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In an effort to modernize the county's permitting process, Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield introduced a proposed ordinance to create a special events permit during a public hearing on Oct. 8.

The permit would require those seeking to hold certain events in unincorporated areas of the county to fill out official paperwork and await approval from the county.

Whitfield said the county is seeking to add the permit out of concern for residents' safety. It would help make sure that specific events have the necessary safety protocols in place and that city offices, such as the fire and police departments, are aware of events and can better plan in the case of an emergency.

"Really what this geared to do is to get us up to the 21st century with what other cities and counties do," Whitfield said during the public hearing. "This is not trying to prevent anyone or prohibit one's freedoms or to intrude or invade on a property or to tell people what they can or cannot do. This is to make sure everyone's safe."

A special event is being defined as an activity for entertainment or recreation, "such as a festival, celebration, foot race, bicycle race, vehicle race, horse race, barrel race, rodeo, concert, parade or march, film or television production, tour, rally or assembly which takes place on a public street, sidewalk or right-of-way, or occurs on private property and impacts government services on public rights-of-way or may impact the health, safety or welfare of the public generally because of the nature of the assembly or the size of the assembly."

But there are many exceptions that would not be subject to the permit, such as events held on county and school property, which are already subject to county regulations; events hosted by religious organizations, nonprofits and civic groups; and small private gatherings in which no money is exchanged. Small ventures like lemonade stands would also be exempt.

Walker County Public Relations Director Joe Legge said the desire for a permitting process came not only from county leadership but from several event organizers who, if the ordinance is passed, will have more guidance on how to safely host events and be on the same page as the county.

For example, Whitfield referenced an upcoming two-day concert, Valley Vibes, that will have food vendors, fires and a large gathering of people. A permitting process, he said, would allow the health department to vet any food vendors and give firefighters and officers the ability to have any needed resources on-hand.

Legge said that governments usually have some sort of processing fee for the permit, but Walker County is seeking to offer the permit free for local businesses and residents. Promoters and events from outside the county would be charged, however. Those rates will be set and approved at a later date.

During the first public hearing, a resident raised concerns about the vagueness of the language in the ordinance and that it could target some groups more than others.

He also said he would prefer personal autonomy for citizens as opposed to government regulation of events, and requested that the amendment be tabled until January, after the election and installment of the expanded board of commissioners.

"What we're trying to do is more about communication and collaborating," Whitfield said in response. "It's not about trying to pick and choose who does what type of events."

Whitfield cited neighboring Dade County, where, prior to having a permitting process, there were incidents that caused a death and someone to be paralyzed but there was no insurance requirement for said events.

A permit process, said Whitfield, would ensure that adequate insurance and other safeguards were in place prior to approval.

The second and final public hearing on the ordinance will be held Oct. 22 , and the commissioner is expected to vote on the ordinance that night unless it is apparent that another hearing or more time is needed, said Legge.

Contact Tierra Hayes at tierrathejournalist@gmail.com.

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