TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The GrassRoots Festival this year had everything: music, art, camaraderie, plenty of people in attendance, that customary celebratory feeling. The only thing it didn’t have? Some of the festival’s operating permits.

Confirmed by the Tompkins County Health Department and GrassRoots organizers, the festival never actually got its Mass Gathering permits for across-the-way camping and parking. The festival had applied, like usual, and normally the permits are approved, albeit sometimes with little time to spare.

This year, though, they were not and whether or not there will be ramifications is unclear. Technically speaking, the GrassRoots festival was legally held, but the camping and parking across-the-way were illegal.

Permits for the camping portion and the actual festival itself are different: the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, where the event itself is held, are zoned for large events; the across-the-way camping areas are zoned for residential uses only, even though GrassRoots owns the site. Thus, the latter requires a special event permit, issued by the Town of Ulysses, while the actual festival itself does not require one because it does not violate that property’s zoning. Since the Health Department never signed off on the Mass Gathering permit, the special event permit wasn’t issued.

“The Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance is subject to New York State health and safety regulations and is typically permitted for a Mass Gathering by the Environmental Health Division of the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD),” the department said through the county’s Director of Communications Dominick Recckio. “This year, TCHD reviewed the Festival’s request for a permit, but after daily inspections of the site, was unable to issue the permit as several important areas of concern were not fully addressed by the applicant.”

Recckio said the health department would not comment on the specifics of any violations or concerns.

GrassRoots organizer Russ Friedell said he wasn’t sure why the Mass Gathering permit hadn’t come through this year.

“GrassRoots Festival has an outstanding safety record and works diligently year round to ensure the festival’s health and safety,” Friedell wrote. “The Mass Gathering permitting process begins in January and is a months-long process during which we work closely with TCHD, in addition to all other governmental agencies, through each step and the festival itself.”

Friedell added that the festival was a “very smooth and successful return” after cancellations and limitations since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Attendance was higher than 2019, the last full-size GrassRoots, and Friedell said EMS calls were low and mostly due to the heat.

In the interest of transparency, Friedell passed along seven inspection reports from the health department, dated from July 21-23. Ones from early in the festival do show a few potentially troublesome violations, like paths for emergency vehicles being blocked, a questioned water supply and possible capacity problems, but those were addressed fairly quickly. Other violations were more minor, like spacing requirements. By the end, the violations mainly centered on trash collection, grill storage and a need for soap at the bathrooms and hand-washing stations.

The campgrounds are technically within the Town of Ulysses, giving the town jurisdiction over it. Ulysses Town Supervisor Katelin Olson said she isn’t quite sure if or how the situation will impact future events, or how Ulysses or the Board of Health would deal with the violations that occurred this past weekend.

“The town is not opposed to GrassRoots, we all appreciate them and want them to be successful,” Olson said. “The permits exist for a very good reason, and it’s concerning to us that this event happened. […] The Town has not taken any direct action, but I can tell you that the town was actively monitoring throughout the entire run of Culture Camp and GrassRoots Festival.”

Olson mentioned that the Town Board would be talking about its special events permitting process and parameters at its Tuesday meeting this week—though she emphasized that discussion was planned long before the GrassRoots situation was known.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com