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Christo's "Over the River" faces public hearings this week for final permits

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After nearly twenty years of planning, Christo and his "Over the River" project are two temporary-use permits away from full approval. The installation, which would suspend 5.9 miles of fabric over a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River, was conceived in 1992, but only received the go-ahead last November from the Bureau of Land Management. Now Christo needs permission from Fremont and Chaffee counties, the two municipalities the project would pass through, to begin construction.

On Wednesday, public hearings will begin in Cañon City in Fremont County. Supporters, who have been enchanted with Christo's sketches for the project, believe the installation will draw art lovers -- and their tourist dollars -- to southern Colorado.

The project's detractors, however, fear the same thing, and argue that "Over the River" will clog US-50, the two-lane highway that leads to the Arkansas River from I-25. For his part, Westword art critic Michael Paglia believes that if "Over the River" sinks, it will be a tragedy.

From its inception, environmental questions have also dogged the project, with critics suggesting that the installation will prevent wildlife from accessing the river for water.

Last May, the Colorado Wildlife Commission voted unanimously against "Over the River," though its position did not halt the project.

Christo will return to Colorado for the public meetings, which will continue through Thursday. "Over the River" is his first project without his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. This is Christo's second project in Colorado; the first was the 1972 Rifle Gap installation, which featured 200,200 square feet of orange fabric.

Tomorrow's meeting will precede a vote by the three commissioners on whether to grant Christo a temporary use permit and, if awarded, what restrictions should come with it. Should Christo get the permit, the next stop will be in Salida, to the west in Chaffee County. The "Over the River" project has not formally submitted its application there, but is expected to do so in the coming weeks.

Permitting authorities willing, the project will be on track to debut in August 2014 at the earliest, and run for two weeks. As with all of his projects, Christo will pay for the costs through the sale of his art.

Wednesday's meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the Fremont County Administration building. The county is also accepting comments through e-mail at planning@fremontco.com.

More from our Arts archive: "Reader: Ecoterrorists will be all over 'Over the River.'"

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