A few weeks ago, a man named Kary Johnson called the Independent with an unusual complaint: Police, he said, had threatened his friends and him with a ticket, or even arrest, if they were caught barbecuing again in America the Beautiful Park.
Which came as a bit of a shocker. Grilling isn't exactly an unusual occurrence at the park. Families do it. A ministry that comes to the park on Sunday nights to hand out food to the homeless often brings along its fire pit. And there are no signs posted in the park that say you can't have a grill or a fire.
As far as Johnson knew, he and his buddies were the only ones who'd ever been approached by the police over cooking a few burgers. And he believed there was a reason they were being targeted: Johnson's friends are homeless, and Johnson was too until recently, when he got a room at a hotel.
The explanation Johnson received from police didn't seem to contradict his assumptions. Officers, he said, told him they had received "complaints from concerned citizens."
"It's really and truly getting despicable how [the police] treat people," Johnson told the Indy. "They want to take away everything from these people, it seems like ... You mean to tell me you can't feed yourself out there? That's ridiculous. They say, 'Go to the soup kitchen.' That's not for everyone."
Besides, Johnson asks, since when is it illegal to grill in the park?
That, as it turns out, is a complicated question. There are at least three city laws, two park policies and several precedents that apply to the issue of grills in parks. None of them are identical.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department, for instance, won't tell you to douse your flame unless there's a fire ban, spokesperson Sunny Smaldino says. (And there hasn't been a ban yet this year.)
Meanwhile, Kim King, administration manager at Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, found two parks policies regarding fires. One says, "Charcoal fires are permitted only within a grill. All charcoal fires must be extinguished before the user leaves the park. No wood fires are permitted." Another said, "All fires must be contained in designated grills or fireplace areas." King says she plans to change the conflicting policies to allow for charcoal fires in all charcoal grills (public or private), since it would appear that the City Code indicates they're allowed.
That code, by the way, states: "It is unlawful for any person to build or attempt to build a fire in any park except in areas and in facilities and under regulations as may be promulgated by the Park Manager, provided that this prohibition shall not apply to the use of charcoal in charcoal grills for purposes of preparing a meal."
OK. But in another place, it says: "The presence or use of a campfire, camp stove or other heating source or cooking device" can constitute illegal camping on city land.
And in yet another place, it states: "It is unlawful for any person to conduct open burning activities without a permit as set forth in section 4.108 of the Fire Code as adopted and amended in chapter 8 of this Code. (Ord. 01-42)."
Turns out that "open burning activities," as defined by the International Fire Code, are actually those happening outside an appliance or container, such as a grill, chiminea, or smoker. In other words, no bonfires. No grass fires.
Wood isn't good
Deputy City Attorney Wynetta Massey says the laws don't constitute "a legal conflict." You can burn charcoal in a charcoal grill outside as long as you aren't camping, she says. And obviously, you can't build a bonfire. (Fire Marshal Brett Lacey would add that your grill needs to be 10 feet from any combustible materials.)
All this means that Johnson, who's been unreachable for several weeks, really was in violation of the law — because he was using wood in his grill instead of charcoal.
But Johnson may still have a point related to the whole issue of being singled out.
Danny Schoenfelt is the leader of the ministry mentioned earlier. The group has been handing out McDonald's double cheeseburgers on Sunday nights in America the Beautiful for about two years. Schoenfelt confirms that he brings along a fire pit with mesh sides on winter nights. He had no idea it might be illegal. (While not considered an open fire, the pit does burn wood, an apparent violation of City Code and park department policies.)
At times, Schoenfelt said, members of the mission have had to call the police due to fights among the homeless they serve. Both police and firefighters have shown up, with the pit burning in plain sight. No one ever told him to put it out.
Schoenfelt has also seen Johnson's fires. And he says he doesn't understand what the problem is.
"It's pretty insignificant, if you ask me," he says.