The unexpected cancellation of tomorrow's annual 17th Street NW festival in the Dupont Circle neighborhood has left the organizers bitter, some residents who opposed it happy and the city determined to streamline the festival permit process.
In the District, where festivals abound, a little known city requirement that 90 percent of the residents near a festival site must approve of the event led to the 17th Street festival's last-minute demise. This would have been the sixth festival on the commercial strip where bars and restaurants are rapidly replacing small service businesses.
Last year's festival drew about 15,000 people to what was billed as a celebration of Mexican culture with music, food and dancing. Several neighbors on nearby Riggs Place were unhappy with what they considered unruly revelers, who they said urinated in their yards and tore out some bushes.
"We were told that there would be no more festivals after last year," said longtime resident Phyllis Nelson. After finding out about this year's festival, she said, she asked to see the regulations and the organizers' petition supporting the event. "I was sure none of my neighbors had signed."
Nelson and other neighborhood residents succeeded in stopping the festival by calling attention to the requirement that 90 percent of the residents within 500 feet of a festival site need to sign a petition supporting it.
The organizers, John Parker and Mike Stefkovich, said they thought they needed only 51 percent of the affected neighbors to agree.
The permit, which the city denied to the festival organizers Thursday, is called a carnival permit, and it allows the sale of food and beer by unlicensed vendors as well as for the installation of a stage for bands and entertainment.
"We didn't realize we needed to get so many signatures," Parker said. "We thought 51 percent of the neighborhood was all that was needed as it was in the past. We are just little people who wanted to have our own festival to celebrate our neighborhood."
Parker said he and Stefkovich had worked as full-time volunteers for the last two months to produce this year's festival. He said the last two weeks had been a marathon of meetings with those opposed to the festival as well as with city officials in hopes of resolving the differences.
"We are out more than $4,000," Parker said. "We placed ads, printed fliers, and paid permit fees plus we had to put up money for the bands and the portable toilets. Plus we have all these vendors with tons of sausage and no way to sell it."
The festival probably would have gone on as planned even with fewer than the required signatures if Nelson and other residents hadn't objected, said Henry C. Lee III, acting director of the city's business regulation office, which issues carnival permits.
"With no opposition to a permit request, our scrutiny is appropriate," Lee said. "But when there is opposition, the scrutiny is greater. I don't see all the applications but I know that once a situation is brought to my personal attention, I can personally assure you it will be scrutinized."
The 90 percent requirement began in the last two years, said Joseph Yeldell, the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and chairman of his department's special events task force.
"Ninety percent is fair because of the noises, rides, vendors and music taking place within a residential community," he said. "You can't get everybody to agree but we feel 90 percent means the event has overwhelming support."
Organizers for both the Hispanic Festival and the more recent Adams-Morgan Day events said they were unsure how many signatures made up 90 percent of their festival site neighborhood but that they worked hard to get everyone to sign.
Yeldell said the experience of the 17th Street festival organizers made him realize that there is a need for a written guide for festival organizers.
"We will publish specific guidelines and require that the task force has 60 days' notice of any planned festival," he said.