By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
NEW LISBON – County Treasurer Allen Ruffles arrived on the scene Thursday, Oct. 8, to issue a friendly advisory to organizers of the 23rd annual NY Harvest Fest & Freedom Fair/Political Rally.
“We told them they couldn’t stay there,” said Ruffles, who was accompanied by county Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr.
The day before, the county had seized the 144 acres for back taxes, he told owner George Knarich and Rob Robinson, of Damn Sam Productions, the festival’s organizer.
To no avail.
The pro-pot legalization party, billed as a music festival featuring vendors, speakers and acts, including Oneonta’s Cosmic Karma Fire Troupe and attracting an estimated 15,000 revelers, went on as planned, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“They ignored the warnings, so we had to take action,” said Ruffles. “The complaints were just rolling in. The music was too loud. There were hundreds of people. And no one was wearing masks.”
Finally, Monday morning, Oct. 12, Knarich was arrested for trespassing and criminal nuisance, and was issued a hearing notice for promoting a non-essential gathering in time of COVID, a state health code violation.
A warrant had also been issued for Robinson, who was still at large as of Tuesday the 13th. “We haven’t been able to reach him,” said Devlin. “He has ties in Florida and we believe he might have left the area.”
The state violation alone carries a fine of up to $15,000; the criminal charges, a violation and a misdemeanor, respectively, could draw fines or up to 30 days in jail, according to District Attorney John Muehl.
According to Real Property Tax rolls, the 144-acre property, at 278 Allen Road, is owned by Kelly Haitt, Laurens, but Ruffles believes the property has been abandoned for some time.
The Eventbrite listing had Knarich’s address, at the corner of Route 15 and Allen Road, as the venue, “but when you arrived, it directed you up the road to the other property,” he said. “We posted signs, we told people to disperse, but it didn’t happen.”
Though the event was billed as adhering to social-distancing guidelines and asked attendees to wear masks when not in their camping area, the state’s public health law currently prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people.
When they event continued after Ruffles and Devlin departed, the sheriff and his deputies returned to
the property on Saturday evening with a notice of violations.
The attendees were angry, said Ruffles. “The sheriff and state police were parked outside the entrance, monitoring the situation, but they didn’t want to get too close.”
“There were 1,500 people there,” said Devlin. “Going up there with a handful of deputies was not a realistic option.”
According to the sheriff, Knarich disobeyed the order and continued hosting the event, and warrants were issued by New Lisbon Town Court.
For Ruffles, the biggest issue was liability. “We’re not trying to pick on people, but if something did happen, who would be liable?” he said.
With the county having taken control of the property, “if someone were to fall in that pond and drown, it’s county property, and the family could sue us. Then we have to go to the taxpayers and ask them to pay it.”
Meanwhile, county Public Health Director Heidi Bond, was receiving complaints and feared the event could become a super-spreader, much like the SUNY Oneonta parties that infected more than 700 students and one employee.
“Most of the people were from out of state,” she said. “But we’re concerned that local people attended too, and if, for instance, their kids are in school, it could become a big problem very quickly.”
It’s too early to tell if that will happen, she said Monday, Oct. 12, but the Department of Health is prepared to host more free testing sites if cases begin to rise.
“We’re still seeing cases related to the wedding in Oneida County,” she said. “It takes a couple of weeks to see the spread.”
The property, which includes a modular-style home, is listed on the Absolute Auctions website through Thursday, Oct. 15, when bidding closes. The current high bid is $79,000.