Neighborhood debates environmental impact of Orton Park Festival

The Orton Park Festival has grown exponentially since its debut 47 years ago, now attracting as many as 5,000 attendees, estimates Event Coordinator, Bob Queen. Since he became involved 23 years ago, Queen has helped bring in international and Grammy-nominated acts to perform at the four-day event.

But some neighbors and city officials worry the high volume of people and equipment places increasing strain on the turf, soil, and trees of the 4.21 acre park.

A neighborhood meeting about the impact of the festival drew over 50 people to the Wil-Mar center on May 29. Many in attendance expressed concerns about parking, noise, and the health of the park.

T.R. Loon and Tracie Tudor have lived in a house facing the park for 19 years. While they don’t want to end the festival, they feel it’s become “too big, too loud, too late, too long.”

Queen takes pride in the fact that for its nearly five decades, the festival has never elicited a police call or had an ambulance take someone away.

But with one old oak dead, critics worry the size and duration of the event is weighing heavy on the soil and plants in the park. The Madison Parks department sent three representatives to the meeting, hosted by Alder Marsha Rummel.

The department is concerned with how the event traffic compresses the soil, because oak trees need aerated soil.

A single person exerts 25 pounds per square inch, explained City Forester, Marla Eddy. Multiply that pressure by the 500-5,000 people who attend, and add the weight of trucks, carts, and a dancefloor. All these things push down on the root zones of the trees in Orton Park.

As compaction worsens, oxygen levels go down and carbon dioxide levels increase. Water does not easily penetrate compacted soil. These strains on the soil make the oak trees susceptible to diseases like oak wilt and pests like Twolined Chestnut Borer.

“Things are going to take advantage of trees that aren’t healthy,” Eddy said.

A full study of the compaction in the park is too expensive for the city right now, said Park Operations Manager, Charles Romines. But the department did test compaction levels on soil near last year’s stage and compared it to a lower traffic area in the park. They found the soil was indeed more compacted at the stage, but cannot quantify the risk that future events may pose on the trees.

Romines did say that “the less the event is on the turf and trees, the better.”

Queen and event staff have worked with the parks department in the past to alleviate pressure on tree roots, choosing a dance floor and stage that would distribute some of the weight. They try to keep vendors and equipment set up close to the outside of the park to avoid having trucks drive through the grass.

The Parks department invested in Orton Park’s recovery last year, aerating and seeding last summer and this spring. Events at other parks often require a contractor, paid out of the organizer’s pocket, to rehabilitate the turf. Oak tree root zones (which extend beyond the canopy of the tree) are often cordoned off during events in Madison parks. The Orton Park Festival has been grandfathered in, however, and there are no such limitations on it.

Romines explained they support the long standing tradition of the Orton Park Festival because of city and neighborhood backing. He was impressed by the turnout and passion at the community meeting.

Considering its current scope however, Romines said, “if we were starting from scratch, would we permit this [event]? No.”

Love for the park and the event emerged as a theme at the neighborhood meeting, even though the logistics may need some rearranging in support of the trees. 

Neighborhood resident, Eileen McGlynn said “I love this festival. It’s what makes this community a community.”

Many in the neighborhood take great pride in the event, which draws people from all over the city. In a good year, the festival brings in $40,000-50,000 for the Marquette Neighborhood Association. The profits recycle back to the community in the form of student scholarships, a free summer camp, and assistance to several organizations like the Wil-Mar center.

Everyone at the meeting seemed to agree that the festival should persist in some form, though consensus was divided on what changes to make.

Alder Rummel kept track of proposed alternatives such as confining the stage, trucks, and tents to an adjacent street like a block party. If such changes takes effect, Queen said it would be considered a street festival and lose the charm of the park atmosphere.

However the Marquette Neighborhood Association, neighborhood members, and the city decide to address the stress from the event, the Madison Parks department will help the park recover. Romines hopes to offset some of the impact on the park, but made it clear the department would “support the eventual consensus of the neighborhood.”

Queen and festival loyalists continue to stand behind the event in its current form.

“I just think the park is used very wisely, and I think all the evidence is inconclusive,” said Queen. “We’re very non-disruptive, and we get in and out.”