Country fest traffic paralyzes Walpole

The delayed opening of parking lots at Gillette Stadium for a country music concert led to problems for Walpole.
The delayed opening of parking lots at Gillette Stadium for a country music concert led to problems for Walpole.
George Rizer for the Boston Globe

A safety plan that required parking lots at Gillette Stadium to remain closed until three hours before the New England Country Music Festival last weekend made a mess in Walpole, the town’s police chief said.

Despite warnings not to do so, tens of thousands of fans arrived early to the Foxborough concert venue for the Friday and Saturday night shows. The result was traffic backlogs that clogged side streets and intersections for hours until the stadium’s lots were opened, officials said.

According to Police Chief Richard Stillman, who leads the 40-plus member Walpole Police Department, the safety measure devised jointly by stadium management and local and State Police agencies is meant to curb binge drinking at tailgating parties.

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But last weekend, the rule ended up encouraging patrons stuck in gridlock to get a jump on drinking while trapped in their cars, he said.

Subsequently, partyers — including a busload of young men — resorted to answering nature’s call on the roadside, Stillman said.

“It’s a fallacy to think that closing the lots keeps people from drinking,’’ he said. “They are just drinking wherever they are.’’

The massive traffic jam stretched as far as the eye could see on both sides of busy Route 1, and then further to the Norwood line, Stillman said. Gridlock wasn’t as bad in Foxborough, but was still an issue, said Selectwoman Lynda Walsh.

But clearly, Walsh said, concertgoers just ignored the warnings, and despite the town’s hard line on public intoxication, many abused the rules anyway.

The festival, which roars into town every August, was headlined this year by country music superstars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. It has become infamous for the scores of partyers who pound alcoholic drinks in the parking lot and then barely make it through the gates before they are corralled into holding areas to sober up.

The event illustrates how Gillette Stadium can transform the character of Foxborough.

“We are a small suburban police agency that 99 percent of the time is dealing with small suburban issues,’’ said Foxborough Police Chief Edward O’Leary. “But 15 to 20 days a year, we have to function differently.”

According to O’Leary, 467 patrons of the country fest were taken into protective custody during the two-day event, and another 102 were charged criminally with infractions ranging from public intoxication and assault and battery to underage drinking and disorderly conduct.

“I was very concerned about the impact on Walpole, and I feel very badly it had those kinds of problems,’’ said O’Leary, who heads up security operations with the stadium, State Police, and local patrols.

However, the evidence from last weekend indicates that the parking lot restrictions are working in Foxborough. According to Town Manager Kevin Paicos, “Custodies were down 20 percent from last year.”

To combat bathroom emergencies, Foxborough officials installed a series of portable toilets on Route 140 at a site also staffed by a deputy sheriff.

“That way, if people were in urgency, they had a place to go,’’ O’Leary said.

Although traffic was an issue, he said the parking lot plan worked well overall, as did procedures for crowd control that officers practiced at last week’s Bruce Springsteen concert and Patriots football game.

Stillman, on the other hand, said officials of the Kraft Group, which owns the stadium, may want to extend the parking lot hours or revisit an idea to create a dedicated exit ramp for the stadium from nearby Interstate 95.

Anything would be better, since Walpole receives no financial benefit from the stadium, yet suffers most of its headaches, Stillman said.

“The system in place was a complete failure,” he said.

Foxborough and Walpole officials will meet soon with stadium management to discuss what worked and what didn’t, said Jeff Cournoyer, a spokesman for the Kraft Group.

“For every major event, we work with Foxborough police and State Police on a traffic plan,’’ he said. “Afterward, we review the results with all parties to identify possible improvements moving forward.”

Cournoyer had no comment on the Walpole chief’s suggestions.

At the same time as the traffic and alcohol woes were gaining headlines, there wasn’t much to report on a new Foxborough bylaw that prevents residents from charging patrons a fee to park on their property. “People were very good,’’ said Foxborough Building Commissioner William Casbarra. “We didn’t have to cite anybody.”

The bylaw that narrowly passed muster at Foxborough’s latest Town Meeting was upheld last week by the state attorney general’s office. It calls for a $100 fine for each car that is illegally parked on residential property near the stadium.

Residents were formerly allowed to collect fees for parking up to 10 cars on their lawns and driveways in the North Street area without a commercial parking license. But increased health and safety risks, according to town officials, put an end to the practice.

During the Patriots’ preseason football game last week, Casbarra said he was waved in to at least 11 properties that were still trying to park cars for cash, despite the new law.

The real test will come during football season, he said.

“Yes, it was fairly uneventful, thank you very much,’’ Casbarra said of the country music festival. “But we’ll see what happens. Someone will push the envelope. It’s all about the money.”