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Friday, January 24, 2020

Garden of the Gods draws controversy for fees, drainage project

Posted By on Fri, Jan 24, 2020 at 3:16 PM

click to enlarge Here's an example of a photo shot by a professional photographer using the Garden of the Gods as a backdrop. - COURTESY AMANDA ROBERTS WITH THISTLE AND PINE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy Amanda Roberts with Thistle and Pine Photography
  • Here's an example of a photo shot by a professional photographer using the Garden of the Gods as a backdrop.
By now, it's old news that the city has decided to impose fees for commercial use of Garden of the Gods.

The charges reportedly caught some people by surprise, though the city had posted signs throughout the park last May that a fee was coming. Photographers expressed outrage at the idea of paying $500 a year to use the park as a backdrop for family portraits, wedding photos and the like.

"Five hundred dollars is more than any place in the entire state of Colorado," says professional photographer Amanda Roberts. "Rocky Mountain National Park charges $300."

She notes a petition opposing the fees on change.org drew 20,000 signatures. "We finally got a response back from the city saying they were not implementing it but would be putting a permit process in place. It was like we won but didn't win."

Another thing that rankled some residents was the idea that the Garden of the Gods Visitors Center would collect the fees. The Visitors Center is a limited liability company owned by the nonprofit Garden of the Gods Foundation.

The Visitors Center has had a contract with the city to run the center since 1993 and when the contract renewed last year, the commercial permitting task was added last year and will run 25 years, says city spokesperson Vanessa Zink.

More from Zink:
PRCS and VNC staff collaborated to implement a new process for administering commercial use permits, beginning this year, for commercial entities operating within the park. The new process requests that entities generating revenue from their operations within the park apply for a commercial use permit. Revenue collected from this permit will go back to the park for maintenance, programming and projects.

PRCS and VNC collaborated on these guidelines and application materials based upon the existing PRCS Private Outdoor Fee-based Activities (POFA) permit used to manage fee-based activities throughout the department. This permitting process includes an application fee along with a varied fee structure based upon whether the applicant is a nonprofit or for-profit and whether the use is a single use permit, annual permit or a group bus tour.

Park staff began to inform commercial operators of the new permitting process in May 2019 with signage installed in the park that informs operators about how to join the permitting process, more of which can be found on www.gardenofgods.com/permits. Additionally, a letter about the new process was recently sent to the nearly 200 commercial operators we know of, inviting them to join in the permitting process to help give back to the park.

In addition to providing revenue to the park, under the new permitting system, PRCS will have better oversight over what commercial entities are operating within the park, ensure those permitted have appropriate insurance, follow park rules and that their commercial use falls within the mission of the park and is in accordance with the Master Plan. VNC is administering the program closely with park staff to review applications and answer questions about the process.

Garden of the Gods Foundation President Jan Martin notes the Parks Advisory Board gave the permit program the green light in October. Responding to criticism that the family who bequeathed the park to the city required it to be free to the public, Martin notes, "Anybody can go to the park free. This is really for operations that are charging to take people into the park, like a tour bus company." Others who will pay the fee include hiking expedition companies, stables that offer horse-back riding, and Broadmoor bus tours of the park. In addition, the park, which hosted more than 5 million visitors last year, is used by companies to hype products, including cars.

While Martin notes that many cities in Colorado charge such fees in their parks, she acknowledged that none she's aware of entrust collection of the fees to a nonprofit or a for-profit company, as is the case with the Garden of the Gods fees.

She says a goal of the program is to discover how the park is being used. "The city knew there was a lot of this going on — people charging for use of services," she says. "They're hoping to get a better sense for how the park is being used, and this is one way to do that."

But Martin disputed the fee program is a way to amass piles of money. "It's not going to be a bonanza," she says. "You can make the argument if people are using the park for commercial purposes, then this is a way for them to give back to the city to help maintain the park."

Martin says there won't be any active enforcement, but rangers will ask people to produce their permit if needed. Neither the Visitors Center nor the city plan to add employees to handle the fee program.

Roberts says she hopes the city moves quickly to make a decision on the photographer fee, because photographers work months, even a year, in advance. She also hopes the fee is substantially less, because a $500 fee would pose a hardship. "We don't make enough to pay $500 for use of Garden of the Gods," she says.

Roberts notes after she and others asked for a town hall meeting about the issue, they were told to attend City Council meetings and make their wishes known during the public comment period. Council has no say in the fees, however, which fall under the purview of Mayor John Suthers, who has administrative oversight of city operations.

Zink says a professional photographer fee policy is being worked out and may apply in all city parks.
click to enlarge A dam on the northeast side of Garden of the Gods Park is part of a massive stormwater drainage project disrupting the park. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A dam on the northeast side of Garden of the Gods Park is part of a massive stormwater drainage project disrupting the park.
Another controversy swirling in the Garden of the Gods Park centers on a massive detention pond and dam being built to control drainage and remove the Pleasant Valley neighborhood from the flood plain.

Former Councilor Scott Hente, for one, raised objections more than a year ago, saying other steps already taken render the project unnecessary.

But the city proceeded, and now at least 20 acres on the park's northeast side have been dug up.

As one resident, Eva Syrovy, tells the Indy via email, "They have utterly destroyed that entire area. It's close to bighorn sheep habitat. More, the foothills trail, a vital bicycle link in the westside community, has been closed for several months, supposedly to reopen on 12/31."
click to enlarge On the north side of the dam, earth moving equipment continue to dig and reshape the terrain. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • On the north side of the dam, earth moving equipment continue to dig and reshape the terrain.
Martin acknowledges the project doesn't make for a pretty sight, but eventually it could revert to a more natural look.

"It was something that needed to be done," Martin says. "The home owners in Pleasant Valley are pleased, because this will remove them from the flood plain. They [city officials] say when it's done, they’ll reseed it with natural vegetation and you won’t know it’s there, but that’s hard to believe when you look at it today."

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