower their volume level and end earlier under a new proposal the City of Madison Parks Commission began considering at a November 18 Wednesday night at the Warner Park Community Center and will take up again at its December 9 meeting at the same location.

The proposed change would establish three tiers for sound permits held in city parks. The most permissive would limit sound to 85 decibels “at the perimeter of the event” and require events to end at 10 p.m. Events under this permit could get an “extraordinary extension” to 11 p.m., but only if the Parks Commission approves, and if organizers pay an additional $100.

The folks who organize Madison’s east-side summer concerts—Marquette Waterfront Fest, La Fete De Marquette, Orton Park Festival, and the Central Park Sessions—balk at the proposed 85-decibel limit and time limit. Indeed, not that I’ve been toting a decibel meter to these events or anything, but 85 decibels is pretty quiet for a big concert. (Various helpful sources on the Internet equate 85 decibels to “city traffic (inside car)” and “passing diesel truck.”) And during the last Fete, for instance, the last sets on Friday and Saturday nights were scheduled to begin at 9:30, which means wrapping up by 10 p.m. would be pretty tough.

Parks Commissioner Eric Knapp told Isthmus this week that this change would not impact “street use events.” So the scope apparently is for events that take place in city parks, rather than on city streets. Which means, in theory, that the east-side festivals would be under a tougher standard than, say, Freakfest, Ironman, or Live on King Street—which are LOUD events. I could hear the last Freakfest pretty well from my home, a good 3.5 miles away as the crow flies, and past midnight.

Bob Queen—a longtime organizer of east side concerts events—argues that the city’s fee structure for events is already a bit perverse. He pays $700 to have a beer-vending license at the Central Park Sessions, for instance, but “If I moved 10 feet over and sold a beer on Ingersoll Street, it’d be $10.”

In a Facebook event (link might not work, as the event is set to private), Queen, along with neighbors and festival vendors, is urging people to attend Wednesday night’s meeting and speak out against the ordinance.

On the event page, Queen shared a letter that Jessica Wartenweiler, who owns the Curd Girl food cart, sent to the Parks Commission about the proposal. Wartenweiler argues that the change would hamper the festivals’ ability to raise funds for local non-profits and draw business to locally owned vendors. She has a point—talk to anyone involved with La Fete or the Marquette Neighborhood Association, and you’ll hear that fundraising from La Fete accounts for a big chunk of the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center’s annual budget.

“My fear is that you’re stacking the deck against community-led festivals that provide innumerable benefits including community building, free admission, vending opportunities for local businesses, and proceeds that benefit non profits and are favoring large-scale outside concerts with expensive ticket prices like those occurring at Breese Stevens that provide no vending opportunities for local businesses and where profits benefit a private company,” Wartenweiler wrote in one part of her letter. “Large production companies can absorb these fee increases, but these increases have a crushing effect on the community-led festivals that provide so much for our neighborhoods.”

If this all seems like a tempest in a teapot—affluent East Siders arguing over a noise ordinance—consider that last point that Wartenweiler makes. The change could hamper the ability of neighborhood groups, non-profits, and small vendors to put on events that inject a variety of music into Madison’s summer concert lineup. In both cultural and community terms, they’re a good balance to the kinds of events put on by for-profit event promoters and corporate sponsors, which, for all their admitted merit, do tend toward the middle of the road, appealing to a broad audience but increasingly feeling like events that could take place in any city. Hopefully the Parks Commission can reach a compromise on this change, which it seems to me would threaten events that feel particularly special to Madison.

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