Coachella Music Festival in Limbo as City of Indio Delays Signing Contract

Enjoying Club 75 at Coachella 2010 | Creative Commons photo by Caesar Sebastian
Enjoying Club 75 at Coachella 2010 | Creative Commons photo by Caesar Sebastian

The City of Indio is holding off on signing a long-term contract with the promoter of the long-running Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival after the adjacent city of La Quinta asked for environmental review of the six-day festival.

In a 4-1 vote on October 4, the La Quinta City Council voted to request that Indio complete a review of the festival under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to assess the environmental impact of the noise, traffic and pollution generated by the festival each year. In response, Indio's City Council agreed at a meeting the next day to delay approval of a two-year contract with festival promoter Goldenvoice for thirty days, so that the two cities can negotiate over details.

The Coachella festival, held every year but one since 1999, routinely attracts 60,000 to 75,000 people per day to the Empire Polo Grounds off Monroe Street and Avenue 50. The site, on Indio's southwest side is bordered to the south and west by La Quinta, with the city line less than a mile away.

Concertgoers pump an estimated 35 million dollars into the economies of both cities, and of other Coachella Valley municipalities, over the course of each year's festival. But the festival undeniably creates significant noise and traffic congestion, both near the polo grounds and in neighborhoods where festival-goers take their after-hours partying to vacation rentals.

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When the festival started a dozen years ago, there wasn't much in the neighborhood aside from a small mobile home park just south of the Polo Grounds. In the intervening decade, however, La Quinta has aggressively developed its nearby lands, and affluent gated communities nestle up against the site of the Festival. Each year brings with it more complaints from neighbors about early morning soundchecks, acts that continue until well after 1 a.m., and after-hours parties at vacation rentals that can bring upwards of two hundred people into usually quiet residential neighborhoods. In order to control gatecrashers at this year's festival, police checkpoints up to a mile from the venue let no one through unless they were wearing a wristband three-day pass, each of which cost $320. The move and subsequent traffic aggravated some neighbors.

In a nod to past noise complaints, the contract Indio is considering with Goldenvoice would prohibit soundchecks before 10 am.

Indio's residents have their own issues with the festival. Complaints from residents phoned in to the Indio Police Department over the years include allegations of festivalgoers trespassing, riding horses without permission, and using neighbors' property as open-air toilets, in addition to the expected problems with noise and traffic.

But complaints coming from more affluent La Quinta seem to have more weight, and this year's announcement that the festival would be doubling in length turned up the heat on those complaints. Promoters plan two consecutive weekends of Festival in April 2012, with identical acts in each three-day "set," as a way of accommodating anticipated crowds. The Coachella 2011's expensive three-day passes sold out within a week of going on sale in January of this year.

Under CEQA, private projects subject to permits issued by state or local government are subject to environmental assessment if their approval isn't just a routine matter. This assessment potentially includes a full-blown Environmental Impact Review process with public hearings. As the permitting agency, the City of Indio could conceivably comply with CEQA by issuing what is wonkishly called a NegDec: A Negative Declaration, or statement that the project would have no environmental impact worth noting. A NegDec for Coachella would be likely to raise eyebrows, given that noise and traffic issues are specifically listed as issues for environmental assessment under CEQA.

NegDecs are often viewed as litigation bait, and Coachella is unlikely to prove an exception to the rule. If Indio carried out a full-fledged EIR process for its contract with Goldenvoice, with the legally mandated series of documents to be prepared and prescribed 75 days of public comment period on those documents, that process could easily stretch past the opening date of Coachella 2012.

With millions of dollars at stake, it's almost certain that some compromise will be reached for Coachella 2012. But as the festival grows with each year, and the eastern Coachella Valley gets more and more populated, this issue is not going to go away anytime soon.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the La Quinta City Council vote was 4-5. It actually was 4-1.

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