By Marit Gookin
At this past week’s city council meeting, city leaders once again discussed an issue close too many Lander residents’ hearts: parks. Tuesday evening was the first public reading of a proposed amendment changing the city ordinance governing park rules; before the change can be implemented, council will have to go through two more readings, giving the public two more chances to comment on the amendment before it would go into effect.
Under the current municipal code, Lander’s parks are governed by ordinance; the code includes a few general rules for all parks, and then a set of more specific rules for City Park, including rules concerning camping. Rules for other parks have been determined by the city’s parks and recreation department in the past; Lander Police Chief Scott Peters found some of these rules to be unenforceable, and, Lander Assistant Mayor Rajean Strube-Fossen explained to council, requested a change be made. The amendment removes the City Park-specific language from the ordinance and would give the council the ability to create new rules for each park by resolution. Each park would have its own set of rules, posted in the park itself. It also makes violating these posted rules a misdemeanor, punishable by a $750 fine or up to six months in jail.
“The city has parks that we own completely, and then we have different properties that the community use, that are school property,” explained Lander Public Works Director Lance Hopkin. “A blanket set of rules doesn’t really work.” Different parks are located in different areas, such as Dillon Park, which Hopkin described as being “basically people’s backyards,” and the varying ownership of parks also means that there are different rules the city itself has to take into consideration. For example, alcohol and tobacco aren’t allowed on school property – which means they aren’t allowed in North Park. For events such as BrewFest, which was held in North Park in a previous year, the city has to go to the school district and the school board and ask for it to make exceptions, or ask for those exceptions to be included in its lease of the park.
“It makes it a lot easier to have the council decide to make a change,” Hopkin continued. “It establishes a better mechanism.”
The change would certainly streamline matters for the city council; as with this amendment itself, under the current system any official changes made to park rules have to be done by ordinance, meaning the city is required to offer three hearings at which the public can comment on the changes before it can be implemented. At each of these hearings, the ordinance is voted on by the council. Resolutions, on the other hand, don’t require the city to give the public as many opportunities to comment and are generally voted on just once.
City Park’s three-day free camping policy, currently enshrined in the city’s municipal code and slated to be removed from it by this amendment, was a common topic of conversation for the city council this summer. At the last city council meeting at which camping was discussed, it was brought up that one of the reasons previous councils had decided not to start charging fees for camping was that it had been suggested that it may not be legal for the city to do so. The council asked the city of Lander’s attorney, Adam Phillips, to look into this issue; Strube-Fossen said that staff intends to present a recommendation about this to the city council at its next work session on September 26, and presumably the results of Phillips’ research will be presented as part of this recommendation.
According to Strube-Fossen, the rules around camping are not intended to be changed by this amendment. “Camping rules (re: fees) are not being changed at this time,” she clarified via email. However, the new ordinance language would certainly make such a change easier for the city council to implement in the future. Free camping in City Park is controversial: some people feel that it detracts from the park and is a drain on the resources of the parks and recreation department; others feel that it is a draw for tourism and a source of pride for the city.
Hopkin noted that one of the things staff is considering recommending is introducing a firmer time limit on how long people may camp in the park; as things stand, the rules simply state that people may camp there for up to three days at a time. Some people, he noted, will camp for three days, leave for an hour or two, and come back to pitch their tent or set up their camper in a slightly different location. Clarifying that people may camp at the park for three days within a 30-day period (or other duration of time) could potentially decrease the number of people camping in the park at any given time so “we don’t see the same repeat people using it as a living space.”
The change in how rules are made and made public would also mean, however, that rules would be clearly posted in each park and would be crafted on what council member Julia Stuble described as a “park-by-park basis,” giving the council more opportunities to create rules based on the specific needs and uses of each park.
The language in the original amendment described city-managed parks as “city parks,” which Stuble pointed out was potentially confusing as the city also has a specific park named and referred to as City Park. She requested that this language be clarified before the amendment’s next reading. The amendment also included the $750 misdemeanor fine twice, and it was requested that this redundancy be removed.
These were the only concerns raised about the amendment; the hearing closed without any public comment, and the city council unanimously voted in favor of it. There will be two more readings of the amendment before it will officially pass or fail.