Rock of the Woods festival debate packs house in Sahtlam

Both supporters of Rock of the Woods and those with concerns about the annual music and arts festival packed the Sahtlam Fire Hall last Thursday a public meeting, part of the process that will determine if the event can proceed this summer.

Festival organizers are hoping to hold the 2015 event on July 23-26 in the same location off Irvine Drive where it was held last summer. In the past, the event had moved from Bamberton in 2011 to Glenora Farm in 2012 to the Godfrey Brownell Winery in 2013.

While most of those in attendance were there to back the Rock of the Woods organizers, there was a vocal minority of residents expressing opposition to the festival, at least in its current form. ROTW founder Dave Bain felt he had at least addressed some of the concerns, even if he hadn’t converted some of the festival opponents.

"By the end of it, I had people coming up to me and saying thank you for all the information," he said.

The meeting is part of the first true test of Area E’s Temporary Use Permit application process, intended to address large events on land not zoned for them. The process was formalized last fall.

"I think it’s good to finally have a process, but a lot of people aren’t happy with how the process was made," said Bain.

Bain noted that the ROTW organizers are "just sitting ducks" and had no role in creating the process.

Regardless, he is happy to have a formal way to address the community. Previously, ROTW volunteers took time to speak with residents individually.

"There has been no way to actually communicate with the community," Bain said. "The door-to-door thing was always done voluntarily by us."

Among the main concerns expressed by nearby residents – including those who supported and attended last year’s festival – were the hours of festival operation. Even before last Thursday’s meeting, Bain had planned to roll back the hours that the main stage will be running, from a 2 a.m. shutdown time last year to a proposed 12:30 shutdown time in 2015. On the final day, the stage will go quiet at 4 p.m. this year, as opposed to 6 p.m. last year.

The biggest issue, in Bain’s view, is increased traffic over the festival weekend on Irvine Drive, Sunrise Road and Barnjum Road.

"There are some more things around road safety that we want to work hand-in-hand with the community to address," he said.

Residents also brought up the concern about river safety, as the festival site is right on the Cowichan River. Organizers noted during the meeting that trained lifeguards were on hand, even if they weren’t visible to festival-goers. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more that can be done, as the river is a public area, easily accessed from many places outside the festival grounds, and many of those in the water during the event had come from elsewhere.

The permit for which ROTW has applied would allow for as many as 1,000 attendees in 2015, which would be double the size it was last year. Bain doesn’t really expect the festival to attract 1,000 people this year, but wants to cover his bases.

In all, he felt it was productive to take the festival plan to the public for scrutiny.

"Our operations plan is something we want criticized so we know what more we can do to improve it," he said.

Area E director Alison Nicholson, who chaired the meeting, was impressed with how many people attended.

"There was good turnout from both sides, both supporters and people concerned about the appropriateness of the venue," she said. "Not all residents, but quite a few residents have concerns. But there is also a lot of support in the community, particularly for the youth, the music and the local vendors."

Nicholson expressed her own concerns that the Area E Official Community Plan doesn’t provide direction with regard to large special events. That’s something she will make sure is addressed when the process of writing a new OCP begins in February.

"[The 2015 permit process] won’t be the end of it," she said. "There has to be a decision made [for this year], but it needs to be addressed in the OCP process."

In addition to the results of last week’s meeting, staff are also looking at written submissions regarding ROTW’s permit. Nicholson hopes that a report will be presented at the February Electoral Area Services meeting, which will allow the permit to go up for approval at the CVRD board meeting in March.