High Springs approves contested event permit

Heart of High Springs received approval from the High Springs City Commission for its weeklong, special event permit at a workshop meeting on Tuesday night.

The commission voted to delay the decision when it first arrived at its Jan. 27 meeting because of strong public interest, and on Tuesday the commission directed City Manager Ashley Stathatos to finalize the permit.

Typically, a special permit application never needs the city commission’s approval. After filtering through a few departments, the city manager has the power to approve a special event permit.

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However, because of the nature of the event and interest it had generated, Stathatos said she wanted to bring it before the commission for discussion.

“We brought this for discussion because it is an item that a lot of people have an opinion on, and we want to be able to have a presentation to let everyone know what the event will entail,” City Attorney Andrea Parker said.

Heart of High Springs is a nonprofit started in 2019. Sharon Yeago, secretary for the board of directors, said the group wants to bolster economic and tourism growth.

One of the primary ways the organization wanted to further its goal was through murals painted around the city. The group planned a collaboration with Walldogs, a nationwide group of artists who paint murals in small, historic towns.

The group is also working to update the High Springs welcome signs and archiving history.

Yeago said residents have begun posting and sending snippets of High Springs history as an unintended consequence of the public discussion on the topic, though divisive. This increase has prompted the Heart of High Springs to also consider how to archive the city’s history.

The original event requested a weeklong permit for March 12-19 with multiple round tables and discussion for how citizens would like to collect, store and remember its history.

The group had also collected around 50 topic ideas for murals that could be painted around town. Heart of High Springs planned to use the public library to display some of these ideas and let the public view them and vote on those they liked—as well as submit their own ideas.

Another part of the event application was a potential mural on the wall of the old school building of Tom “Pop” Diedeman, a longtime local teacher and principal.

However, the city commission would vote on a mural at the school separately from the event permit application. High Springs could approve the event application but deny the mural portion of the week.

Because of the month-long delay in approval, Yeago said the group has had to scrap some ideas. The nonprofit hasn’t been able to confirm experts on historical preservation because the permit has sat in city hall, and with the event now three weeks away, the group will have to pivot.

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Parker outlined the process. For the first item—the special permit—the decision must be made based on the effects to public health and safety.

“The decision has to be content neutral, meaning that any decision made on whether to approve or deny a permit needs to be based on what’s in the permit, not the group who’s applying for the permit,” Parker said.

But most of the public comment that followed dealt with whether or not citizens wanted more murals painted in High Springs and if outside artists, like Walldogs, should help in the process.

Commissioner Katherine Weitz confirmed with Yeago that Walldogs’ artists visiting in 2023 was not a done deal. It would depend on what happens at the first March 12-19 event.

Commissioner Linda Jones said everyone already knew her position.

“It’s my contention still that they didn’t want it known,” Jones said at the meeting. “They’ve kept it underneath the covers and surprise you with things.”

Parker further explained that the commission must vote from a content neutral basis, prompting Jones to clarify.

“Can this commission deny this permit because residents are concerned about what they’re trying to do with the walls in this town?” Jones asked the attorney.

“I would advise against that,” Parker responded. “And the reason is: in this application, they’re not asking to paint or in any way alter city property.”

Jones said she now realized the implications of the city’s permit guidelines, saying the citizens' opinions don’t matter over whether Heart of High Springs can have a special event on city property.

Ultimately, the commission advised the city manager to move the permit forward. But Heart of High Springs did remove the proposed mural of Diedeman from the list of events for the week.

However, Parker said if Heart of High Springs decides to move forward with an effort to paint murals in the city, especially on city property, the commission can vote based on feelings about the murals and their content.

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