Residents question rules regulating beer at festivals

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Marcia Nelesen
Wednesday, August 7, 2013

JANESVILLE--Beer drinkers at Janesville festivals are used to swilling their brew watching the goings-on from behind a fence--sometimes a double, orange snow fence.

But the police department said earlier this week it is relaxing on a case-by-case basis regulations that separate underage people from people who are drinking alcohol.

The decision came after organizers of an upcoming Riverside Park music festival and The Gazette questioned why Janesville's rules are different from other cities, where people drinking beer and wine are not segregated from other activities.

Sandy Hendricks, a festival organizer and a member of Friends of Riverside Park, hopes the Sunday, Aug. 18, fundraiser is a forerunner to regular events in the park modeled after Harry's Place, a popular Friday night music venue in a Beloit park.

But Harry's Place is strikingly different from anything found in Janesville.

At Harry's Place, no area is designated for drinking alcohol. People move freely around the park without wearing wristbands designating they are old enough to drink. They can bring in their own coolers or buy drinks from nonprofit vendors.

Janesville Deputy Police Chief Dan Davis, police liaison for the city's alcohol licensing committee, said police will not recommend doing away with designated drinking areas.

But after consulting with the city attorney, the department will allow drinkers and non-drinkers to mingle inside a designated area.

“What we're finding out is, at some point, the police department just took the position, 'Hey, it's a temporary Class B license. It needs to operate like a Class B premise,'" Davis said.

Bars must have a Class B license to operate.

“It became, 'That's how we've always done it,' ” Davis said. “We may have been guilty of that.'

“By law, we have an option, so we are reevaluating that position,” Davis said.

For the Aug. 18 event, the department will continue to require a designated drinking area surrounded by a 4-foot fence. The fencing is a city ordinance but can be of any material, Davis said. Underage people will be allowed in the areas without parents. Those 21 and older must wear wristbands to be served alcohol.

On the same day, the rules will be different at a music festival in a tavern parking lot on the city's south side because it is clearly an adult event, Davis said. At that event, anybody younger than 21 will not be allowed in designated drinking areas.

During the now defunct Rock Around the Block music festival downtown, no fencing was installed and only a loose perimeter was established around the event. Fencing is not required by state statutes.

Steve Kopp, now police chief in the town of Beloit, was liaison to the Janesville alcohol licensing committee during the years of Rock Around the Block. He said the community event was spread over a large area, and committee members opted to take a chance and allow wristbands for those old enough to drink.

“The (committee) thought it was good opportunity to explore that sort of arrangement,” Kopp said.

No problems were reported in the eight years the festival operated.

Kopp noted other cities, such as Beloit and Madison, have events without designated drinking areas.

“They don't seem to really have any issues,” Kopp said.

Harry's Place has been going on for 16 years with no problems, according to organizer Jeff Adams.

Organizers of Riverside Park music festival in Janesville are pleased those attending will be able to carry their drinks around festival grounds.

“The policy needs to be updated for the times,” resident Bruce Monson said.

Monson has been involved in planning gatherings for nonprofit groups, including the upcoming music event.

“If Janesville really wants to get more of an arts-based culture with music and food and art, (it) needs to be more flexible with adapting beer and wine to those events,” Monson said.

Fencing “gives you that corral feeling," he said.

“Once you have that beer area, it turns into a beer culture, instead of an enjoyable additional part,” Monson said.

The festival market is getting competitive, and attendees notice the difference between a flexible, enjoyable environment, Monson said. If Janesville wants its festivals to be successful, “You really have to have a level playing field.”

Hendricks said she, too, hopes the city starts addressing some of its policies and ordinances to make sure they are consistent with today's standards.

She is pleased people will be allowed to watch the concert with a drink, but she doesn't think the daytime hours of the family-friendly festival and the type of music warrant a secure area.

“I just think it's a little extreme, and I think a lot of people would agree,” Hendricks said.

“Janesville's always had a lot of policies,” she added. “Some of those policies make it more difficult to put on an event.”

The city should just use common sense, she said.

“We're conservative, here,” Hendricks acknowledged. “Conservative isn't all wrong, but I think that some of these rules have to be looked at.”

If the city finds it made a mistake, the rules can always be reinstated, she added.

Councilman Brian Fitzgerald, a new member of the city council and the leisure services committee, agreed.

“You gotta treat people like adults,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald will ask city staff to research pertinent statutes, ordinances, Janesville's interpretations and the evolution of its policies.

“I'm interested in change at this point, but I need more information” he said.

Fitzgerald would like the Friends of Riverside Park's dream to be realized with regular music festivals. He thinks a long-talked-about band shell should go in Riverside Park.

“I think if you have (regular) events going on there, people will start showing up,” Fitzgerald said.

Davis said loosening the rules might be “treading on a slippery slope, and it may cause us to reevaluate.”

For now, the department is trying to be flexible and work with groups and “kind of trust them in that they'll manage it responsibly,” Davis said.

“For now, the police will decide on fencing on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

“I would expect that we always continue to evaluate our policies and our practices and make sure they're making sense, make sure that the community is being policed in the fashion that the community wants to be policed,” Davis said.

Last updated: 2:29 pm Wednesday, August 7, 2013

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