County rebuts claims in Burning Man lawsuit

RENO - Pershing County officials are taking exception to claims by Burning Man organizers that a new ordinance that would raise fees is intended to pad the county's coffers and otherwise infringe on the rights of participants at the annual counterculture event.

In a statement issued Friday, the Pershing County Commission said a federal lawsuit filed by Burning Man organizers challenging the county's new ordinance is "replete with misrepresentations, omissions and inaccurate information."

The county's statement came a day after the lawsuit was filed in federal court in Reno by San Francisco-based Black Rock City, LLC. The suit contends the rural county is unfairly applying its festival ordinance and could jeopardize the future of Burning Man, which is already permitted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The annual festival of art and free expression is held on the Black Rock Desert and concludes on Labor Day weekend.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that organizers claim the county's new ordinance will violate Burning Man participants' First Amendment rights while imposing higher fees for county services.

In a statement sent to the newspaper by District Attorney James Shirley, the county said BLM requires Black Rock City "to comply with all state statutes and local ordinances in hosting their event." It added that if there is any duplication of requirements, BLM rules prevail.

County officials cited a statement from Larry Harvey, an original founder of Burning Man, who said Pershing County was trying to "balance its books" through fees charged to Burning Man.

With a normal population of 5,500, officials said Pershing County will have to manage an additional 60,000 people during the festival that this year starts Aug. 27 and ends Sept. 3.

"The residents of Pershing County should not be required to flip the bill for the business conducted by a ($20 million plus) business," the statement said.

In response, organizers said Burning Man has always paid for the county's costs. Commissioners have agreed to charge Black Rock City $400,000 for law enforcement for this year's event. Last year, the charge was $154,000. The increase will boost law enforcement from 26 officers last year to 44 this year.

The ordinance, which wouldn't affect Burning Man until 2013, enables sheriff's deputies to regulate activities they consider to be "obscene, indecent, vulgar, or lewd." The ordinance also could prohibit children from attending.