Colorado Springs might require wedding and portrait photographers and videographers to pay $500 annually to take images of clients at Garden of the Gods, parks officials said Tuesday.
The announcement came after at least one city employee told a photographer that the permit fee had already been implemented, sparking confusion and anger among in the local photography community.
As of 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, an online petition to lower the $500 yearly permit price had gathered more than 9,000 signatures — despite the city's assertion in that the fee doesn't yet exist.
"Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation got out well before we were prepared to have further conversation and make some decisions around what the plan was to go forward," said Karen Palus, director of city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
The city doesn't currently require a permit for photo or video projects at Garden of the Gods if the final product is for a customer's personal use, city officials say. A $500 daily fee has for years been charged to those who are shooting footage in the park to market or advertise a product or service.
Local photographers say they've gotten mixed messages about permitting requirements from city staff and others associated with Garden of the Gods.
One photographer said in a Jan. 3 Facebook post that a park ranger threatened to fine her while she was shooting in the park because she didn't have a permit.
Professional photographer Mary Elizabeth Fabian said on Aug. 13 a special events supervisor for the city told her in an email that the the city had "determined that an annual photo permit" — $500 to shoot in all city parks and $250 to shoot in all parks except Garden of the Gods — "is the best course of action" and would soon take effect.
"We’re already having to rethink the way we do business," said Fabian. "I should not feel like I don’t trust my own community, but I do. I feel like they (city parks officials) don’t know what they’re doing and they implemented a policy and now they’re trying to cover themselves."
But Palus said the annual permit fees aren't a done deal and the city has begun collecting input on the proposal.
The parks department ultimately has the ability to approve the fee administratively, Palus said. However, it will go before the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for a public hearing, she said.
"These are individuals that are creating a business from those properties. So this is an opportunity for them to contribute to the care and preservation of that national historic landmark," Palus said. "It’s not just about the Garden. It’s all of our sites and making sure we take care of those facilities."
Parks officials are also considering expanding the proposal to include options for photographers who wish to only shoot at a city park for a day. Such a policy currently exists at Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, which portrait photographers can only use as a backdrop if they pay $50 a day.
The permit fees would help fund park operations and maintenance, Palus said. They would also provide parks staff with a way to communicate with professional photographers who are using open space.
"This gives us the opportunity to have a conversation with those that are coming in, make sure they know what our rules and procedures are," Palus said.
Still, some photographers say $500 a year is too much.
"This is something that definitely hurts our businesses but it also really hurts our local economy," said Springs-based wedding photographer Callie Riesling. "A lot of people come here and plan their weddings to be at Garden of the Gods. So when you implement these kind of extreme fees, people will want to take their money elsewhere."
Riesling and Fabian questioned whether the proposed permitting fee aligns with the intentions of Garden of the God's past owner, Charles Elliott Perkins, whose family gave the land to the city in 1909 with the provision that it remain a free public park.
"The community needs to know," Fabian said of the permitting proposal. "This is supposed to be a free park."