ITHACA, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Board of Health has approved fines for the Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance after several violations of large event regulations and health codes were found ahead of the 2022 festival. Despite a lack of permits, the event was held in July without interruption, but the penalties include language that could threaten future festivals if more violations are found this year.

Technically, Grassroots was actually assessed $62,000 in fines, though $40,000 worth of the fines can be waived as long as two conditions are met: detailed maps for the 2023 campgrounds and mass gathering areas and a separate detailed plan, prepared by an engineer, that will outline a plan to keep interior roadways clear and reversible. Those conditions must be met by Jan. 15, 2023.

The penalties were handed down at a Board of Health meeting earlier this week. They resulted from a dozen Tompkins County Health Department violations incurred by GrassRoots before and during its 2022 event, including water system issues, insufficiently labeled campsites, inaccurate maps of the site, changes made after permit application submission, and the most significant: operating a campground without permit (the Across the Way campground) and operating the festival without a mass gathering permit.

Some of those are the types of violations that sound fairly trivial to the layperson, but is significant particularly for emergency response in case of a drastic situation. The resolution states that GrassRoots has violated Board of Health orders in 2019 and 2021 as well.

In a reversal from years prior, the Health Department is not allowing Grassroots to start selling tickets for the event until it receives its necessary approvals from the department (this could be waived if four criteria are met, explained below). If the two aforementioned conditions aren’t met by Jan. 15, 2023, the health department states that Grassroots officials must cancel the festival within 48 hours.

In previous years, Grassroots had been allowed to proceed with selling tickets in anticipation of getting a permit approval, but that will not be the case this year as a result of the punishment.

“We have revoked their advertising waiver, so they are not allowed to advertise the 2023 festival or sell tickets until they have their water system plans in place and approval by the fairground board, they have to approve any changes to the water systems that are actually on the fairground property,” said Liz Cameron, the county’s Director of Environmental Health. “We want a schedule and a signed contractor to get those done by May 1, 2023. Then we’ll give them the waiver to advertise and sell tickets to the festival. We need accurate site maps before we’ll let them sell camping ticket sales.”

The popular Culture Camp looks like it will also be reduced for 2023, as the resolution states that TCHD intends to limit Culture Camp campground permits to only the number needed for staff and performer camping. That is in place for 2023 “until GrassRoots demonstrates the ability to lay out and label campsites accurately and in advance of the mass gathering.”

The resolution also explicitly states several restrictions on mass gathering permits if certain criteria are not met, including perhaps the most crucial: “No GrassRoots mass gathering will be permitted or allowed to be advertised in 2024 if a significant number of flammable, security, campsite layout or spacing violations are observed by TCHD in 2023.”

Russ Friedell, one of the lead organizers of the festival, said he is confident that the organization can meet the two conditions and avoid the $40,000 in additional fines.

Otherwise, he referred to comments he made to The Ithaca Voice and Tompkins Weekly previously, insisting that the primary cause of health emergencies at the festival was the heat and that the festival is safe overall. Tompkins Weekly additionally reported that the festival is facing $17,000 in fines from the Town of Ulysses for similar violations.

“We want to address the health department’s concerns and move forward so that we can start getting things ready and start selling tickets as soon as possible, with everybody on the same page,” Friedell said in comments to The Ithaca Voice. Friedell emphasized that he believes the festival will be able to meet all necessary thresholds and he is excited for the 2023 event.

Matt Butler

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