Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is asking the state for permission to stage concerts, festivals and other major events in Waterfront Park any night of the year until 11 p.m.
The proposal to amend the 19-year-old Act 250 permit governing use of the park — mandated by a September out-of-court settlement — signifies an effort on the part of the Weinberger administration to greatly expand economic opportunities on the Burlington waterfront. The mayor, who has a background as a developer, wants to make the park a regular venue for urban-style entertainment.
In its written request for changes in the Act 250 permit, the city says it seeks to “stimulate more year-round activity on the waterfront.” The filing describes Waterfront Park as “an active and vibrant public asset — but mostly during the warmer months. During the colder months, the waterfront becomes a backwater with little going on. And this reality makes it difficult for businesses that in particular depend on customer traffic, to survive,” the Weinberger administration adds.
But the mayor himself insists in an email message that he has no plans to turn the park into a tented version of the Flynn Center. “Any suggestion that my administration is seeking to have events at the Waterfront Park 365 days a year is flatly incorrect,” he declares.
The move is nonetheless sure to face strong opposition from waterfront residents as well as from other Burlingtonians who view the scenic lakefront park more as a natural preserve than a profit-generating resource. On the other hand, Weinberger’s proposals will likely gain support from business interests and from city dwellers who agree that the waterfront is underutilized as a site for cultural happenings and large-scale celebrations.
“The waterfront is sacred ground in Burlington,” says City Councilor Max Tracy. “It’s so important to so many people.”
Tracy, a Progressive representing part of the Old North End, adds that he isn’t firmly against more frequent commercial use of the park. “It’s not a black-and-white issue,” he says. “I love live music.” But Tracy also insists that the waterfront must not become “a pay-to-play place.”
Cyclists and walkers are already excluded from the park’s paths whenever major events take place there, notes David Greenberg, an attorney who lives in one of the townhouses along Lake Street, adjacent to the park. A board member of the 200 Lake Street homeowners’ association, Greenberg worries that the public will increasingly be barred from the park while nearby residents are bombarded with loud noise on many more nights.
Judy Greensmith, who lives in an apartment building opposite the Moran Plant, is circulating a petition that calls on the Act 250 district commission to reject the proposal for more frequent lakeside hoedowns on the grounds that “the amount of traffic, noise and damage to Waterfront Park produced by events held by or approved by the city of Burlington is already intolerable.”
At present, commercial events are allowed to take place in Waterfront Park on no more than 27 dates between late May and mid-September. Amplified music can be played on only 22 of those nights, and it must be switched off by 9:45 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, and by 10:45 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Another restriction: Events may not occur on more than three consecutive weekends.
In its request to amend the Act 250 permit, the Weinberger administration frames these restrictions as an unacceptable impediment to “maximizing the use of Waterfront Park for the public and promoting and sustaining economic development in the city’s important downtown areas.” The city also says that its suggested changes will enable it to “take advantage of opportunities and uses for the park that were never imagined in 1994, as well as opportunities and uses in the future that cannot be predicted today.”
The mayor himself is casting his proposal as a bid for “local control,” pointing out that Waterfront Park is the only municipal park in Vermont overseen by state regulators. “The city has capacity to manage the park and should do so,” the mayor said in a December 15 interview.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t have similar or even more robust regulations at the local level” than those now imposed by the state, Weinberger added. “We are aware of concerns about noise. We’re willing to make capital improvements and other changes to mitigate noise.”
The mayor emphasized that his proposed amendments do not call for an increase in permitted noise levels, as measured in readings taken at the periphery of the park. The standard would remain fixed at 85 decibels. But the city does seek a change in the regs so that noise shall be considered in violation only if it is sustained at more than 85 decibels for 60 consecutive seconds. Currently, it’s a violation any time sound exceeds 85 decibles.
In its filing, the city downplays noise complaints made by neighbors like Greensmith, stating that “there have been minimal complaints from just a small number of people” during the 20 years in which concerts and festivals have taken place in the park. Regulations have been rigorously enforced, the city contends.
Greenberg, the homeowners’ association member, says this simply isn’t so. He contends that existing noise restrictions are routinely flouted and that nighttime events in the park are generally “unsupervised and out of control.” Greenberg says he sometimes flees his home because of incessant pounding of drums and the screeching of machinery used in setting up concerts.
But the Weinberger administration maintains it gives neighbors multiple avenues to address noise complaints to city hall. “The city has been highly responsive to these complaints,” the city writes in the Act 250 filing, “and is constantly modifying and updating its event planning and permitting processes to proactively address potential problems.”
The mayor pointed out in last week’s interview that the move by the city to amend the Act 250 permit issued in 1994 was mandated by the terms of a recent court settlement with Lake Street homeowner Alison Lockwood. She has battled the city on recreational and cultural uses of the waterfront in the past. An agreement with Lockwood enabling the city to move ahead with infrastructure development in the area around the Moran Plant came with a condition: It required the city to seek an amended Act 250 permit by late November, Weinberger says.
The city’s proposed changes, dated November 15, came to light last week in a post Lockwood made to Front Porch Forum. Her online commentary does not attack the city’s position; it simply encapsulates what the city is seeking in the 45-page document submitted to state regulators.
Lockwood declined to be interviewed concerning her own opinions of the proposed changes. But that didn’t stop the mayor from suggesting in an email message following his December 15 phone interview that “Lockwood’s position, apparently, is that she does not want more people using the park more than it is already used.”
Weinberger contrasted that stance with his own view that “the people of Burlington should decide who uses the park and when and how they use it — not the Act 250 district commission appointed by the governor.”
Apprised of Weinberger’s comments, Lockwood’s only response was: “The mayor can say whatever he wants, but he’s putting words in my mouth I never said.”
Another open question: What role will the public play in deciding which events take place in Waterfront Park? Under current regs, waterfront events are previewed and reviewed by an event-selection advisory committee composed of nearby residents, business representatives, event promoters and city officials. Weinberger proposes to keep the committee but doesn’t delineate its membership in the Act 250 proposal. The mayor says, however, that Parks Director Jesse Bridges “plans to use that committee even more than in the past.”
City Councilor Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3), who represents renters and homeowners living close to Waterfront Park, suggests Weinberger should have solicited broad public comment prior to filing for the Act 250 changes. “The mayor has been talking about being inclusive, but I think this way of proceeding would shut down public input,” Brennan says.
Weinberger rejects that criticism. In a detailed email response, he says the Parks and Recreation Department’s citizens advisory commission gave unanimous approval to the city’s plan for changes in park regs. Two of the three members of a council committee overseeing the parks and cultural events also signed off on the proposal, Weinberger says, noting that the third member, Brennan, did not respond to messages seeking his input.
Under state law, the three-member Act 250 district commission for Chittenden County will review Weinberger’s proposed amendments as well as submissions from other officials and neighbors. But residents claiming to be affected by the contemplated changes must first persuade the commission that they are entitled to “party status.” Whatever ruling is made by the commission can — and may well be — appealed to the state’s environmental court.