By Dan Hust
BETHEL The much-feared unruly hordes descending on Bethel for the Phish concerts never materialized over the Memorial Day weekend.
In fact, many locals and guests are eager for those three busy, profitable days to be repeated.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” crowed Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm this week. “I think the entire county benefitted economically.”
“We had a great weekend,” added Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA) President Roberta Byron-Lockwood. “We truly set the summer off to a great start ... and we think we made quite the impact [on visitors].”
And they on Sullivan County. With virtually every lodging establishment booked that weekend and an expected 20,000-strong crowd at the sold-out Phish season-opening concerts at Bethel Woods, officials and residents were concerned the area would be rife with traffic jams, serious crime and obnoxious people.
There were some drug arrests, and Sturm said camping violations will be issued this week, but overall, leaders of the effort were glowing.
In fact, things went so smoothly that the county only opened its temporary emergency operations center Friday night.
“Last weekend was an absolute success in terms of public safety,” affirmed County Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic. “... [Everyone] behaved in an excellent manner.”
“The crowd was very respectful, very peaceful,” observed Undersheriff Eric Chaboty.
He was pleased that the months of planning amongst law enforcement agencies, emergency responders, the town and Bethel Woods turned into a well-coordinated effort.
“Our plans came together beautifully,” he said.
“It’s music to our ears when a plan comes together,” agreed Darlene Fedun, Bethel Woods’ chief operating officer. “Extensive preconcert meetings and preparations were well worth the effort. We enjoyed the full cooperation and had a great team of county and state organizations working together, from the State Police, Sheriff’s, environmental and emergency services, to our business community including the Visitors Association, Sullivan County Chamber, transportation and lodging groups.”
The concerts were well-received too, and not just by Phish fans.
“We found Phish to be one of the smoothest and most professional touring organizations on the road today,” added Fedun. “Production was flawless, and tour security was very helpful in the pre-planning process.”
Traffic was surprisingly modest on Route 17B for most of the weekend, which several officials attributed to the presence of buses transporting fans from their campsites and hotels to Bethel Woods.
“The usual traffic for a concert of that type was nonexistent,” said Chaboty.
“Fifty people on a bus represents 25 cars [off the road],” pointed out Martinkovic. “Those buses took the edge off.”
Camping was an issue
The influx of people, however, outstripped local hotels’ and motels’ capacities, and while some residents offered legal camping opportunities to Phishgoers, a variety of campsites were deemed illegal.
Chaboty said campers were booted from Lake Superior State Park Thursday night, as the park never allows camping.
Sturm indicated close to half a dozen property owners in the Town of Bethel will be ticketed for allowing more campers on their property than their temporary camping permits permitted.
Roy Howard and Jeryl Abramson, who own the original Max Yasgur farmstead, are among those slated to get ticketed, said Sturm.
He didn’t have exact numbers on any of the cases (though at press time, 10 alleged violations we’re served).
“We are still working on it,” he said yesterday. “But we have adequate evidence, and we have plenty of photos.”
Abramson confirmed she plans to challenge the town’s citations, stating that the campers on her and Howard’s land mostly vendors who set up shop at the Phish concerts came in below the 250 people for which they were permitted.
“We have aerial photos and wristband counts,” she explained yesterday. “Our attendance was under 200 people.”
Parking an issue, too
There’s been a lot of fingerpointing this week about who was responsible for letting people park along Yasgur Road, a town street that doubles as the couple’s driveway.
Prior to Friday’s concert, dozens of cars were parked on the sides of the road, even though, like 17B, it featured “no parking” signs.
According to several online posters, Abramson’s son Zach told people they could do so, but Abramson denies such.
“The Sheriff’s [Office] told everyone they could park there and no one would be towed,” she recalled.
“That’s not true,” countered Chaboty. “None of the deputies I spoke to knew anything about it.”
He said the same rumor of “permission to park” was said about troopers, but the Bethel constables had jurisdiction and were the ones who enforced the “no parking” rule.
However, that happened after the cars’ owners had gone to the concert, when 28 cars were towed away.
“We begged them to let us push the cars on to our grass, and the town wouldn’t let us,” lamented Abramson, who ended up sheltering around three dozen young people in her home overnight as a result.
She called the town’s action “cowardly,” while son Zach believes it was life-threatening. He related a tale of an epileptic who had kept his medicine in his car, and after being unable to retrieve it, suffered a seizure.
“Here it is, four in the morning, and this kid is having a seizure in our living room because his car got towed,” Zach said in frustration.
He added, however, that the young man was transported to Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris and recovered.
Still, those visitors who had their cars towed were charged varying amounts to get them back.
“Under the circumstances,” said Abramson, “these people could not have been more rational, polite, appreciative and frustrated because of what’s happened in this town.”
Sturm disagreed, arguing that the parked cars prevented emergency access.
“The road was impassable,” he stated.
The situation arose in part because Howard and Abramson abruptly cancelled their planned events on Thursday, telling many of those who arrived that they could not stay on their property.
“I feel the town used us. They set us up for this,” Abramson remarked, referring to comments previously made by Sturm that the couple would be fined for every violation. “How are we supposed to open under those circumstances?”
Sturm replied that the town and the SCVA efficiently handled the cancellation, which caused upwards of 100 people an hour to call his office searching for alternative accommodations.
“We found camping for every one of them [who called],” Sturm said. “I’m in awe of what they [the Visitors Association] did.”
“Really? Does that include the parking lot of Wal-Mart?” Abramson questioned.
“I don’t understand the business sense of the elected officials in this town,” she concluded. “They could have let it go this time so we could work it out. ... [Instead] they had us in a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation.”
She promised refunds are forthcoming to disappointed, sometimes angry, Phish fans who planned to camp on her land.
“I would rather pay back every cent to the Phish fans than give money to this town,” she stated.
But the matter is headed to court in the next few weeks, and in the meantime, Abramson is not eager to repeat the weekend.
“I’m not going to open my property up to the public anymore,” she said, “not until we get this resolved.”
Sturm, on the other hand, said he looks forward to future sold-out shows at Bethel Woods.
“We were prepared for the worst and hoped for the best,” he said, “and I think we got the best.”