May Farms in Byers is the intended site for the 2014 Riot Fest

(Photo: CPR/Stephanie Wolf)
It’s quiet on a hot July afternoon in the tiny eastern Colorado town of Byers. 

But if an indie rock music festival's plans go ahead, the aural landscape of Byers will be transformed for one weekend in September when a stretch of farmland along Colorado 36 becomes the site for Riot Fest for the second year running.

Founded in 2005 in Chicago, Riot Fest is a three-day indie rock music festival organized by Chicago's Riot Fest CorporationThe Festival expanded to Toronto in 2012. And, in 2013, with the help of the Denver production company Soda Jerk Presents, the organizers brought it to Byers.

The proposed lineup for 2014 includes around 60 A-list musical acts such as Weezer, The Cure, Primus, Slayer and The National. The organizers anticipate about 17,000 visitors this year, up from 14,000 in 2013.

The organizers have already booked bands as well as sold tickets and camping passes for the 2014 Festival, which is scheduled to take place at May Farms. 

But the Festival’s fate is now up for debate.

In response to emails, comments, phone calls from the community, Arapahoe Country commissioners called a public hearing in Byers on July 1 to discuss the future of Riot Fest.

Most reports in the media directly following the hearing have focused heavily on people who spoke out against the event. But talking to county officials paints a different picture.

“We had a pretty split audience in terms of support and opposition,” county spokeswoman Andrea Rasizer says.

For those against Riot Fest, there were recurring themes.
 

“Comments we heard at last Tuesday evening: traffic concerns, noise concerns, just the impact on the community,” Rasizer says. “Byers is a very small community of 1,500 people. So they’re going to have people on both sides that are going to feel very strongly about this music Festival.”

Other civic concerns voiced at the July 1 meeting include public drug use and security.

Byers resident Heidi Tufto lives near the site of Riot Fest.

“We are the closest set of neighbors due West,” Tufto says. “If you look in a straight line, you can see there is May Farms, right there.”

Tufto supports the festival’s return. She believes the pros outweigh the cons in bringing in this type of activity to Byers.

“I think it would be sad that if we were so busy thinking about traffic issues we missed out on an opportunity to increase our kids’ cultural awareness,” Tufto says.

Gary May owns and operates May Farms with his wife, Stacie. May understands his neighbors’ concerns, but says the organizers are prepared for an event of this size.

Like Tufto, May also believes the Festival brings more interest to the region.

“This has put Byers on the international map,” May says.

But not all residents share the same sentiments as Tufto and May.

Charlotte Lesser is a young single mother living in Byers.

In a letter she wrote to county administrators, Lesser says the noise from last year's Festival sounded like “there was a stereo turned all the way up outside my window.”

Resident Peg Sale says in an email that the town does not have the resources to handle thousands of visitors.

Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous, says May is putting his financial gains ahead of the community’s best interests.

Security, noise, drugs and traffic come up repeatedly in similar letters.

The final decision regarding whether Riot Fest will go ahead or not now rests in the hands of Arapahoe County zoning administrator Tammy King. The Board of Adjustment will then have the opportunity to appeal her decision.

Arapahoe County also has an application from May Farms for a second permit. This permit would allow May Farms to be a site for "agritainment," which means the Farm could host larger scale entertainment events with regularity.

Rasizer says a public hearing for this permit has not been scheduled yet.

Riot Fest organizer Max Wagner and Soda Jerk Presents turned down requests to comment at this time.

If everything goes as planned, Riot Fest will take place September 19 through the 21 at May Farms in Byers.

Chloe Veltman, host of Colorado Public Radio’s weekly arts show, “The Colorado Art Report,” spoke with John Pettit, the organizer of South Park Music Festival in Fairplay. Pettit provided perspective on the issues raised in Byers from the standpoint of a music festival producer. He talked about what goes into planning an event like Riot Fest as well as the steps Riot Fest organizers will have to take if the Festival is cancelled.