Fencing Paso Wine Festival may risk city deed
July 28, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A six-foot-high chain link fence erected around the perimeter of Paso Robles City Park for the city’s annual Wine Festival appears to contravene a key component of the benefactor’s original deed requirements.
Event sponsors and officials, however, say they remain unconcerned and plan no changes.
James Blackburn, brother of Daniel D. Blackburn, one of Paso Robles’ founders, gave the land to the city for use as a public park in 1886. One of the grantor’s requirements for transfer of the deed to the city was that the parkland always be available for public access and use. Violation of the deed’s provisions would jeopardize the city’s 122-year stewardship of the property and could even cause the park’s ownership to revert to the grantor or his heirs.
Any commercial use of the park is specifically prohibited, according to one of James Blackburn’s granddaughters. Carolyn Maxwell wrote to city officials in August 1947, at a time when the very same issue was being debated in a much smaller Paso Robles.
Mrs. Maxwell addressed the question in her letter and said her opinion was shared by her sister, Maymie Burns. The letter read in part: “I have been asked if there were any restrictions as to what [the city] could do in the park. The park was given to the city of Paso Robles when the town was laid out for park purposes only. It is not to be commercialized in any way. If such should happen, it [the park] would revert to the original owner or heirs. Knowing the interest that the people of Paso Robles have for the park, I would not want to see them make a mistake.”
The fence has been part of the festival for the past two years, and the event has undergone significant and controversial changes during that period.
In previous years, the Wine Festival was an open event, with park access for all, and participation in festival tasting was by ticket purchase. At the outset, seven tastes from different wineries was the limit. That limit was later increased to 10 as the number of North County wineries mushroomed.
In 2007, sponsors of the Wine Festival– with City Council endorsement – made several significant changes to the event, including the fence; tiered admission prices ranging from $55 to $125; prohibitions against baby strollers and ice chests; and initiation of an all-you-can-drink policy for top-pier ticket holders. The event evolved from pedestrian and public to patrician and private.
Many of the festival’s changes have generated controversy among many local business owners, but none have had more impact than the fence, and what some are calling the “the drink-‘til-you-drop theme.” A number of restaurants, saloons and other businesses adjacent to the park close down during the festival rather than deal with human fallout from the event.
“They get drunk over at the park and then want to use our facilities. Every year some of them throw up on our premises,” said Ron French, co-owner of the historic Pine Street Saloon, one of the businesses that shutters during the wine event.
Paso Robles city officials work with a wine and tourism industry panel called the Wine Festival Committee to plan and operate the festival. Fencing the Wine Festival is attributed to lobbying by two committee members, the late Tom Vaughn and Paso Robles attorney Tom Madden, during lengthy discussions about adapting the festival to the future. Madden said the decision was “a communal one.”
“We all decided to make the event more pleasurable for those coming to the Wine Festival. It just makes it a whole lot more manageable,” said Madden. “People were even bringing their own alcohol under the old rules. We’ve come a long way” since the festival started in 1983.
Madden said he doesn’t see the park’s fencing or use during the Wine Festival as a commercial enterprise.
“We don’t sell a product. The purpose is to promote the Paso Robles area,” he said. “This is not an abusive audience. We have had no history of that. This is a very sophisticated audience, people who want to educate themselves about Paso Robles wine. There is no problem for police.”
One longtime Paso Robles resident said there is room for reasonable disagreement about the fenced festival.
“It is and it isn’t (a commercial use of the park],” said Dick Reddick, former owner and editor of the Paso Robles Press. “I do not like to see government facilities misused. But in this case… well, you’ve got strong arguments on both sides, very strong.”
Reddick reported on early meetings in 1983 when plans for the original Wine Festival were discussed.
“It was a little different then, when we only had a few wineries,” said Reddick recently. (Seventeen wineries poured at the first event; this year, there were 99.) “At that time, everyone was interested in it, seeing it as a good way to help the town. It would help the tourist income, people thought, and it certainly has. It was a good idea and project back in the beginning.”
Reddick said he understands why some people are upset by the Wine Festival’s fencing of the park.
“Is the Wine Festival a commercial use? Yes, it is,” he said. “But there are other factors to be considered. The event certainly is important to employment, and to the progress and prosperity of the area. If another location would be better, I don’t know.”
Christopher Taranto, communications director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said he “certainly understands” why some residents might be unhappy about the fence, and that the decision to fence the park was “made by the City Council.”
“We presented it to the city. Then it was up to them to make their decision,” said Taranto. He said the grantors of the original park deed “probably didn’t envision anything like the Wine Festival. It would have been hard to imagine back then what this event would become.”