Garden of the Gods permit changes create confusion

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - A new permit structure in Garden of the Gods is causing some confusion among people who frequent the park.

These signs are now up throughout Garden of the Gods.

According to the Colorado Springs’ Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services director, businesses that operate in the park now have to pay an annual permit fee.

“Back in May 2019, we established some signage to let folks know that we have a permit process forthcoming,” Director Karen Palus said. “So we’ve started to notify over 200 entities, that we’re aware of, that are doing business in the Garden as part of this new process.”

The signs around the park state, “Commercial Use Restriction. A special use permit is required to operate a commercial activity in Garden of the Gods Park.” The city said the new permits apply to bus tours, guided rock climbing, guided talks, hikes, rentals and workshops.

“One of the things we need to make sure is 1) to know that they are properly insured and able to do that type of business within our facilities, 2) that we have a way to communicate with them,” Palus said.

Permits can be bought through the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center’s website. According to the terms and conditions, for-profit businesses have to pay $150 for a single-use permit and $500 for an annual permit. Non-profits will be charged $100 for a single-use permit and $350 for an annual permit. There is also a $50 application fee.

Jeremiah Meizis owns Colorado Climbing Company and said if his permit isn’t approved, it would hurt his bottom line.

“If I don’t get a permit, it’s like 30 percent of my business,” he said. “That’s how I pay my bills.”

Palus said the money raised through permits will go back to the park.

“The money goes through our Visitor and Nature Center into our Garden of the Gods Foundation and then comes directly back to the park through our operations and maintenance for the facility,” she said.

One point of confusion is whether this new permit structure applies to photographers.

“There’s been rumors going around since fall of 2019. I reached out to Garden of the Gods looking for clarification in December and got two very different stories from the city versus Garden of the Gods Visitor Center,” said Mary Elizabeth Fabian with MAJECK.

Fabian said she received an email from the city that said the photography permit was already in place. She shared the email with 11 News, which said, in part, “We have determined that an annual photo permit for portrait photographers is the best course of action.”

A fellow photographer even told her a park ranger had asked for their permit, Fabian said.

“I got tagged in a photographer’s post on Facebook that said, ‘Hey, I’ve been stopped, and they told me I have a fine if I’m back without paying for this permit,’” Fabian said.

According to the city, though, this permit has not gone into effect yet.

“Commercial photography is not part of this at this time. It’s a very different scenario, and we’ll address it at a later date," Palus said. "I am unaware of any incidents that have occurred in terms of staff having conversations about commercial photography permits."

According to the city, parks staff is considering implementing a new permit structure that would apply to photographers who take photos for weddings, engagements, graduations, etc. at local parks in Colorado Springs.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of the different photographers and such that are doing business in the Garden and in many of our other parks because the Garden is not the only park as part of this,” Palus said. “We would be looking overall at the overall park system and how we make that really a much simpler process for our community and especially our commercial photographers where they’re not having to pull a permit every time they want to go to one site or another.”

The proposed permit would cost $250 a year to take photos in any city park not including Garden of the Gods. To include Garden of the Gods would cost $500.

Fabian said she’s upset with the city’s lack of transparency with this proposal.

“I think that this is poor communication and poor execution of a policy that wasn’t fully planned,” she said.

Another local photographer, Callie Riesling, who runs Callie Riesling Photography, started an online petition Monday that had gathered more than 15,000 signatures by Thursday morning.

“I pay permits, that’s not my problem,” Riesling said. “My problem is that this was not at all discussed with the community. This has kind of been behind closed doors. We have not been made aware of this until people were being approached and until there was a sign up. There was no contact with the community whatsoever.”

A city spokesperson told 11 News the parks department has the authority to implement this permit on its own. No approval is needed from Colorado Springs City Council.

For Riesling, the $500 proposed price tag for Garden of the Gods is pretty steep for a park that’s supposed to be free to the public.

“When I started my business 10 years ago, I was 18 years old. This was supposed to pay my way through college. It ended up being my career, but those new photographers are not going to be able to afford this. This is going to put people out of business and take money out of our local economy,” Riesling said. “Jefferson County is $100. Rocky Mountain National Park is $350 a year. Now, Rocky Mountain National Park requires a lot of maintenance. They have to plow Trail Ridge Road. There are a lot more sensitive areas in terms of conservation. There’s a lot more buildings and structures that need to be maintained on the property … $100 would be very reasonable and would give the opportunity to new business owners.”

If the permit rate stays at the proposed $500 for Garden of the Gods, Riesling said she’s not sure if she would keep taking photos there.

“Roxborough State Park looks very similar to Garden of the Gods,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a drive, but it’s only $55 quarterly, and it’s pretty much very similar formations, very similar landscapes, and it’s a lot less busy. So I may or may not.”

Fabian said she’s already shared her input with the city.

“I would like to see a daily-use fee that can be stacked one on top of the next so that we can actually kind of piecemeal it. So a new business, which I was last year, could actually afford these rates,” she said.

Riesling also wants to make sure the parks enforce the photography permit fairly.

“So are you going to start imposing fees on every person who has a camera?” she asked. “What about the Instagram people who make money off of their accounts? They’re getting clothes for free. They’re getting sponsorships. YouTube people are getting money off of ads. Are you going to hold everyone accountable, cellphone, nice camera? It doesn’t matter. If you’re making money off of the park, you should hold everyone at the same bar.”

For tourists who are visiting the park and just taking pictures on their phones or cameras, they don’t have to worry about this new proposal.

“Anybody out utilizing Garden of the Gods Park, taking pictures … none of that is part of this particular permitting process,” Palus said.

The city’s website also states daily rates for businesses who use photography or videography for “money-making purposes,” which includes advertising or marketing for “a product, service, event or destination; real estate photography; print or television media; or other commercial uses.” The city said this permit application has been in place for years and about 20 commercial permits were granted last year.

The city is asking people to give feedback on the new photography permit by emailing events@coloradosprings.gov.