Reggae Returns Home

Planning Commission approves festival site, with some restrictions



It's official. Reggae on the River is going home to French's Camp, the bend in the Eel where it all began. Last week the Humboldt County Planning Commission signed off on a new Environmental Impact Report submitted by the Mateel Community Center and approved the nonprofit's plan for a concert the first weekend in August -- with some new twists.

The commission unanimously approved a concert for five years, with authorization to sell 6,000 tickets this year and an option to increase sales by 2,500 tickets in the future. The permit also allows 2,000 staffers and performers.

"We've been working on this for years," said Mateel General Manager Justin Crellin, relieved to have passed this major hurdle.

The Mateel folks had to submit a new EIR to get permission to once again hold the concert at French's Camp, home of Reggae on the River for more than two decades. Concert organizers crafted a revised system for those entering the concert site. "The biggest change is the Highway Patrol dictated no foot traffic across 101," said Crellin.

Vehicles will be inspected on the way in, and any that are leaking fluids will have to park on absorbent padding to make sure no toxics enter the river, said Michael Richardson, the county planner assigned to the project. The Mateel will also have to increase onsite water storage and monitor water pulled from an onsite well.

A few years ago, a "Reggae War" over who controlled the concert tore apart the southern Humboldt community. But the only opposition at last's week's hearing came from neighboring businesses worried that reducing pedestrian traffic would hurt their businesses.

Reggae on the River started in 1983 as a fundraiser for the Mateel Community Center. For over two decades, its home was French's Camp, property owned by the Arthur family just south of Richardson Grove State Park. In 2006, the show expanded onto the Dimmick Ranch, right across the river, which allowed for higher attendance -- but didn't generate increased revenue.

A dispute between the Mateel and the festival operators, People Productions, over proceeds from that year snowballed into a battle over ownership of the concert permit.

The planning commission ultimately ruled that the permit went with the property owner, Tom Dimmick, who was working with People Productions. As a result, the Mateel cancelled Reggae on the River 2007 and Dimmick partnered with People Productions on a reggae concert called Reggae Rising.

Reggae on the River did not disappear however. Starting in 2008 the Mateel held a downsized festival downriver at Benbow Lake State Recreation Area, which did not allow onsite camping. Crellin hopes the return to French's Camp will bring back old fans who missed camping right at the festival. "Things are looking good" for this year's fest, he said. "We're about 75 percent done booking the show and all set to announce an on-sale date."

The new Reggae permit includes a kill clause inspired by the previous battle for control of the concert. "If the project is stolen out from under them by the property owner, the use permit expires," Richardson said. Crellin said he's not worried about that happening.  

The Mateel organizers were relieved when producers of the Gaia Festival announced that their fest is taking 2012 off. That show, which recently has been held on the first weekend in August near Laytonville, would have meant competition both for audience and volunteers.

There is, however, another potential competitor nearer to home. The new EIR mentions the possible impact of two simultaneous concerts, one at French's Camp and another across the river at Dimmick Ranch. While the scenario might seem unlikely since Tom Dimmick has filed for bankruptcy and is fending off creditors, Richardson has heard from someone looking into buying Dimmick Ranch.

J.J. Hanley, a potential buyer from the Bay Area, told the Journal that he and some partners are interested in the ranch and its "definite potential as a concert facility."

According to Richardson, any buyer who wanted to use the Dimmick permit would face a hearing before the planning commission, and the reception may not be welcoming. The commission would need to sign off before a new owner could use the permit, which allows for a weekend-long show the first weekend in August and another one-day show in September.

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