Judge allows Burning Man lawsuit against Pershing County to move ahead 

click to enlarge A dancer juggles fire as a 52-foot tall wooden man as it goes up in flames September 2, 2000 during the15th annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert. - DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • David McNew/Getty Images file photo
  • A dancer juggles fire as a 52-foot tall wooden man as it goes up in flames September 2, 2000 during the15th annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert.

A federal judge ruled that a lawsuit against Pershing County, Nev., by the organizers of Burning Man can move forward.

Judge Robert Jones on Friday denied Pershing County’s motion to dismiss the entire lawsuit, which Black Rock City LLC, the nonprofit that organizes the yearly event, filed in August over a new fee for the festival.

“The ordinance is nothing more than the county’s thinly veiled attempt to exact more fees or drive the internationally renowned art event out of Nevada,” said Raymond Allen, who does government relations and legal affairs for Burning Man.

Burning Man has been held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada since 1991, and in all those years, except for 2007, it has been on land that is under the administration of the federal Bureau of Land Management. The U.S. Department of the Interior agency issues a federal permit annually, which costs Burning Man about $1.5 million, according to festival organizers. The permit also mandates that the festival contract with Pershing County to cover law enforcement costs.

But an ordinance put into place last year levies new fees against Burning Man that include the law enforcement costs and more. Festival organizers sued, arguing that Burning Man has had a deal with the Pershing County Sheriff's Office since 2006 to cover actual expenses that were incurred because of the event. Burning Man organizers say the new festival fee does not adhere to that deal, and instead charges fees that are not tied to expenses for the Sheriff's Office.

Larry Harvey, executive director and co-founder of Burning Man, previously said that the increased fee, which could cost between $600,000 and $800,000 this year under the festival ordinance, “makes it very hard to continue doing business in northern Nevada.”

On Monday, Burning Man organizers and their legal team hailed the ruling.

“The judge’s ruling is a major victory for Burning Man,” said Black Rock City general counsel Terry Gross. “The county attempted to dismiss the entire case, and the court denied that as to all critical claims.”

The legal battle is moving forward at the same as a bill in the Nevada Legislature that would exempt federal land from any local ordinances.

The Nevada Assembly passed the bill authored by Assemblyman David Bobzien on April 23; it would prevent local municipalities from enacting fees on events that are held on federal land. A Senate committee is expected to take up the legislation next week.

mbillings@sfexaminer.com

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