By Tim Leeds
The Hill County commissioners have revised an ordinance governing large group gatherings in Hill County after hearing complaints about an earlier version.
The revised ordinance requires people planning a gathering of 1,000 people or more for up to eight hours, or 500 people for eight hours or more, to request a permit at least 120 days before the gathering.
The commissioners will meet at 10 a.m. next Tuesday in the Hill County Courthouse Annex meeting room to hear public comment taking a final vote on the revised ordinance. The ordinance would go into effect on Oct. 4.
Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said today the commission is adopting the ordinance to "protect the public the taxpayers of Hill County."
The first ordinance would have affected groups of 350 people gathered for three hours or more. At the public meeting for the ordinance on May 9, concerned people told the commission that they felt the ordinance gave the commissioners an arbitrary ability to limit public gatherings.
After reviewing the comments, the commissioners revised the ordinance, including the size of groups affected, the time required before the gathering is affected and exemptions to the ordinance.
County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said that while Hill County has not had problems before because of large gatherings, the commissioners want to have the ordinance in place to prevent problems in the future. He added that other areas in Montana have had problems with large groups.
"We have heard instances of other counties where they had to pick up the bills," said County Commissioner Kathy Bessette. She added that Jefferson County adopted an ordinance governing large groups after having problems.
Kaercher said the commission is concerned that if a large group gathers without enough planning or the proper facilities, the county will have to pay the bill for law enforcement, emergency services and cleanup afterward.
"This is a pretty simple measure to prevent" those costs from being charged to the taxpayers, he said.
Kaercher said the purpose for the ordinance is to make sure large gatherings are organized and planned to prevent any problems. For example, if someone wants to hold a large concert on their land, they are welcome to as long as the county is satisfied that health and safety concerns are adequately addressed.
"It's not to infringe on the right to assemble or have a group gathering," he said.
Under the revised ordinance, facilities constructed to hold large gatherings are exempt from the regulations. Examples listed in the ordinance the Hill County Fairgrounds and Camp Kiwanis in Beaver Creek Park. The commissioners can grant exemptions for other areas and gatherings. The city of Havre is also exempt.
People planning gatherings affected by the ordinance must apply for a permit at least 120 days before the gathering. The application will be reviewed by a special events coordinator appointed by the commissioners. After reviewing the plans and information in the application with the necessary county departments, the coordinator will recommend a decision to the commissioners. The owner or manager of the property to be used, groups providing sanitation services, the county sanitarian, emergency medical services, fire protection services, the county sheriff's office and the county weed department can be included in the review of the organizers' plans.
The applicants are required to agree to pay any extraordinary expenses the county will accrue because of the gathering. The amount will be estimated by the county based on the information given by the applicant.
Any person may appeal a decision of the special events coordinator to the county commissioners. The commissioners' decision on appeal is final, but may be appealed to the 12th Judicial District Court.
The ordinance is available to the public at the commissioners' office in the Hill County Courthouse.