Intermittent rain punctuated a stormy meeting Wednesday between city officials and residents of the Riverside neighborhood in western Steamboat.
A battle continues about a piece of the neighborhood's city-owned property that has been voluntarily maintained by the residents but that the city would like to see evolve more naturally.
The dispute arose June 9, when the Steamboat Springs Police Department ticketed Riverside resident Dave Epstein for mowing down willow shrubs on the 4-acre parcel with a heavy-duty bush mower. The willows were growing in an arc from the Yampa River into an area that residents say they have maintained for decades as a mowed field of about half an acre. The field is used as an improvised community park.
In addition to ticketing Epstein, the city also is reviewing the entire mowed area and recommending it be reduced in size. The city also removed a salvaged bench installed by Epstein near the river because it didn't meet the city's design standards and management practices.
A Wednesday meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission was held on the parcel and frequently turned ugly, with raised voices, anger, sarcasm and accusations from residents, who said the city is overreaching and that the situation is an example of bureaucracy gone bad.
"In a small town, usually we could have this worked out without going to court," Epstein said.
Although many residents asked simply to be left alone, city officials said they have a responsibility to look after the property and are trying to reach a compromise that satisfies neighborhood residents, is consistent with city policies and community plans, and protects the Yampa River.
Five Riverside residents bought the land to protect it from development and deeded the 4-acre property to the city in 1990. The deed states that the land conveyance to the city is valid only if it "remains predominantly in a natural, scenic and open condition without any construction of improvements thereon (except for streambank stabilization projects)."
Neighborhood residents said mowing the grass and removing the willows is consistent with the deed, especially in terms of maintaining it in a "scenic and open" condition.
"I wanted to see my river," Jim Funk, one of the five property owners on the deed, said Wednesday.
Whither the willows
In an affidavit prepared on behalf of the neighborhood, local retired forester Omar Campbell writes that the willows are invasive and noxious.
"The lawn-like greenbelt can and should be mowed in its entirety. There will be no ecologic, hydrologic (bank erosion), scenic or other ill effects," Campbell writes.
Chris Wilson, city director of the Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department, disagrees. He said that willows are not invasive in riparian areas and help stabilize banks.
"Willows are what you want," he said. "They stretch up and down the Yampa."
The city proposed a compromise that would allow Riverside residents to continue mowing 0.4 acres of the property. The compromise excludes the area Epstein was ticketed for mowing, where willows encroach in an arc into the rectangular field. It also would further shrink the field by not allowing mowing within 25 feet of the river's high water mark.
Riverside resident Marty Boomgarden, who said he has voluntarily mowed the field for about 28 years, was offered a permit to mow the compromise area, but he rejected it.
"I disagreed with the boundaries (Wilson) set up," Boomgarden said.
Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Jack Trautman said he felt the compromise was reasonable, especially because the city usually requires a 50-foot setback from the river's high water mark.
Although the rain at Wednesday's meeting was an appropriate backdrop, a rainbow that appeared near the end of it was largely out of place. The meeting didn't end much friendlier than it began, but the residents achieved one small victory. City officials agreed to move a group of boulders placed at one corner of the field shortly after Epstein received his ticket. Wilson and commission members said the rocks were placed to prevent vehicles from driving on the property, but residents felt they were placed to block Boomgarden's riding lawnmower.
"It was the coincidence with the ticket," Riverside resident Cheryl Hardy-Moore said.
The Parks and Recreation Commission will make a recommendation regarding the property at its next meeting in early September.
The residents "always have the option to come to City Council if they believe that Parks and Recreation Commission as an advisory body has missed the mark," Wilson said.