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The masses in Oro-Medonte: the good, the bad and the grey of hosting WayHome festival

It will get loud. In fact, the noise has already begun.

Preceded by a small but determined racket of protest from some residents of Oro-Medonte, Ont., the three-day WayHome Music and Arts festival is going ahead as planned this weekend at Burl's Creek Event Grounds in the rural township, north of Barrie. The inaugural camping and star-studded music event, which was scheduled to begin Friday, is expected to draw more than 30,000 people to the bucolic setting. Headliners include Kendrick Lamar, Sam Smith, Hozier, St. Vincent and Neil Young – but not everyone is applauding.

"They're going to break the law in a very significant way, to their own very great profit," said David Donnelly, a Toronto environmental lawyer hired by Save Oro, a grassroots group opposed to the rezoning of agricultural and environmentally protected land in the area. "And that offends me as a lawyer and a citizen."

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The heart of the dispute has to do with the 560-acre site, owned by concert promoter Stan Dunford. Only 92 acres are zoned for special events – such hand-fan affairs as agricultural expositions, flea markets and antique shows. One-day concerts, under a previous owner, have been held before as well: mellow folk-pop superstar Jack Johnson in 2008 and Fifty Mission Cap rockers Tragically Hip in 2012.

Given the scope of WayHome (as well as the country music extravaganza Boots and Hearts Music Festival, scheduled for Aug. 6-9), the parking and camping requirements can only be met by utilizing acres zoned for agricultural activity. The breach of a bylaw by the Peterborough, Ont.-based concert promoters will be unavoidable.

It is the sprawl of the grounds that has some local residents concerned. "It's the expansion," said Bruce Wiggins, 69, whose house sits directly across from the massive Burl's Creek site. "And this is not just a one-year event."

Mr. Wiggins is among about 500 other area residents – part of Save Oro and the West Oro Ratepayers' Association (WORA) – worried about the traffic, noise, public safety issues and general upset the festivals might bring. The group will closely monitor the happenings surrounding this weekend's WayHome festival, but has no plans to protest the event.

"We don't want to add to anyone's confusion," said Mr. Wiggins. "We don't want anyone to get hurt."

Burl's Creek representatives have consistently stressed its commitment to work with the township, provincial officials and locals to make the festivals work.

"When you go to rural communities like Oro-Medonte, sometimes there's curiosity and concern from local residents," said Ryan Howes, Burl's Creek vice-president of operations. "But when you're producing a large-scale festival such as Boots and Hearts and WayHome, you bring in a number of qualified professionals from across North America [to deal with the concerns]."

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Burl's Creek recently hosted the 33rd annual Barrie Automotive Flea Market on the lands, with more than 30,000 attendees. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation has approved the traffic plan proposed by Burl's Creek for its events this summer.

When asked to comment on the possible breaching of zoning bylaws this weekend, Mr. Howes released a boilerplate statement that fails to address the contentious issue: "We're focusing on WayHome Music and Arts and ensuring that the upwards of 30,000 people arriving from every province, 28 states and eight countries have a festival experience like no other. Beyond the festivals and their added tourism benefits, we're excited by the unprecedented local response toward Burl's Creek Event Grounds and the improvements we've made to the site."

As for the "unprecedented local response," it is true that not all the denizens of pastoral Oro-Medonte are in a pitchfork mood over Burl's Creek development plans.

"What this has done for the community is extraordinary," said Marc Cohen, 51, owner of the Verandahs B&B by the Lake, minutes from the event grounds. "The community here, so close to the Greater Toronto Area, has the opportunity to work with cultural developments and other things that will boost our economy up here, and to attract people."

Burl's Creek, for example, has partnered with locavore co-op the Karma Project to create the OK Friday Barn Fair, a weekly art and farmers market that teams local growers, vendors and artisans with winemakers, indie musicians and restaurateurs from Toronto and elsewhere.

"This is not disruptive," said Mr. Cohen. "It's a celebration."

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Celebration or not, it is expected that charges will be laid after this weekend's festival. According to Oro-Medonte deputy mayor Ralph Hough, township staff will be on site monitoring activities. "Subsequent to the event, if [Burl's Creek] is in fact in breach of zoning bylaws regarding parking and camping, then charges will be laid," he said.

A twist to the so-called "Battle of Burl's Creek" involves the booking of Neil Young and his backing band Promise of the Real (featuring Willie Nelson's sons) as Friday-night headliners. Mr. Young's latest album, The Monsanto Years, is a protest record against the corporate-farming practices of agrochemical behemoth Monsanto Co.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture opposes using Burl's Creek farmland for camping and parking; Mr. Young was called upon to donate his WayHome performance fee to the Ontario Farmland Trust. "We are asking Neil to join with us in helping preserve our dwindling farmlands and to save Burl's Creek agricultural lands from illegal uses," said Wendy McKay, a spokeswoman for SaveOro and WORA, in a statement.

Recent performances by Mr. Young include environmentally friendly songs Mother Earth (Natural Anthem) and After the Gold Rush, with its warning lyric, "Look at Mother Nature on the run." His concerts include crew members dressed in farmer apparel pretending to plant seeds on the stage. As well, Mr. Young has just released a 10-minute short, Seeding Fear, a documentary on a fourth-generation farmer who took on Monsanto.

Some see Mr. Young's performance at the festival as a betrayal by the co-founder of the Farm Aid concert series. "I'm distraught about this," said the lawyer Mr. Donnelly, who claims he can lip-synch "virtually every one" of the Ohio singer's songs. "This is one of my heroes, and he's trampling our environmental laws and policies that are supposed to protect prime farmland."

Mr. Young did not respond to The Globe's request for a comment, made through his Canadian record label, Warner Music Canada.


An earlier version of this article stated that Burl's Creek Event Grounds is owned by Republic Live. In fact, it is owned by Stan Dunford, who is a majority shareholder in Republic Live.

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