Though the WayHome music festival has come to a close this year, a fight to protect the land it resides on has only just begun.

The three-day event, which this year took place on July 22 to July 24, gathered more than 35,000 festival goers to Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in the small rural township of Oro Medonte, just north of Barrie.

But a group of Oro Medonte residents say that this is the second time that Burl’s Creek has carried out the event without proper permits.

And they’re about to do it again – announcing the dates for its 2017 edition on Monday.

“When will our local and provincial leaders stand up to this multi-million dollar concert company, enforce the law and protect the people who live here year round,” Wendy McKay, a resident of Oro Medonte and spokesperson for the Save Oro group, said in a news release.

“Burl’s Creek is disrupting our lives and is doing it without even getting the proper permits to stage their events. How is this fair?”

Burl’s Creek stretches approximately 526 acres, according to a document released by the Township of Oro Medonte titled “2016 Specical Events Permits for Burl’s Creek Event Grounds.”

Of that, 92 acres are zoned for private recreational special events as Burl’s Creek Event Grounds.

The remaining 424 acres are zoned as rural and agricultural land, some of which have been issued environmental protection.

Back in June, Oro Medonte’s township staff was tasked with deciding whether or not to amend the township’s special event by-law to accommodate the masses expected to camp on site.

On July 6, just a few weeks before the beginning of WayHome, the council granted two special events permits to Burl’s Creek owners for the 2016 festival season – encompassing both WayHome and the four-day country music event also on the grounds, Boots and Hearts music festival on Aug. 4 to 7. 

Both permits applied to the 92 acres of Burl’s Creek zoned as an event space.

But Save Oro says the remaining unpermitted 424 acres housed thousands of tents and vehicles over the WayHome festival weekend as a campground extension of the music festival.

“We found out the township made a zoning change without consulting the neighbours or the local farmers and went ahead with the events. Of course people complained,” McKay told CTV Toronto.

David Donnelly, a lawyer representing Save Oro, says that this is the second year in a row the festival has broken zoning laws.

“Last year, the Township of Oro Medonte issued the same concert permit and WayHome festival organizers broke the law again by staging illegal parking, camping and concession booths on the unpermitted 424 acres of Burl’s Creek,” Donnelly told CTV Toronto.

“Nowhere in the world can you go into a town’s municipal office and say, ‘give me a special events permit. I know I broke the law last year but give me another so I can break the law again.’”

The group claims the township is turning a blind eye to the zoning violations.

“The concert promotors and landowners knowingly went ahead with the festival even though camping, parking and concession on that part of the land was illegal,” Donnelly said. “It’s rural and agricultural land and you can’t use it for anything other than agricultural reasons.”

Legal grey area

In April 2014, Burl’s Creek Event Grounds applied for a temporary use bylaw – which would have made all acres of the property legal for the concert.

The Ontario Municipal Board began the hearing in June 2016 but ultimately decided to postpone it until mid-October 2016.

John Mascarin, the lawyer representing the Township of Oro Medonte, says the unfinished hearing has allowed WayHome and Boots and Hearts festivals to operate in a “legal grey area.”

“If the OMB comes back and says, ‘we are not granting you use of this space’ then it (WayHome) would be operating under illegal use,” Mascarin told CTV Toronto.

“However, if the OMB says, ‘you have proved your case and you are entitled to carry out (the festival) on a temporary basis,’ then that approval reverts back to the date they filed the initial application – which would be before this year’s festival.”

Mascarin says charges were brought against the owners of Burl’s Creek Event Grounds for previous large scale events on the grounds, including a flea market. According to Mascarin, a $200,000 fine was imposed and is expected to be paid by October of this year.

“The OMB adjourning the matter and not being able to carry out the completion prior to the beginning of the festival – that’s what leaves this up in the air.”

Burl's Creek an archaeological site

Part of the hearing saw The Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport oppose the temporary use bylaw because of “portions of the Burl’s Creek Event Grounds still require archaeological assessment” for sacred aboriginal or cultural remains.

“Temporary uses such as overnight camping, parking concession booths, recreational soccer fields pose risks to potential archaeological sites, through their associated impacts on the ground such as driving, electrical installations, landscaping, and goal post installations,” a letter issued in 2015 by the OMTCS regarding Burl’s Creek Event Grounds reads.

“To date, the Township has declined to prosecute any of the concerts,” a release by Save Oro issued Monday reads.

“The provincial government has also refused to step in, even though it claims that the protection of prime agricultural land is a priority and even though the Ministries of Municipal Affairs, Agriculture and Tourism are all on record as opposing the concerts.”

Residents divided over issue

But not all Oro Medonte residents are on board.

David McKee, a 47-year resident of the township, is a member of Save Burl’s Creek – a group that not only welcomes the events held at Burl’s Creek but fragrantly opposes the Save Oro initiative.

“Burl’s Creek is really, really good for the local economy. It’s huge,” 74-year-old Mckee said.

“They bring in about 80 to 90,000 people into this local area yearly. All of the hotels in Barrie are full. All of the hotels in Orillia are full. From a resident’s perspective, Burl’s Creek brings millions of dollars and thousands of jobs into the area every year.”

McKee says Saves Oro is exaggerating the support they have received from residents about Burl’s Creek.

“I think very few people were disturbed this past weekend,” McKee said of WayHome. “I went. It was quite incredible. I mean, if you’ve ever seen 30,000 kids all dancing around enjoying themselves. It was great… Very well organized.”

The atmosphere fostered by WayHome might be the only thing these opposing groups can agree on.

McKay expressed similar sentiments about the festival. She added that any complaints from Save Oro derive strictly from the use of agricultural land and are not related to the attendees that bought tickets.

“All those kids that showed up for WayHome – nicest kids possible. They could have been my children or grandkids or nieces or nephews,” McKay said.

“Yes, we had issues with them walking down the road really drunk early in the morning but it was more about worry because half of them didn’t know where they were. I’m not against music festivals.”

Though Organizers with WayHome did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter, a spokesperson for Burl’s Creek Event Grounds told CTV Toronto that the “main entertainment space” for the festival has been “zoned accordingly” and that they’ve cooperated with the township since the beginning.

“Having applied for temporary rezoning in April 2014, we expected our OMB hearing to be completed prior to this festival season. Unfortunately, that is not the case,” a statement from Ryan Howes, of Burl’s Creek, said.

“Burl's Creek and Republic Live are pleased with the economic and tourism benefits added to the region by WayHome and Boots and Hearts…We will continue to work cooperatively with the township of Oro-Medonte in order to continue supporting local tourism and the regional economy."

On Monday, WayHome announced dates for the 2017 edition of the festival at Burl’s Creek Event Grounds.

“They do not have any permits for 2017. That will be dealt with on a go-forward basis. The township will take into consideration what happened last weekend and what happens with Boots and Hearts festival in the coming weeks. That will factor into what happens next year,” Mascarin said.

“But the most important thing is what the OMB decides, and that we won’t know for some time.”