Eagle County eyes tighter rules, fees for some open space users
Modest charges would affect commercial operations and larger special events
The days of no-fee use of some Eagle County open space parcels may be coming to an end — for large special events and commercial operations, at least.
Eagle County is the owner of more than 13,000 acres of open space parcels spread out over 29 separate areas. While management plans have been developed to oversee operations at individual holdings, this week the county commissioners launched discussion of broader rules for all its open space areas.
In particular, the county commissioners are looking to define what is and isn’t allowed and formalize processes and fees for special events, programs and commercial uses on open space property.
Phil Kirkman, ranger and natural resource specialist for Eagle County Open Space, noted the need for a uniform set of rules governing the county’s properties.
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“The purpose we see with this new program is protection for the resources the county has purchased,” Kirkman said. “There are uses out there that don’t mix on certain sites or mix on open space at all.”
Conflicts range from off-leash dogs on trails, to private fishing clients crowding stream banks to private photo shoots that discourage other users from dotting the landscape. Staff noted their aim in tightening the open space rules is to increase enjoyment of the county’s resources for all the groups that use them.
“My goal, in my position, is to get people out on open space,” said Peter Suneson, outreach and education specialist for Eagle County Open Space.
Special events and programs
Suneson noted the county has never charged fees for programming or special events conducted on open space. The new rules would change that, for some entities.
As proposed, special events would be classified as gatherings that include more than 25 participants. The county plans to offer an online registration form for special event organizers and will request reservations two months in advance. There would be no fee charged for events that number up to 50 participants and a proposed fee of $50 would be changed for events of 50 to 250 participants.
Programs would be defined as curriculum-driven events with 25 or fewer participants. While a fee would be charged to organizations that host more than 25 programs annually, schools and nonprofit groups would be exempted.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney noted the proposed fee schedule is very modest. “It strikes me as very low, almost more trouble than it is worth,” she said.
Suneson said the goal is not to generate a large chunk of revenue, but rather to offset staff time associated with permit review. The over-reaching goals of the program revisions, he said, are to get a better handle on open space uses, protect county resources and address possible conflicts. The commissioners voiced support for those objectives.
“We certainly don’t want to charge people a fee for using open space they have paid for,” said Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.
One of the big potential open space conflicts is between commercial outfitters using county property to conduct their business and private citizens enjoying a resource the county has financed.
By the county definition, commercial activities on open space include guiding, training, weddings, photography, instruction, outfitting or any event that involves a client paying for a service. While that’s a expansive definition, Kirkman noted the county’s biggest commercial issue is at county river access sites.
Suneson and Kirkman said there has been consistent negative feedback from the public regarding commercial use crowding out public use at parking areas, fishing holes and boat ramps.
“If there is a client there, it’s a place a resident can’t take,” Kirby noted.
Using the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rules as a template, the county is considering a $100 commercial permit charge on open space sites. But the open space department has recommended easing into that charge.
Their proposal is to ask commercial operators to register in 2021 — providing information such as a contact name, outfitter license information and a certificate of insurance. Commercial users would also be asked to sign a stewardship affidavit that outlines conservation practices expected on county open space.
“Holding people to the same standard would be a good goal,” said Kirkman.
At the end of the 2021 season, the county wants commercial users to report back with their numbers and insights to help define the permit process. The fee program launch is proposed in 2022.
Kirkman added the county wants to work with other agencies including the BLM and various municipalities to standardize regulations.
There is also some higher level discussion informing the open space discussion.
“Are commercial uses a priority for the open space program?” Kirkman asked.
“I do not feel that they are a priority,” McQueeney responded “I feel very strongly that our residents and the people who pay taxes are the priority.”
McQueeney noted the county isn’t talking about banning commercial operations on open space, but rather searching for how to balance uses. “The public is very easily pushed out,” she noted. “We are giving commercial operators an opportunity to make this work.”
Suneson noted that members of the Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee have echoed those sentiments. He also added that generally speaking, commercial operators have been open to the county’s efforts to tighten the rules.
The next step, Suneson said, will be a reconsideration of the modest fees proposed. From there the county will issue a press release about the proposed changes and schedule a forum for people to comment.