On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 3/1/2016
Red tape happens
If you read my column last month, you know that the Napa County Board of Supervisors was contemplating a new ordinance that would make the permit process for “special events” considerably more complicated and expensive. This would apply to running events and film shoots, but it appears the main victims of the ordinance would be pay-to-ride bike events. (File this tidbit under the heading of scuttlebutt or rumor, but I heard from a fairly reliable source that the event which initially triggered this draconian response from Napa County was not a bike ride but a running event that left litter all over the roads. So while it was joggers who caused the problem, cyclists are the ones hit hardest by the solution.)
In that prior column, I groused about what seemed to me to be all sorts of logistical, financial, and philosophical problems with the proposed ordinance, and I expressed the hope that the Supes would reconsider their rash agenda and either table it entirely or modify it with some sensible amendments. So much for hope: they went ahead and passed it as it had been drawn up. I haven’t read every line of the ordinance, and in fact I don’t think they will have all the fine print nailed down until after a final review on March 10. But in broad outline, our worst fears about it were confirmed.
I did not mention this in my prior column, but I have a dog in this fight, beyond just my general umbrage about government overreach or the targeting of bike-related activities for heightened harassment. I have—or had—a bike event in Napa County. I am a co-chair of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club’s Terrible Two double century, and for the past 40 years, that ride has included a brief, 30-mile dip into Napa County.
On a Saturday in June, our 200 to 250 riders are in the county for about two hours, between 7:30 and 9:30 AM, with a rest stop at a high school in Calistoga around 8:30. It’s not a race. We expect all our participants to abide by the statutes in the Vehicle Code. We don’t ask for road closures or traffic controls or any other services from public agencies. We don’t leave litter on the course or around our rest stop. We don’t obstruct other traffic or inconvenience other road users. We’re just a bunch of bike riders out using the roads the way they are intended to be used…by and for the public.
So for 40 years we’ve run the event without any permits. I firmly believe we have the right to do this: that an event as small and as low-impact as our event does not require any permit or oversight from anyone. Napa County might have disagreed. As we all know, whenever there is an opportunity to throw more red tape around, the bureaucrats will usually do so. But in the event, it never came up. Perhaps they never noticed us passing through their county—briefly, quietly—on a summer morning. Or perhaps they did notice us…out of the corner of their eye, like noticing a fly on the windowsill…and simply never had the energy or interest to pick up the fly swatter.
That all changed with the implementation of the new, much more stringent and far-reaching ordinance. There now was very little doubt that our event was included in their dragnet. Well…actually, that’s not quite true. Initially I was advised of an exemption for events with fewer than 250 participants “for which participants are required to comply with the California Vehicle Code as it applies to persons riding a bicycle upon a highway.” (That would be our our event.) The exemption would have allowed us to avoid maybe 90% of the requirements and fees associated with the new ordinance.
However, after dangling that possible exemption in front of me for a while—like dangling candy in front of a baby—county staff suddenly snatched it away: “I’ve spoken with our staff and the ‘exemption’ provision of our code apparently is something no other events are using. We have in mind to delete this misleading language from the code with our next update, to elimination (sic) confusion in the future. The bottom line is, all events over 50 participants need the same review by the same agencies – then those agencies tailor the specific requirements to the particular needs of the event.”
Let me digress for a moment to say this. I have no heartburn about the mid-level staff people I’ve had to deal with in this permit process. Without fail, they have been courteous and even cordial. They’re just doing their jobs and would be remiss if they started going nudge, nudge, wink, wink about certain events: letting guys like me slide by. As one of them said to me: “Don’t blame me: I only push the paper around.” It’s the Superviors and their advisors and—perhaps—special interest friends who have laid an egg here.
I’m not going to go over every single difficulty I encountered along the permit path. If I did, it would go on forever and make your eyes glaze over. I’ll just offer a few examples of the frustrating obstacles they throw at you.
We were required to get approval of our route from the local CHP supervisor. I figured this would be a no-brainer formality. I mean, our route is so simple and so safe and so innocuous and the event so small…but nooooo! He demanded that we hire—at overtime pay—a number of officers to control two intersections. These are both intersections where our riders have crossed the roads safely and with no difficulties for every one of the past 40 years of the event. The cost for this “service” that we don’t need would start at $800 and go up from there.
I have no objection to traffic controls where they are needed, such as at a race or at a very busy intersection in a big century ride with thousands of participants. They can be valuable. We use them in our big Wine Country Century. (However, I will just float an old anecdote past you about the CHP services at the WCC. One year, as a course marshal, I watched the officer working a tough intersection. He was great. On top of the job, out in the intersection, stopping this traffic, waving that traffic through. Just what we want. The next year at the same intersection there were two cops in two cruisers. Twice as good? Nope. Both of them were parked a hundred yards up the road from the intersection, chatting with each other. They never got out of their cruisers to assist with the traffic…what they were being paid time-and-a-half to do. One of them was supposed to be 25 miles up the route at another tricky junction. But there the two of them sat, doing nothing. When the police do the job they’re hired to do, it’s a big plus. But when you get a situation such as this one, the term that comes to mind is protection racket: you pay our guys overtime or we don’t give you a permit.)
But back to the Terrible Two. Here we have a relatively small cohort of very experienced, elite-level cyclists arriving at these two intersections singly or in small groups and crossing safely, just as any other vehicle operators would be doing…and yet they won’t give us a permit without cops on the scene. This is wrong on either one or two points. Obviously it would be wrong if it really were a cynical extortion shakedown. But even if that ploy is not going on, it’s still wrong in that it treats legitimate road users—responsible, law-abiding cyclists—like some kind of incompetent boobies who can’t be trusted to ride their bikes out in the real world…who aren’t any more proficient at crossing a road than a possum. I’m sorry to get up on this same old hobby horse once again, but dammit, it’s wrong, this segregation of bike riders into some lower order of beings, requiring special rules and restraints and nannies. The roads are our roads. They belong to us and we belong on them. Stop treating us like pre-schoolers!
But enough about that one. In addition to all the other forms that would need to be filled out, reviewed, and—maybe—approved for the County permit, there was an additional requirement that we obtain a special event permit from the City of Calistoga because the route passes through that city. (This would be in addition to the facilities use permit we already obtain from the high school for our rest stop, or the permit we used to get, for over 20 years, for the use of a city-run park, where we used to have our rest stop…permits on top of permits.) When I enquired with city staff about the permit, they said yes indeed, you will need the permit and will have to pay a fee…AND we’ll have to run it all past the police department, the fire department, and the public works department to see if any of those agencies has any further conditions to impose. Where does it end?
As far down the tunnel as I could see, it didn’t appear as if the regulations and conditions and restrictions and applications and fees would ever end…and really, I was just getting started. I was in communication with the chairs of a couple of other bike events in Napa County who were already deeper into the permit process than I was, and they warned me of other kafka-esque quagmires that lay ahead. Speaking of fees, the basic fee for the permit is a little over $1100. Coupled with another $800-plus for the CHP and the fee for the Calistoga permit and god knows what else, we were looking at shelling out at least $2000 to be granted the priviledge of riding for two hours on roads that are open to the public. And that doesn’t even get into their proposal to garnish 25% of the event’s proceeds for Napa-based charities (an illegal tax, by the way). County staff suggested I submit a written request for a fee waiver, but according to the criteria they provided for granting the waiver, I was not confident that our event would qualify.
It was all too much. The expenses alone would have been a deal-breaker for a little event on a break-even budget. But money aside, the bottomless pit of rules and legalese was proving impenetrable. And of course, if your event did eventually pass muster and if you paid all the fees, you would still have to repeat the process again next year…on and on. As I suggested in last month’s column, I’m about half-certain this is the veiled intent of the ordinance: to make life so miserable for event organizers that they will finally give up and take their events elsewhere.
That’s what we have done. Fortunately, with only 30 miles of our route in Napa County and with a wealth of wonderful back roads next door in Sonoma County, we have been able to reconfigure our route to stay out of Napa. We’re gone. If making us go away was their goal, they have succeeded. I have spoken with another experienced, respected bike-event organizer who had been in the planning stages of setting up a big bike ride with a large Napa County winery, but now they too have decided to dump that plan. As noted last month, I have heard, second hand, about other organizers who have said they’ll abandon Napa and stage their events in other, more welcoming locales.
Some events deeply rooted in Napa County will not have the luxury of taking their business elsewhere. They’ll have to wade through the swamp of regulations, pay the ridiculous fees, and pass those expenses on to their riders in the their entry fees. Either that or simply go out of the bike-event business. And don’t lose track of the fact that almost nothing in any of of the permits or fees or regulations does anything to actually mitigate the supposed frictions and conflicts that are said to exist out there on the roads…the problems of bikes and cars sharing the road. Oh wait…I take that back. If all the bike events fold up their tents and go away, so that there are no more bikes on the roads, then presto! Problem solved.
I’m excited about reworking our route to replace our Napa County miles with excellent biking back roads in Sonoma County. I look forward to introducing our participants to some sweet roads they may never have seen before. But at the same time, I lament the necessity of having to substantially alter a course that has been a traditional, even iconic institution in the world of long-distance cycling. Those are our roads. They belong to us as much as they do to anyone sitting behind a steering wheel. To have our access to them obstructed or over-regulated by some politicians and bureaucrats is frustrating.
I wish I could imagine that the departure of our event and others like it would give Napa County’s leaders and planners pause; that they would wonder if they had made a wise decision in introducing this too-much-trouble ordinance. But I pretty much doubt that will happen. If they are not actively anti-bike, they are at least righteously entrenched in their view that another tangle of red tape will solve all the world’s problems, even if those problems may not even exist. That’s the world they want to live in. But we don’t have to visit them there.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org