Orton Park Festival adjusts layout and volume for Parks Department, neighbors

The 47th annual Orton Park Festival will take place in a few weeks, but neighbors in the area remain at odds about the logistics of the event. After a community meeting in May where residents and the Parks Department cautioned that the festival could strain the roots of the oak trees, the organizers agreed to make a few changes.

“We have been working with the parks department to address concerns about the oaks,” said Scott B. Thornton, president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association’s board of directors. “They’ve provided conditions.”

On Tuesday, July 31, the Marquette Neighborhood Association (MNA) hosted a follow-up meeting to discuss their changes to the upcoming event, solicit volunteers, and determine a reasonable amplification level for the music.

Over 40 people attended the meeting, including MNA members and board members, two representatives from the Madison Parks Department, Event Coordinator Bob Queen and Alder Marsha Rummel (District 6), who hosted the first meeting on the festival.

One of the primary changes this year will be an adjustment to the stage placement. Park Operations Manager, Charles Romines, explained that the department gave MNA a few options for a new location of the stage.

“[The] Parks Department’s first choice was to move the stage to the street,” said Romines, but they sought compromise with the organizers. This year the stage will be situated further into the park than last year, in an attempt to avoid the root zones of oak trees.

The event set up now requires placement of one-inch thick plywood boards on the ground beneath the stage to evenly distribute the weight of the structure and minimize the soil compression that stresses tree roots. MNA will also paint a path from the sidewalk to vending areas to direct vendor traffic away from the trees. 

MNA also hopes to close one block adjacent to the park to alleviate vehicle traffic on the turf. The association called upon members and neighbors to volunteer to direct set-up and clean-up traffic and ensure that trucks and trailers avoid the trees.

After last year’s festival the Parks Department aerated and reseeded the park to restore the trampled turf, without charging MNA. Thornton announced that MNA will pay this year for the aeration and reseeding of Orton Park. They’ve added these costs to their future budgets as well. In the coming years, MNA will pay to aerate and reseed both Orton and Yahara Place Park, the site of MNA’s other annual event, the Marquette Waterfront Festival.

Romines explained that the Parks Department will send representatives to the festival to document the event and take pictures for future consideration. Future permits for Orton Park Festival will require Parks Department approval. Romines sees the department as a “third party intermediary,” working with neighbors of opposing views to run a festival that makes everyone happy.

Neighbor Lucy Mathiak, who voiced concern about the volume of the festival, described the division among neighborhood residents.

“I think there is a growing difference of opinion in this neighborhood about whether we want to be an entertainment destination,” said Mathiak. “It’s been a long time since we gathered neighborhood input.”

One of the primary purposes of the meeting was to determine a reasonable amplification level for the music at the festival, and the meeting attendees struggled to find common ground on the issue. Kelli Lamberty, community events coordinator for the Parks Department deals with public amplification permits.

Lamberty used the meeting to gather input from community members about what they felt would be a reasonable volume.  The usual accepted decibel (dB) level in a residential area is 75. But outdoor gatherings, like Orton Park Festival, can apply for exceptions.

Ankur Malhotra, a sound engineer and producer of electronic music, cautioned that lowering the volume too much could obstruct the quality of music and makes Madison look bad in the eyes of artists and their agents.

Bob Queen, the event coordinator for the last 23 years, wants a good sound quality to match the new positioning of the stage, allowing for an “amphitheater feel.” He offered a care package to the meeting attendees with sensitive hearing.

“I would like to make available an Orton Park Survival Kit: tickets to the Sundance theatre and a few sets of earplugs,” said Queen sincerely.

But Lucy Mathiak and other neighbors spoke of the strain they feel from three days of amplified music so near their houses.

Mathiak assured attendees that she would not report the noise, “because I don’t call the cops on my neighbors… but I don’t want to be in a position where I can’t handle this anymore.”

Neighbors reached something of a stalemate, because no one knew what decibel levels the festival reached in the past. Romines of the Parks Department suggested 110 dB, a limit used in other cities.

Without data to base the discussion on, Sam Hokin, a physics lecturer at the UW-Madison, volunteered to record and map decibel levels at this year’s festival. He will take measurements from the porches of houses around the park. The maps will provide baseline data for the Parks Department to set a permanent limit for next year.

“I might recruit some students [to help] too,” said Hokin.

Not all residents were happy with this solution, as it still left this year’s decibel level undecided. Hokin agreed to report any reading over 110 dB to the organizers who will then reduce the volume of the sound system.

Because of time restraints at the meeting space, MNA adjourned the meeting after an hour and a half. The Parks Department left with something they could work with.

“[We] will take a look at the decibel readings and go forward for next year,” said Lamberty.