Part of the light display at the Cambria Christmas Market in 2019. Photo by Theresa-Marie Wilson
The Cambria Christmas Market will return this holiday season, but for some folks it isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.
The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission, on Oct. 22, approved a permit to extend the Cambria Christmas Market through the end of the 2021 holiday season with a few caveats.
“There is an enforcement problem; we write good conditions, and if adhered to, they seem reasonable,” said Commissioner Michael Multari, representing District 2 covering Cambria. “The question is, are they indeed adhere to. We have to be sure that the applicant, in fact, acts in good faith to comply with them. There seems to be some doubt over the course of the history of this event, substantial evidence, that that’s not the case. That’s my only hesitancy about this, not my only hesitancy, but that’s the primary one. I think staff has done the right thing coming up with the balance between the popularity of the event and the impacts on the neighborhood with very extensive conditions including these revised ones. I will support the expansion of this for one year.”
The event takes place on the grounds at the Cambria Pines Lodge, operated by Pacific Cambria, LLC, and the adjacent Cambria Nursery. It was canceled last year, when the previous 5-year permit would have expired, due to the pandemic.
It features 2 million twinkling Christmas lights, complete with themed vignettes, visits from Santa, fire pits, food and drink and an authentic open-air German Christmas Market selling many handcrafted and specialty items.
Although thousands of people attend the market yearly arriving at the lodge by the busload, not everyone wants to see the festivities return this year. Russell Read, a Cambria resident and attorney, started an online petition, Stop 2021 Cambria Lodge Christmas Market, on Change.org. It states, in part, that the market would be a COVID-19 superspreader event that will endanger the public.
“It advertises [the] event to out-of-county residents and provides a fleet of buses to transport them,” the petition states. “Applicant wants attendees to be crowded shoulder to shoulder. This is a perfect environment for the spread of COVID.”
The approved permit stipulates that maximum attendance on any given night shall not exceed 3,000 guests using a ticket-based system to track the number. That number falls below the increased restrictions that come with what is considered a mega event of 10,000 or more people. Violation of the daily maximum attendance or failure to implement a ticket-based system (or equivalent) is grounds for permit revocation.
Further, the application allows for 26 temporary vendor booths with increased spacing between them. The structures are required to be dismantled and removed at the conclusion of the event.
“The current operation of the market has been updated to provide more spaced out vendor booths for the enjoyment of light installations,” Project Manager Nicole Ellis told the Commission. “Staff is supportive of the layout, whereby the more spaced out vendor booths better encourages physical distancing.”
Victor Montgomery, of the firm RRM Design Group representing Pacific Cambria, added, “The owners of the event and the lodge have already contacted the County Health Department to talk about the event. They understand the regulations that are in place and are applicable to the event. Those regulations do not preclude having this event.”
Employees are required to wear a facemask. The event is outdoors and county mandates on masks at this time only apply to indoor events. Facial coverings are required on busses and shuttles.
The petition adds that the market is bad for local businesses that are already having a tough time in 2021 with pandemic restrictions. “Reducing their Christmas sales while at the same time giving the applicant a free pass to capture tourist dollars is unfair and inequitable.”
“You don’t bring customers to a community and then complain that you have too many customers,” said Multari.
Traffic congestion, noise, and trash are also issues listed in the petition. “Local residents wishing to reach Burton via Yorkshire confront applicant’s rude and threatening guards who block them from the public road. Running this gauntel [gauntlet] is the extreme opposite of Christmas spirit. Locals must also deal with noise and trash left in market’s wake.”
The approved permit allows shuttle buses to only use Burton Drive, Patterson Place, Highway One, Santa Rosa Creek Road, and Main Street. It restricts event parking on the following county roads: Burton Drive, Eton Road, Martindale Street, Patterson Place, Rogers Street, Yorkshire Street and Wood Drive.
The online petition had 212 signatures. The Commission also received letters objecting to the market citing excessive water usage, more vendor booths than stated, more attendees than stated, parking and noise among other complaints.
Initially, event organizers wanted to increase the market’s days of operation from five days a week to seven, expand the shuttle and bus routes, extend operational hours and add up to 15 more vendor booths. Finally, Pacific Cambria requested that the permit period cover 10 years rather than the current five years.
As it stands, the decision by the Planning Commission could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors and then the California Coastal Commission. Pacific Cambria, LLC currently has a separate application for a longer term permit that requires an additional hearing.
The market runs Nov. 26 through Dec. 24 at the Cambria Pines Lodge, 2905 Burton Drive, and Cambria Nursery & Florist, 2801 Eton Road. It is open Wednesday through Sunday (and all of Christmas week) from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more details and ticket information, go to cambriachristmasmarket.com.