Columbia to begin enforcing park-access permits; fees to come

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 10, 2014 

Walkers and runners reflections are captured in the water feature at Finlay Park before the 23rd annual Walk for Life/Race for Life, a 3.1 mile walk/race and 10K to raise money for the Palmetto Health Breast Center.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

  • Getting permits

    Groups that want to use Columbia city parks must get written permission from the Parks and Recreation Department starting Saturday.

    Getting approval

    •  Go to or write to the parks department at 1111 Parkside Drive, Columbia, S.C. 29203.

    •  Call (803) 545-3100 during business hours.

    You also should know

    •  Fees, yet to be imposed, will be due 30 days before an event.

    •  If beer or wine is to served, organizers must have a written resolution of City Council.

This weekend, people who want to hold an event in any of Columbia’s public parks have to get permission from the city — and eventually pay for the permission.

The registration requirement, which takes effect Saturday, applies generally to groups of 25 or larger, said Jeff Caton, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

But events that have the potential to exceed 25 people also must have written permits, he said Monday.

Permit fees were to have varied, depending on which park is used and whether events are sponsored by private or non-profit organizers.

City Council adopted new rules on June 18 for Columbia’s 60 parks that include higher user fees, but the ordinance did not spell out permit fees, Caton said.

Permitting itself has been on the city’s books since 2008 and has gone unenforced, he said. The permits will be required starting Feb. 15 and will be enforced, Caton said.

City park employees will begin asking large groups to produce their permits.

If they cannot, they will be asked to leave, Caton said.

Those who refuse will have to answer to a Columbia police officer, who will be summoned, he said.

The city has been seeking to ease some frequent event organizers into the permitting requirement.

Further, Caton said he’s trying to figure out standards that can be applied consistently for a wide range of events and organizations.

The primary intent of the change is to control who uses the city’s recreation sites and to encourage cleaning up afterward.

The park around the Drew Wellness Center and Finlay Park frequently are misused, he said.

“Two or three hundred people show up at Drew Park, have a big party and leave the place trashed and torn up,” Caton said. “Then the general public comes in and gets the idea that we’re not doing our jobs or that this is the way city parks are supposed to look. We’re trying to set a standard that when people go to the restrooms, there’s soap, there’s hand towels.

“That’s the crux of the problem – that we don’t know who these people are that are showing up at our facilities,” Caton said.

Enforcement notification letters about permitting procedures were sent late last month to 22 organizations that routinely serve meals to the homeless in city parks. That is one of the few groups the city has been able to identify as frequent park users, Caton said.

A letter to Food Not Bombs, a group that has served meals at Finlay Park for years, states that large gatherings there have “had increasingly negative impact on the park’s condition and overall cleanliness.” The letter warns of strict enforcement of the city’s rules.

Finlay Park, in the Vista not far from Main Street, has become a favorite hangout for much of the city’s homeless population.

The rules council adopted last summer allow Caton discretion to waive some or all of the fees for organizations that have direct ties to the city or for city-sponsored events.

There is no list of such organizations, so Caton said he will have to make case-by-case decisions on which groups qualify for reduced or no fees.

The now-delayed fee schedule breaks down charges by categories of parks and would impose stiffer fees on for-profit organizations.

For example, Finlay Park and Coble Plaza, located beside EdVenture children’s museum off Gervais Street, would have the highest fees.

Private functions would pay a $350 refundable deposit but would be charged $1,000 for using the facility for six hours. Longer events would pay an additional $250 per hour. In addition, event organizers would have to pay fees to offset the time that city workers spend setting up and cleaning up and for city supplies used for the event.

Nonprofit groups at Finlay Park or Coble Plaza would pay the same refundable deposit plus $75 per hour for the use of the site and the same administrative fees as private groups.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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