As expected, last night the County Legislature approved a measure that establishes a county agricultural fair and fairgrounds at Northampton Park in Ogden. And, as expected, Republicans pushed the legislation through; Legislator John Lightfoot was the only Democrat to support it.
The vote capped off an epic Legislature meeting, which lasted almost six hours — an hour or so was consumed by non-fair matters — and ended just before midnight.
There were a lot of speakers, so many that I lost count. In floor remarks later in the meeting, one legislator estimated that 50 people spoke during the public forum, and that figure feels about right. The vast majority of the speakers, many of whom live near the park, were against the proposal.
Two Fair Association representatives who spoke said they don't want a return the carnival atmosphere of the fair. What they and the farming community want, they said, is an event and grounds where young people interested in agriculture can competitively show the animals they're raising and where the community can learn about agriculture. A few 4-H parents and kids, as well as a couple of farming community members, did speak in favor of the festival and locating it at Northampton.
Residents aired few new concerns during the meeting. They reiterated their worries about traffic; public safety; loss of parkland; runoff contaminating their drinking water wells, Salmon Creek, and Spring Creek; and environmental damage. They also say the don't trust the county or organizers when they say they want a yearly small agricultural festival. They fear that this year's small event will morph into the Monroe County Fair of recent years with large rides, a midway, and demolition derbies.
During an hour-long back and forth with Republican Majority Leader Steve Tucciarello, county Parks Director Larry Staub tried to put some of those issues to rest. Staub said:
· There won't be demolition derbies, car races of any sort, or a carnival atmosphere.
· County officials have evaluated the potential for fair-related traffic and they believe the roads around the park can handle it.
· The county followed state environmental evaluation requirements (in other words, it completed a SEQR form).
· No facilities will be built if the Fair Association doesn't have the money to build them. But once they are built and gifted to the county, the county will maintain them.
· Parking will be free, which should discourage fair patrons from parking along public roads.
· The 25-acre fair grounds will remain publicly accessible parkland when the fair is not going on. That includes the soccer fields.
· The only rides will be small kiddie ride, comparable to what the county brings in for the Lilac Festival.
· The tractor pull events will not feature large, loud, souped-up tractors but rather will be competitions involving regular farm tractors and lawnmowers. There will also be horse pulls.
What Staub said sounds reasonable, but residents remained skeptical at best and who could blame them. Many found out about the fair proposal just a few weeks before last night's vote and not because the county informed them about it. many park neighbors showed up at a meeting last week, organized by Legislature Democrats, seeking answers on the proposal and to express their disapproval of it.
Tucciarello and Staub both talked about misconceptions and incorrect facts about the proposal. But the lack of outreach by the county and the Fair Association appears to be responsible for that. So if either group sees a problem with incorrect information circulating, they should realize the blame may start with them.
As for the fair, or agricultural festival, or whatever it's called, it's set to take place August 1-4 at Northampton Park. That's if a lawsuit threatened by one neighbor doesn't derail it.
And its up to fair organizers and supporters to show the park residents that they mean what they say, that the festival will be, and will remain, an agricultural event without the carnival sideshow.