Special Event Permits: A Useful Tool

In the 1800s, it was not at all unusual for traveling revival meetings to go from town to town, setting up huge tents for outdoor events led by the famous preachers of the day. These events could be held over several days and brought hundreds of people together in one place to hear sermons and lectures. The circus was also popular for many years as traveling entertainment, moving from town to town, bringing hundreds of circus performers, workers and animals to put on the show and also visitors to town to see the show.

Today, although traveling revivals and circuses are not as common as in years past, there are still many special events held throughout the year. Many towns and cities encourage a variety of special events as a way to showcase their community as a great place to live and raise a family and as a place to locate a business. Successful special events bring visitors to the community who in turn support local businesses. Special events can also bring locals together and foster a positive sense of community. For all these reasons, managing special events with a system of permitting will help to ensure that the event is safe and enjoyable for participants and attendees.

Q. Where does the authority to license or permit special events come from?

A. There are several sources of authority for licensing, depending on the type of event being considered. RSA Chapter 286 authorizes the selectmen of a town or licensing board of a city to issue licenses for theatrical or dramatic presentations, circus-type events, parades and processions on public streets or ways and for open-air public meetings to be conducted within the municipality. RSA 31:100 provides that the selectmen of a town or governing body of a city may grant a license to any person or persons to use and occupy a portion of any street or sidewalk for the purpose of conducting street fairs or other community events. The selectmen’s authority to manage town property pursuant to RSA 41:11-a allows them to grant a permit for use of town property, when not needed for public use. RSA 155:18 requires a license for indoor places of public assembly including events in tents when there are 50 or more people. Finally, planning and zoning related regulations and the authority to adopt ordinances under RSA 160-B:3, I(b). (For more information on the regulation of fireworks, see "Municipal Regulation of Fireworks" in the June 2008 issue of New Hampshire Town and City.)

Q. Why should a municipality require permits for special events?

A. The permitting process will enable local officials to anticipate and plan for municipal services that may be impacted when special events are held. Public safety officials like police and fire chiefs can plan for adequate coverage when they know that an influx of people to the town can be expected. Plans for parking, traffic control, crowd control and emergency medical services can be addressed. Local businesses can better plan staffing and ordering of food and inventory when they are aware that a special event permit has been issued. Perhaps most importantly for local officials during the event, a permitting process will give local officials a “point person" to whom they can go if a problem arises during the event that needs attention.

Q. Should police coverage be required at these events?

A. The issue of police coverage should always be considered and, in some cases, the law requires that an application for police attendance be made. Any person who intends to conduct a public dance, circus or carnival must make application for police attendance for the function. RSA 105:9, I. The police chief, subject to the written approval of the governing body, reviews the application to determine if police attendance is necessary. If so, he or she will assign the officers needed to the event and the applicant must pay for the services of the officers. Even if an application for police coverage is not required by statute, consideration should be given to having adequate police presence in and around the event, even if it means only that the officer on duty will make an effort to patrol that area more often than usual.

Q. What criteria should the police use to determine whether police coverage is required?

A. If the police chief determines that any public meeting or function may potentially involve traffic-related problems, lead to a public disturbance or public nuisance or endanger public health, safety or welfare, he or she is authorized to require police coverage. RSA 105:9, III.

Q. If a special event application is submitted by a group that the selectmen feel will be “trouble makers," can they deny the permit?

A. Denying an application based on the viewpoints of the group or because of perceived negative reaction to the group’s message by the public is likely a violation of the First Amendment provisions of freedom of speech, religion and assembly. A thorough discussion of the constitutional implications of municipal permitting is beyond the scope of this article. But be aware that treating all applications fairly and equally is critical to avoid claims of discrimination and constitutional violations. Evaluation of applications for special event permits should be made based on the written standards set out in regulations in place for authorizing the permit and not on whether the permitting authority agrees or disagrees with the group’s message.

Q. Is there a special form that must be used for the permit or can verbal approval be given?

A. A special events permit must in writing and should be forwarded to those town officials with a need to know about the event. It should also be placed on file with the town clerk. There is no required form by statute, so the permitting authority may create a form that it deems appropriate. Issues like contact person, date of the event, starting and ending times, location, numbers of expected attendees, a description of the event, and confirmation of receipt of any state permits that may be required are some of the areas that should be covered within the application. A sample special events application form is available in the LGC publication Special Events Planning Guidebook.

Q. Can a fee be charged for a permit?

A. Yes, but it must be reasonable and related to the approximate expense to the municipality of issuing the permit and making inspections to ensure compliance. Permitting fees should not be looked upon as vehicles to raise revenues, or to discourage one group or another from applying for a permit. RSA 286:4-a.


Special events permits can be a useful tool for town officials to employ to ensure that events are conducted in a safe and orderly fashion. Special events can add much to the community in the way of fostering a sense of pride, as well as offering varied opportunities for entertainment and learning. Permits can be a guide to ensure these events are successful.