Solvang City Council delays decision on new permitted event standards

Partly designed as a guide to help differentiate events in Solvang that require city permits from public gatherings protected by the First Amendment, a proposed ordinance faced scrutiny at the end of November from officials who felt it would leave the city unprotected under certain circumstances.

In September, the Solvang City Council directed staff to refresh the city’s event permit policy—untouched since 1999—on reviewing applications for special events, such as parades and festivals, with a new ordinance from scratch.

During its Nov. 27 meeting, the council heard a presentation from Solvang Parks and Recreation Director Jenny McClurg, who explained that the new ordinance includes clear guidelines on the city’s event approval process and an appeal process for applicants whose permit requests are denied.

click to enlarge Solvang City Council delays decision on new permitted event standards
File photo courtesy of Solvang USA
GAZEBO A GO GO: Public gatherings held at the Solvang Park gazebo aren’t currently subject to obtaining city permission, unless the event in question causes a sidewalk closure, includes the sale of food or beverages, or conflicts with other policies.

Both procedures are either loosely defined or not defined at all in the city’s existing ordinance, McClurg said. One section of the updated ordinance is centered on events exempt from obtaining a city permit, such as “expressive activities” and “First Amendment activities.”

Permits are only required for this type of gathering if it requires the closure of a street or sidewalk, involves the sale of food or beverages, or needs the construction of fencing, tents, stages, or barricades, McClurg explained.

McClurg added that a public gathering at the Solvang Park gazebo wouldn’t require an event permit if it stayed clear of that subset, for example. 

“Jenny, I worry about that,” Councilmember Elizabeth Orona said. “I’m just thinking outside of Solvang, and I think about not the rule followers who will pay attention to our application process and all the ordinances, but those who would rather find loopholes and do damage to a gazebo, maybe even unintentionally.”

Orona recommended that staff amend the proposed ordinance to include an insurance requirement for the host of any event held on city property to agree with.

“There was a parade over the holiday weekend where people glued themselves to the street, and that could cause damage,” Orona said, referring to pro-Palestinian protesters at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. “How can we reconcile if we don’t always have an insurance requirement?”

Assistant City Attorney Chelsea O’Sullivan addressed Orona’s question.

“With the First Amendment right, you have to allow for that activity to happen and you can’t create barriers for a First Amendment activity,” O’Sullivan said. “Having an insurance requirement for that type of expressive activity basically means they can’t just go out and have a demonstration at the gazebo, or whatever it may be.”

Orona asked if there was wiggle room to require a permit for large public gatherings, but without a fee, to not be perceived as a barrier from preventing the event from taking place.

“It would establish a point of contact or responsible party for that kind of expressive event,” said Orona, who suggested that said party could then be held accountable for potential damage. “Is that an approach that’s workable?”

O’Sullivan said it wouldn’t be constitutional, for example, to halt a public protest from happening until it goes through the city’s approval process.

“If there’s some event or a big thing happens that people want to react to, some unrest or something like that, and they want to have a demonstration … you can’t make them wait 90 days just to have their event,” O’Sullivan said. 

She added that “the lack of a special event permit doesn’t prohibit the city from using other remedies to recoup costs” of any damage to city property.

While discussing events in downtown Solvang that will be required to undergo the city’s permit process, Councilmember David Brown suggested that each application review should weigh any potential negative impacts the event could have on brick-and-mortar businesses, to avoid “a significant mutiny or revolt by the local merchants.”

“I don’t know for sure how that would be gauged,” Brown said. “I just want to be sensitive about events that compete with our existing downtown [businesses].”

With a 5-0 vote, the Solvang City Council ultimately decided to table their decision on the proposed event permit ordinance, which will be revisited with some staff revisions during the council’s Dec. 11 meeting. 

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