Dix residents recount 1973 experience, caution Legislature; O'Hearn assures them concerns are being 'taken seriously'
Summer Jam raised its ugly head at Monday night’s Schuyler County Legislature meeting.
The session, attended by about three dozen people, mostly from the Town of Dix in the vicinity of the Watkins Glen International racetrack, expressed concerns about the proposed Aug. 16-18 Woodstock 50 festival at WGI.
One, Charlie Ector of Townsend Road, said at first that he was “a little bit opposed to what may be going on at the racetrack” in August. Then, warming up, he said “we opened that can of worms in ’73” — the year of Summer Jam when an estimated 600,000 people flooded into the county for a weekend of concert music and left behind extensive damage.
"It’s like Pandora’s Box,” said Ector. “Once opened, you can’t close it again. There are people who live up there” near the track. “You shouldn’t just look at dollar signs.”
Another resident, farmer Gary Westervelt, said he too had experienced the fallout from Summer Jam, when “from Thursday on, there was no police protection” as the roads and fields in the area were overrun by concert-goers who left trash that “wasn’t cleared for two years.” He pointed to the “lawlessness” of that weekend as vandals “cut fences and burned hay bales. Lots of crops were destroyed” with “damages in the thousands of dollars. You should not have this concert.”
He pointed to the recent Phish concerts, where some residents had “raw sewage in their basements. Is this something we want in our community? I don’t think we should.”
When Westervelt wondered how concerts had returned to the track after being essentially banned after Summer Jam, County Administrator Tim O’Hearn jumped into the discussion, saying that such a ban was “a misconception” — that in fact existing laws at the time (and since) have been strengthened to control mass gatherings.
“You can’t prohibit mass gatherings,” he said — although any such gathering that fails to meet health and safety standards can be blocked. If a general ban existed, he said, there could — for example — be no NASCAR races at WGI. The Local Law was strengthened after Summer Jam, he said, and “more restrictions were put in over Phish.”
Byron Thompson, long involved in emergency services, said that WGI does “a fabulous job” with NASCAR weekends, but that a Phish concert brought people defecating and drinking “in our yard” and an encounter with a menacing driver. “Who,” he asked of the proposed Woodstock 50, “is gonna protect my property and especially my family? You really need to look at this and talk to people in the community.”
Verne Alexander, who lives on Route 329, said that while he understood State Police were going to provide security, and that a limited number of tickets would be sold (one report said 110,000), “it was supposedly limited at Summer Jam, too. What will you do if 600,000 show up? Five hundred troopers are not gonna stop them.”
When asked by another attendee if he could explain the Legislature’s role in all of this, O’Hearn said the promoter of Woodstock 50, Michael Lang, would need approval from the State Department of Health, from Emergency Services, and from State Police as well as from the Legislature, which is obliged to accept or reject the proposed festival no later than 45 days before its scheduled start. The festival plan will also require a State Environmental Quality Review by the Legislature to judge whether it would be environmentally sound.
He said he had been “tasked” by the Legislature to “coordinate discussion and gather information” regarding the proposed weekend — and that the process is in its “early stages.” A public meeting where more information could be shared will probably be held in late March, he added.
The Legislature, he said, would take all gathered information into account before rendering its judgment.
When asked if there might be pressure brought to bear on the Legislature to approve the concert plan, O’Hearn shook his head. “Not so,” he said, reminding everyone that “we canceled the Phish concert” last summer after a massive storm and resultant flooding left health concerns that precluded the music. Fans were sent home before the concert — being set up — could begin.
“We want to assure people,” O’Hearn said, “that we’re taking this seriously” — but that the process will play out, giving the promoter every chance to “prove he can do what he says.”