Aspen officials consider new rules over park usage

As catered picnics and weddings increase in Aspen’s parks, officials are looking at new policies and guidelines about equitable use

A screenshot of the presentation given by Aspen parks staff about a new trend in gatherings.
Courtesy of the city of Aspen

The city of Aspen’s parks have gotten so popular for fancy, catered parties that officials are considering limiting them so the rest of the community can enjoy public spaces in an equitable manner.

Aspen City Council on Monday agreed with parks and special events officials that a new policy limiting certain activities should be further contemplated.

“Specifically for parks we are receiving requests for various uses, and there’s a couple of things that stand out to us within the (municipal code) that leave a lot of gray area,” said Parks and Open Space Director Matt Kuhn during Aspen City Council’s work session. “We are seeing more requests for weddings and large-scale events with a lot of infrastructure, and we’re receiving new and increased uses and requests around personal training. … There’s been a number of requests post pandemic about formalizing our practices and allowing yoga and other fitness activities in parks, and then we are seeing over the last three to four years an increase in businesses that cater picnics, and so a citizen can pay money and a person brings tables, chairs and blankets to a specific park with food and kind of reserves that space for someone to enjoy a catered picnic.”

As he and his colleagues Steve Barr, the city’s parks operations manager, and Nancy Lesley, special events director, pointed out in a memo to council prior to Monday’s meeting, there’s an increasing level of complexity associated with event logistics.

“Examples include large tents, significant catering infrastructure for food and beverage, entertainment offerings such as mechanical bulls, as well as bathroom trailers and special restroom tents,” the memo reads.

The level of such complexity requires parks to be reserved 24 hours before an event for construction, and those buildouts often require parks staff to be present to ensure that infrastructure is not damaged and that the space is managed appropriately, officials said.

Council supported staff in continuing to examine a new policy and the parameters around specific uses of certain parks, although elected officials recognized it’s complex when considering all the different uses, whether it’s for commercial activities, nonprofits or for-profit entities.

“These are the exact right questions to be asking, and I really appreciate you bringing them forward to us,” said Councilman Skippy Mesirow. “This is complicated, it’s fluid, it’s changing quickly for reasons we don’t want and reasons that aren’t necessarily bad, and so I agree that beginning to think about a new framework that provides some degree of objectivity, if not defensibility, is important, but I think it’s too early to come to conclusions at this point, so I would caution us to be too rigid too soon.”

The majority of council agreed that commercial activities like catered weddings and parties are inappropriate uses on public space, but activities like paid yoga classes and children’s day camps contribute to the health, well-being and mental health of a vital community.

“I don’t want to overregulate our parks, and I want to prioritize public use and discourage exclusivity and encourage equity,” said Councilwman Ward Hauenstein. “I am opposed to the privatization of public spaces.”

Kuhn presented some policy ideas around size, frequency and types of uses in the city’s 32 parks.

Special uses would be defined as noncommercial, nonexclusive and low-impact activities that demonstrate beneficial use of a community park or public space that exceed 25 participants and require a permit.

Special events are defined as large events with infrastructure needs, are commercial in nature and require a permit.

Community gatherings of fewer than 25 participants such as birthday parties, reunions, memorials and graduation parties would be allowed without a permit.

If limitations are placed on frequency and size of park uses and events, inherent impacts are reduced, which can trickle down to less staff time, vehicle trips and irrigation water needed to restore park spaces following events, according to city officials.

Staff will continue to work on filling the policy gap for smaller events that have significant impacts on parks and public spaces, or on adjacent residents and neighbors.

The current guidelines that staff use to review and consider each application allow discretion to review the proposed use and weigh it against established guidelines and precedent.

The city currently gives increased weight and consideration to requests that are open to community participation or stimulate community vitality.

“We as staff really feel strongly and find ourselves to the be the stewards of the parks so that they are open for anyone to go at any time and enjoy the atmosphere, the nature environment,” Kuhn said.