Moab Arts Festival attendees checked out repurposed aluminum cans that were transformed into airplane models. The Moab City Council voted 3-2 this week to approve a special-event permit for the festival, with Mayor Emily Niehaus casting a tie-breaking vote. [Moab Sun News file photo]

Upcoming events at Swanny City Park during the next several weeks will go forward as organizers planned following decisions this week by the Moab City Council, despite weeks of complaints from residents near the park regarding “cumulative impacts” such events have on the surrounding neighborhood.

Council members, however, were anything but united on issues related to special events at Swanny when they took up four special-event permit requests on Tuesday, April 10. While the requests were all approved, it took two tie-breaking votes by Mayor Emily Niehaus for a couple of the events to receive fee waivers that have traditionally been given.

Despite impassioned comments in recent weeks from the park’s neighbors and those who defended special events at the park, the council did not set aside a time to work specifically on the issue.

“I think this body failed,” Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd said, explaining why she planned to vote against allowing a fee waiver for the Moab Farmers Market to be held at the park during the summer, sponsored by the Southeast Utah Health Department.

The Moab Farmers Market, the Moab Folk Festival’s Free Concert Series, the Moab Arts Festival and the Vision Relay were all approved to hold events at the park between May and July. The farmers market and the Free Concert Series both received fee waivers despite “no” votes from Knuteson-Boyd and Karen Guzman-Newton. Council members Mike Duncan and Rani Derasary voted in favor of the waivers in both cases, creating ties that Niehaus broke with “yes” votes to grant the waivers; Kalen Jones was absent from the meeting.

“We knew this was coming,” Knuteson-Boyd continued. “We have not created a fair and equitable way to do fee waivers. I can’t in good conscience vote for a waiver when we have denied others … We should have been proactive.”

The council has indeed wrestled with the issue of fee waivers several times as special-event applications began to come in since the beginning of the year.

“Every single group who comes before us has a good reason to waive fees,” Knuteson-Boyd said.

Many such events are sponsored by charitable organizations, or organizers can make good cases for their beneficial contributions to community education or the local economy. Despite their votes against fee waivers, Knuteson-Boyd and Guzman-Newton voted along with other council members to unanimously approve the events themselves.

But, said Mayor Niehaus, “What I hear is that the fee waiver, for better or worse, is expected.”

She noted that, for some events, having to pay a couple thousand dollars or more in fees would be a hardship.

Orion Rogers, who as environmental health director of the Southeastern Utah Health Department’s Moab office has overseen the Moab Farmers Market in recent years, agreed. Even with special-event fees waived in previous years, he said, the event had been unable to break even. “We’re certainly not opposed to paying fees in the future,” he said, but an unanticipated cost of $2,900 in fees this year “would be extremely detrimental.”

At several points during the meeting, various council members expressed a desire to solve special-events issues once and for all.

“I don’t want to do this again next year … I don’t like doing this ad hoc,” Duncan said.

Duncan was one of the first to question fee waivers earlier this year, during the application process for the Rotary Club’s April Action Car Show — the same event that seemed to be the impetus for complaints from residents in the Swanny Park neighborhood.

Duncan has suggested that the city be firm in not granting fee waivers, but instead budget for contributions it could make instead to worthy and qualifying organizations, and perhaps on a competitive basis.

Yet, “Even though it sticks in my craw,” Duncan voted in favor of the fee-waiver requests on April 10.

“Can we commit to a time we want to look at this?” Derasary asked. “We need to commit to having some time when we’re going to discuss it and look at it.”

No such commitment was made, though there was no opposition to a suggestion that the council look at the matter when parks policy comes up during the comprehensive review of city codes and ordinances now underway.

“We need to firm up, as a council, our position on fees, fee waivers, and the use of Swanny Park. We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Niehaus said.

In March, 45 residents around the park signed a petition asking the city to place a moratorium on new events at the park. (All four events approved on April 10 have been held at the park in prior years.) Noise, congestion and alcohol sales in what is otherwise a residential neighborhood were atop a list of complaints.

“The disturbance from the Park has steadily grown over the years as more events are approved, existing events grow in size, and more disturbing uses are permitted,” wrote resident Scott Groene in an email to city officials when he submitted the petition.

Groene singled out the Moab Folk Festival’s Free Concert Series, which had its first season last year, as an offender. “Concerts are fun, and the people involved are good folks,” he wrote. “But these should be located where the events can grow in number and size — as they will — and the music can be played loud and late without disturbing one of Moab’s neighborhoods. Tourism has benefited many in this town, but it has also in many ways made Moab a less pleasant place to live… I think that protecting our neighborhoods from the impacts of tourism is one of the best things we can do to keep Moab a place we all want to live.”

Melissa Schmaedick, director of the Moab Folk Festival and the Free Concert Series’ organizer, defended her event to the city council on April 10.

“I have a lot of compassion for those who are feeling squeezed by events at Swanny Park,” Schmaedick said.

She said the concert series was started as “a gift to the community,” and that more than 50 percent of attendees were local.

“Rather than being seen as a tourist-driven event, we’re very much focused and vested in our community, and serving our community,” she said.

Schmaedick said she and other event organizers were taking steps to mitigate the impacts on the park’s neighbors.

Despite expressed need for action, council makes no plan to take it

It sticks in my craw.