This past Sunday, Angela Hudson showed up at Washington Park with eight giant inflatable bubbles. Her plan, she says, was to host a casual game of bubble soccer, in which players play soccer whilst encased in plastic bubbles. (Video below!) Even though the Facebook invitation had been forwarded to 800 people, Hudson was expecting a small group; in fact, she says, just eight of her friends showed up.
But they didn't get to play. As Hudson was blowing up the last bubble, she was approached by two park rangers. According to her, one of them said, "We're shutting you down."
Hudson says the rangers told her she couldn't play there without a permit. When Hudson asked if she could get a permit, she says the rangers told her that drop-in permits were only available for volleyball, as per new rules for Wash Park put in place in May. When Hudson pointed out that she wasn't charging anyone to play, that it was just a pick-up game, she says one of the rangers admitted it was a "gray area," but that the other was more harsh. According to Hudson, he told her that if she ever came back, she'd get a ticket.
"I had to deflate all the bubbles," Hudson says. "So many people came up to me afterwards and said, 'That is so messed up. Why can't you play here?'"
The reason, says Denver Parks and Recreation spokesman Jeff Green, may lie in where exactly in the park Hudson and her friends wanted to play. Due to complaints about overuse anddrunken behavior
, Denver Parks and Rec issueda set of emergency rules
to govern the use of Wash Park on the weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The rules include a drop-in permitting system for anyone wanting to play volleyball, a very popular sport in Wash Park. They also include increased parking enforcement and increased park ranger patrols. Soon after the rules were issued, however, volleyball players began to complain and Parks and Rec relaxed the permitting requirements, getting rid of the refundable deposit and specifying that players could set up anywhere in the park outside of a "passive area" reserved for families.
If Hudson and her friends were in that passive area -- the size of which Green says changes depending on the number of people in the park but is supposed to be clearly marked with signs -- that may have triggered the rangers to tell them to move on. Pick-up games of team sports like soccer with fewer than 25 players (games with more than 25 players require a permit) are only allowed outside of the passive area and only in places that another team or event hasn't already reserved with a permit, Green says. Such spaces can be hard to come by in Wash Park on summer weekends, he admits.
"Wash Park is a very, very busy park," he says. "A light, true pick-up game in the right space would certainly be allowable. But the rangers will come in and talk to folks if they see an issue and see if it's adhering to all of the rules."
Hudson and her friends ended up moving their game to a park in Glendale, where she says they weren't hassled by authorities. In fact, she says, a Glendale cop stopped to watch them play for a bit. But bubble soccer will be back in Denver soon. Hudson and her friends have secured a permit to start a league in early September in Sunken Gardens Park.
"Until then," she says, "we were just kind of having fun."
At least one attorney thinks the new rules for Wash Park are no fun at all. Damian Stone has sued Denver Parks and Rec for "illegally (passing) a law and regulations that makes it unlawful for families, children and other individuals to participate in impromptu casual drop-in sporting activities in Washington Park."
Continue for more on the lawsuit. Stone played volleyball in Wash Park for ten years. There used to be a great atmosphere, he says: People would come down early on the weekends, set up nets and invite anyone who wanted to play. It was a great way to make friends, he says.
But then, residents who live around the park started complaining about the crowds and about people drinking beer. (Beer with 3.2 percent alcohol is allowed in the park.) In March, City Councilman Chris Nevitt wrote a letter to Lauri Dannemiller, Parks and Rec executive director,calling for an alcohol ban
in Wash Park. In the end, the citydecided against such a ban
, opting instead for the rules it put in place.
When Stone heard about the new volleyball permitting system, which limits the number of nets to fifty per day, he was upset. He and five other players intentionally went to the park and set up a net without getting a permit. It wasn't long before the rangers showed up.
"They asked us if we were going to get permits," Stone recalls. "We said we weren't, so they proceeded to administer us those citations for $100 for nothing more than setting up a volleyball net and hitting the ball back and forth a couple times."
That same day, Stone says he witnessed a family of four get similar treatment (but no ticket) for playing soccer with what Stone says were "teeny nets." "Seeing that brought into the picture how ridiculous and absurd it was for that to be happening," he says.
Stone has not paid his $100 ticket. Instead, he filed a lawsuit alleging that the city's emergency rules for Wash Park weren't issued in response to an emergency at all -- and that they discriminate against volleyball players.
"Lauri Dannemiller and Denver Parks are treating a group of people, volleyball players, differently than other similarly situated individuals engaged in similar sports," the lawsuit states. (Read the entire document below.) "This amounts to an arbitrary and unreasonable action and violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the United State Constitution and the Colorado Constitution."
"It always bothered me when people who are in power or who had more money or connections or authority abuse their power," Stone says. "And to me, that's what this is."
The city has filed a motion to dismiss Stone's lawsuit (also on view below). The city attorney's office argues that Dannemiller was within her authority to issue the rules and that they're not discriminatory.
One excerpt reads: "Just as a matter of common sense, requiring a person to obtain a permit, at no cost and provided on site, to play volleyball and requiring the volleyball play to be in a designated part of a park cannot remotely rise to the level of a deprivation of a constitutional right. Volleyball players are not a protected class under the Equal Protection clause."
Furthermore, the city argues that Stone is skipping a step by filing a lawsuit. The proper way to appeal a citation is to file a petition with "the Manager of Parks and Recreation" and pay a nonrefundable $25 filing fee, the motion to dismiss states.
Stone says he's not going to do that. He also no longer plays volleyball at Wash Park. "The atmosphere there has been completely gutted," he says.
Continue to read Stone's lawsuit and the city's motion to dismiss.