Lakewood Grounding Model Rocket Club in Bear Creek Lake Park

CRASH has been launching rockets in Bear Creek Lake Park for decades.
CRASH has been launching rockets in Bear Creek Lake Park for decades. Colorado Rocketry Association of Space Hobbyists
For over thirty years, model rocket enthusiasts have been gathering in Bear Creek Lake Park in Lakewood to launch their latest toys. The launches have been organized by the Colorado Rocketry Association of Space Hobbyists, aptly abbreviated CRASH. According to organizers, the location is perfect for metro residents, since the park is large enough for bigger rockets and still close to the heart of Denver.

But CRASH's free, twice-a-month program that attracts Boy Scout troops, local students and adult model rocket enthusiasts alike appears to be coming to an end: The City of Lakewood wants to shut it down owing to concerns about noise, visual impact and fire.

The dispute between the two sides began last December, when Bear Creek Lake Park supervisor Drew Sprafke wrote to CRASH, letting the group know the good news and the very bad news: Their proposed schedule for 2019 had mostly been approved, and then...

"We will be discontinuing this use for the 2020 season," Sprafke wrote in an email.

"The intent was to give them as much notice as possible in hopes that they would find an alternative location where they could launch the rockets," says Amber Wesner, a spokeperson for the city's Community Resources Department.

But so far, CRASH hasn't been successful in finding that new venue. All of the locations they've looked into have been too far away, not spacious enough for larger rockets, or cost-prohibitive for participants. "It’s been really frustrating trying to find places," says Matt Morgan, vice president of CRASH.

And while the group appreciated the advance notice, Matt Boyles, the president of CRASH, doesn't buy Lakewood's reasoning for grounding the launches. "Barbecue makes smoke and kites take up the sky, so it seemed kind of arbitrary, especially after thirty years," he says. "They don't think that our activity belongs in their park."

Admitting that it doesn't think the park is an appropriate place for the launches, the Community Resources Department stresses that the city isn't opposed to the work that Boyles and his organization are doing. "We obviously support the mission of the group. That's why we have it there," Wesner says.

A city ordinance that goes back to 1986 and was updated in 2009 prohibits the unlawful discharging of "dangerous missiles," a category that Wesner says includes model rockets. But the city ordinance also includes language noting that the director of Community Resources can allow for rocket launches in designated areas. That's how CRASH was able to continue all these years.

Recently, however, the park has seen a major uptick in use. Right now, it clocks about 600,000 visitors per year. And not only does that crowding create concern about launches, but there's another significant issue: fire.

"There are inherent risks in launching model rockets that have an open flame propellant and uncontrolled flight paths. When used properly, with adult supervision and due diligence, the fire risk is minimal but not risk free," Bruce Kral, chief of West Metro Fire, says in a statement. "When instituted, fire restrictions in cities and counties often prohibit model-rocket use. Most individual parks and park districts have additional rules and prohibitions regarding model rockets."

But Morgan contends that his group goes above and beyond when it comes to fire safety. "I’ve been there for about ten years. We have not had a fire at any of the launches that I’ve been to," he says.

So he and Boyles are fighting to keep rockets in flight in the park. Today, August 31, the duo is meeting with Lakewood City Councilwoman Barb Franks to speak about possibly adding language to the city's ordinance code to allow the launches to continue.

"I’m hoping we can discuss anything we can do to get this back on track and get these kids back out there launching," Morgan says.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.