Denver Parks permit policy headed for vote: Will mommies need to pay to push strollers?

Colorado: the eighth healthiest state in the nation -- and gunning for number one. Home to Denver, a town that's been nationally recognized for its low obesity rates, high level of physical activity, bird-like flocks of young people and, now, attention-grabbing headlines about the city's purported distaste for group exercisers as displayed by its plans to require permits. But according to Jeff Green, spokesman for the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, "Comments about how we are trying to prevent people from exercising are just blatantly untrue. We aren't saying we don't want people in the park, we just want people there legally."

After all, DPR, like any department in the city, has rules. "Our rules mirror the city ordinance, which says you can't do commercial activity in the park without a permit," says Green. But the city would like to close a few loopholes in those rules, making it clear that any for-profit ventures that wish to use Denver parks for their activities are welcome to do so -- as long as they pay for a permit.

The current commotion started soon after the Washington Park Profile ran a column I wrote on stroller groups last October. Parks and Rec had gotten a few complaints from neighbors about exercise groups using the parks for free, so I'd contacted DPR spokeswoman Angela Casias and asked whether moms with strollers could still use the parks for group-fitness classes. "At this point," she told me, "there isn't going to be formalized enforcement. Instead, a ranger might educate a group on permits."

A few weeks later, the woman who owns what was then known as Stroller Strides, an exercise outfit then operating in the University of Denver and Cherry Creek neighborhoods, received a call: She was told that her groups couldn't return to Washington Park without a permit. But that was tricky, because there wasn't actually a permit available for what she was doing.

This was a "communication breakdown," says Green, who started his job that month. "My understanding was that rangers were letting people know they couldn't operate without a permit. When people started coming for a permit, we realized we didn't have permit for them, and that is when we put a moratorium on the rules and let all fitness groups resume use of the parks."

Some local businesses were outraged by the proposed permit fees, which might have effectively, if not technically, banned them from the parks. So DPR put together a stakeholder group of local entrepreneurs and neighborhood groups that met several times over the past year. Their discussion greatly colored the policy that DPR is now proposing regarding permits.

That policy is now waiting on approval from Denver City Council. "Parks policy itself doesn't need city council approval," Green notes. "But fees do."

The matter was discussed at a committee meeting on Tuesday, but because a decision wasn't reached, the subject will come up again at the committee meeting at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 22. Assuming the committee approves the proposed policy, it will go to a Mayor/Council meeting on July 29, then a first reading at the full Denver City Council meeting on August 5. A vote could follow on August 11.

And what's in the proposed policy? That's a little complicated.

Permit fees will be dependent on several factors, including time of day and location of park. Groups wishing to exercise during peak times -- 5 to 8 a.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. -- will be charged more. They'll also be charged more if they'd like to hold class at a Tier 1 park: Sloan's Lake and Wash Park.

"Permit costs are entirely based on our cost for covering a ninety-minute period," Green says. Group boot-camp classes, those that operate in one particular place, generally produce more wear and tear on park grounds; they will be charged $32.50 per class for an exclusive use permit during peak times at a Tier 1 park.

Under the new rules, stroller groups, which are continually moving and create less wear and tear, will be required to pay $10.80 per class during peak hours and $8.10 per class during non-peak hours at Tier 1 parks. At Tier 2 parks, the rates are lower: $6.10 per class in the summer, $4.50 per class in the winter.

"Quite frankly," says Green, "we never wanted it to be this complex. We wanted a flat fee, but some stakeholder representatives were upset, and it became an issue of fairness.

Any flat fee is dicey, according to Fit4Mom Owner Amy Fuller, who operates her stroller classes in several Denver parks. "A sliding fee based on the percentage of income a group makes would be more comfortable," Fuller says. "I'm not opposed to paying for a permit; it's the price that offends me."

Fuller's been running stroller classes for about two years. With franchises in Colorado Springs, South Suburban and Denver (rebranded from Stroller Strides to Fit4Mom), she's got some insight into how DPR rules compare to those in other municipalities.

In the South Suburban district, for example, she's required to register and pay an annual fee of just $75 per year (that's $6.25 per month, or about 20 cents a day). In return, she's listed in the district marketing directory, which helps bolster her business.

Fuller recently moved her Sloan's Lake fitness class to Edgewater, where a small community park welcomed her with open arms. What's more, Glendale has offered to let Fuller's group work out at any of its parks for free. "They thought the permit fees were ridiculous," she says.

Still, the Wash Park stroller group has been around for nearly five years and many moms live within walking distance of the park, making the location convenient. "Property taxes are high in the Wash Park area," adds Fuller. "My members are offended because they already pay huge amounts in taxes in order to be at the park." At $8.10 per class, that would add about $218 per month to Fuller's operating costs for the Wash Park group alone. And with just fifteen or so monthly members (memberships cost $55 a month), that would have a significant impact on Fuller's bottom line.

"I'm just hoping to break even this year," she says, citing franchise fees, supply fees and instructor pay as hidden costs associated with her business.

By comparison, St. John's Church, where Fuller's Wash Park group spends its winter months, charges $5 per day, or about $135 a month. And malls, she notes, are free. "It doesn't make sense that an outdoor place would cost more than an indoor space," she says. "You'll always have unhappy people. Why should a few complaints per year impact everyone else?"

To read the complete new fee proposal, go to DPR's Rules, Regulations & Proposed Policy page.

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Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer, and author of the forthcoming Falcon Guide Hiking Wth Kids, Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families.
Contact: Jamie Siebrase

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