BURNETTOWN - The annual Horse Creek/Midland Valley Sassafras Festival kicks off tonight in Burnettown, where it's being held for the 11th year in a row despite complaints from some residents and business owners.
While the festival is traditionally enjoyed by thousands, its growing popularity and the large crowds that followed have proved too much for some residents.
Just weeks after last year's festival along a closed off portion of South Carolina Highway 421, a Carline Road resident filed a nuisance petition complaining of litter, noise, traffic, safety and other issues.
At a Town Council meeting in October, co-owners of the Cheatham Funeral home, which is located along a stretch of Highway 421 closed to traffic during the festival, made similar complaints and threatened to sue to put a stop to the event at that location.
The event features arts and crafts, food vendors, carnival rides, a car show and a parade.
Funeral home owner Horace Cheatham said he roped off his property to deter trespassers but that people attending the festival urinated and defecated there, littered and even had sex behind his building. He told the council he had a film supporting his complaints, but he never showed it to officials, authorities said.
An ad hoc committee of council members and residents created to address the complaints voted in December to continue the festival this year. Mr. Cheatham didn't attend that meeting, and Burnettown Mayor Wayne Benson says he hasn't heard from him since the original protest.
"I think everything just died away," Mr. Benson said.
The town, however, has taken extra steps this year to address concerns. Three fire trucks will be on standby during the festival, stationed on Carline Road and Highway 421. Emergency routes have been planned.
In addition, no parking will be allowed on Carline Road from Burnett Street to beyond Sassafras Park, except for handicapped parking in a lot along the park's fence line.
A shuttle will be available to take festival-goers between a parking area at Willie Whaley Park and Sassafras Park. Highway 421 will be closed to traffic between Kimble and Burnett streets, and motorists will be detoured one block to the south.
Mr. Benson said security will be provided, as usual, by the Burnettown Police Department, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office and possibly the South Carolina National Guard, if it is available.
"If there is a problem, please contact me and let me know," the mayor said. "If you don't tell me, I don't know."
He said it's a misconception that a lot of trouble occurs among the 12,000 to 15,000 people who typically attend the festival.
"We don't probably make an average of three (arrests)," Mr. Benson said.
No alcohol is sold or allowed in Sassafras Park, but it is allowed along Highway 421. Admission to the event is free.
"If you spend money it's because you want to spend money," the mayor said.
Reach J.C. Lexow at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.