In a split 3-2 decision, the Guadalupe County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to deny a large gathering permit to Float Fest, the tubing and music festival held in the eastern part of the county every July.
County Judge Kyle Kutscher was joined by commissioners Drew Engelke, Pct. 2, and Judy Cope, Pct. 4, in denying the permit, while commissioners Pct. 1 Greg Seidenberger and Pct. 3 Jim Wolverton voted to grant Float Fest promoter Marcus Federman the permit needed to host the festival July 19 to 21 at Cool River Ranch, along the San Marcos River.
Federman requested a large gathering permit of 25,000 attendees a day for the annual event with a nearly 200-page assessment for the festival. Float Fest has been held at Cool River Ranch on Dupey Ranch Road every year since 2014.
“2018 was fantastic,” he said, addressing the commissioners at the start of the hearing. “All elements were brought together and executed well. I feel like the permit application addresses all aspects of this year’s plan.”
Federman hired Angelou Economics to do an economic impact report for the event. The survey claimed Float Fest generated $12.3 million, $621,000 in state taxes and $49,500 in county taxes.
Federman also spearheaded several actions to reduce the negative environmental impact on the San Marcos River due to high traffic and disposable containers, including a thorough deep clean after each year’s festival.
“It is my hope my voice through this festival can change the behavior of people on the river,” Federman said. “In Texas, floating the river and drinking beer is a rite of passage. I’d like to make strides in providing reusable containers to alleviate the trash, because the majority of guests are responsible and will use them. But even if we pushed this, we’d have to make it easier.”
The San Marcos River is home to no fewer than seven endangered species, according to the Meadows Center For Water and the Environment. Several environmental groups opposed Float Fest due to possible irreparable damage. Tom Goynes, co-owner of San Marcos River Retreat in Caldwell, has opposed the festival since the beginning, claiming it hurts his business and the environment.
“It can be pristine from divers but cans will still show up,” he said. “We have the video evidence of piles of cans. It surprises some but not me. Silt can cover the cans and make them impossible to remove. Once you pick one up, the silt is already kicked up.”
While the hearing has become a routine step leading up to the festival, the issue of traffic congestion moved the court in the direction of denying the permit this year. Engelke’s main concern was the ease in which local residents could access emergency services, particularly the case of one doctor who is on-call for Guadalupe Regional Medical Center the weekend of Float Fest.
Cope, however, was more scathing in her disapproval of the festival.
“The county does not profit from this,” she said. “You use our roads and our officers. No matter how well you prepare, there can be a big problem you can’t get to. Residents have to listen to profane music and we really don’t care for exposing our children to that. It disrupts sleep and lifestyle. Roads were never built for this level of traffic. This county shouldn’t pay for a private company to make money.”
Seidenberger and Wolverton saw no sufficient reason to deny the permit based on congestion alone, reminding everyone all public events cause traffic and that it was “only one weekend out of the entire year,” Wolverton said.
“Traffic is part of every public event,” Seidenberger, whose precinct includes the festival grounds, said. “That’s part of it. The promoter has taken multiple steps to alleviate the burdens of the festival from previous years.”
Kutscher, initially on the fence at the hearing’s start, was persuaded to vote against the permit based on evidence brought before the court that the festival had a negative affect on the traffic system along Scull Road, Cottonseed Run and Dupey Ranch Road.
“I was prepared to vote yes, but then I saw testimony from citizens, causing concerns for congestion,” he said.
A traffic assessment done through the third-party entity AC Group LLC and presented by traffic engineer Rene Arredondo showed temporary traffic queues of only a few minutes, aided by the presence of off-duty traffic control officers. Arredondo also made a few unofficial recommendations that could ease the congestion.
“The whole system could improve if driveway improvements were made for buses since they take up both lanes when they turn,” he said. “More offside parking could also lower queues. We also did not observe any emergency vehicles having trouble getting in or out of the area.”
However, this swift traffic pattern was later contested by citizens in public forum. Several speakers recorded delays of 15 to 30 minutes, longer than the 3 to 5 minutes reported by Arredondo.
“It’s wonderful to see someone study the road, but that’s not what I witnessed,” local resident Dixie Waldrop said during public comment. “I went the backway to get home from work last year and it took me 30 minutes to go just a half-mile. I saw buses so large they couldn’t fit on the road.”
Martindale city council member Mike McLabb also spoke during public comment, noting that despite Float Fest’s generation of revenue, Martindale and its residents aren’t seeing a financial benefit to all the noise and crowding, specifically at the cost of the San Marcos River.
“We need to be represented,” he said. “The road can’t handle it. If the promoters are serious about protecting this land, they will institute a can ban for the festival like Comal County has done, they can repair the roads and maybe send some money our way. It’s currently a loss for the taxpayers.”
Later in the hearing, Federman agreed with McLabb’s desire for financial support.
“We really would like to see the county get some sort of financial benefit,” Federman said. “Whether that’s to help with the roads or whatever, we could add a ticket fee to go into a fund. I’d love to know how to do it because it’s something I want to happen.”
Houston resident Eric Mayfield, who has visited the festival multiple times, claimed the event has less impact than the residents feared.
“I’ve been coming for years, both for Float Fest and holidays,” he said. “It’s safer and less crowded during Float Fest than on a typical Memorial Day. They do all they can, with help from a large police presence.”
County commissioners raised several concerns during the hearing about the availability of toilets, water, camping space and emergency personnel, all of which Federman addressed in the application and hearing.
Federman said medical personnel reported only “minor” cases — mostly dehydration — during last year’s event. Float Fest provided 250 water faucets last year with plans to increase the amount in upcoming years. Signage at the event also advised people to continue drinking water.
“A lot of people just don’t drink water,” Federman said. “When you’re having a good time with friends, you forget to hydrate sometimes. Last year was also exceptionally hot. We post reminders all over the site and through promotional materials reminding people to do it but we can’t make them.”
As for law enforcement, sheriff deputies helped with traffic that weekend, but do not patrol inside the grounds, Guadalupe County Sheriff Arnold Zwicke said. More than 200 private security officers are provided by Federman’s company, including an on-site SWAT team for the worst case scenarios.
“I feel strongly that for events of this size, I spend a lot more on security than anyone else,” Federman said. “We take safety very seriously.”
Federman worked with the county fire marshal’s office to ensure the event is safe from looming fire disasters. Open flames are banned in the camping grounds and fire inspectors patrol the area all day and night during the event.
Federman denied any intentions to increase the festival’s attendance beyond 25,000, although the grounds could hold “30,000 to 35,000,” he said. Since its inception, Float Fest has steadily grown with each year. Last year’s permit request for 30,000 attendees was denied by the county commissioners before settling for 20,000 later that spring. The festival has attracted significant acts in previous years, including Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Weezer and Tame Impala.
After voting to deny the permit, citizens in attendance appeared pleased with the decision.
“I’m pleased with the outcome, but I’m concerned that two of the commissioners didn’t understand the significance,” Waldrop said. “The annual floating and language of the festival has stopped businesses. I don’t understand why [Seidenberger] can’t oppose congestion — 25,000 is way too many people. Float Fest isn’t good for the people.”
Following the vote, Federman left the courtroom quickly and quietly. Federman and his legal counsel declined to comment on the outcome at this time.
Zach Ienatsch is a staff writer for the Seguin Gazette. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.