A lone reader takes advantage of some quiet time in Durango’s Memorial Park on Tuesday. A group called Organically Managed Parks Durango is lobbying the City Council to pass a citywide organic approach to parks and open space, which would ban chemical pesticides and fertilizers in favor of natural techniques and manual weed pulling. If denied, the ordinance could be put to a vote in November./Photo by Steve Eginoire












In the weeds

City Council hears first round of organic land management debate
by Tracy Chamberlin

The house was packed and the passions high at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting as residents, councilors and staff debated an Organic Land Management Program for almost three hours.

At odds is the management practice applied to lands owned and leased by the city.

Some at the meeting expressed a desire to see an organic, natural approach to land management while others questioned the effectiveness of the program, particularly in relation to mosquito control and weed abatement.

“I didn’t hear anybody not agree that we all want a healthy and safe community,” said City Councilor Christina Rinderle at the end of the meeting.

Prior to the public presentation, Rinderle talked about the city’s willingness to work with citizens on contentious issues, offering Lake Nighthorse as an example. At the end of the meeting, she repeated the sentiment. “Do we really want to pit two groups that are really passionate against each other? Or do we want to find a win collectively that’s great for our community moving forward?”

The program was put together by a group of local advocates, Organically Managed Parks Durango. The group utilized a petition process defined in the City Charter, which gives voters the power to propose ordinances to the City Council which must either approve the ordinance or send it back to residents for a vote.

One of the mandates under the charter is that the ordinance cannot be changed. The council does not have the authority to remove, replace or alter the language. The advocates, however, do have the right to pull the ordinance, make changes and return to council. But only they can make the changes.

And there’s a time limit on the process. The council has 30 days to vote on the ordinance after it’s been certified and 90 days to bring it before voters if it’s denied.

Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz said it’s likely the council will vote after its Aug. 21 public hearing. If the ordinance is approved, city staff will move forward with implementation. If it is denied, it will end up on the November ballot, which falls within the 90-day window.

The Organic Land Management Program would apply to all city parks, open spaces, trails, lawns, playgrounds, sports fields, rights-of-way and other property owned or leased by the city including some at Fort Lewis College.

The ordinance offers specific parameters for what kinds of fertilizers and pesticides can be used, in what situations, and enforcement guidelines for the program. It also calls for the creation of an Organic Land Management Coordinator to oversee the program.

The city currently uses EPA-approved products and procedures to maintain the city’s lands with two parks considered “chemical free,” Brookside and Pioneer.

Brookside became the first “test park” for the organic land management approach in 2008. With volunteers from Turtle Lake Refuge, the park has been maintained using organic fertilizers and manual weed pulling.

The success of the program depends on which stick is used to measure it. In the past four years, Metz said it’s gone from 5 percent weeds, which is the city’s limit, to 30 percent.

According to Metz, the cost of maintaining the parks and open spaces will increase under the ordinance.

It costs the city $34,550 to apply commercial fertilizer and herbicide twice a year to the city’s irrigated turf. Organic fertilizer would have to be applied monthly, raising the price for application and manual weed removal to $237,450 a year.

In order to maintain the 2,850 acres of natural lands, which currently costs $8,000, the city would need to pay an estimated $76,700 for weed abatement by manual or mechanical means.

Katrina Blair, founder of Turtle Lake Refuge and an active member of Organically Managed Parks Durango, admits that there would be a large initial investment, but said that over time the costs would actually drop below the current rates for maintenance.

“It’s always difficult to make a change, but I think we can do it,” Blair said.

The city currently uses products and procedures approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to maintain the city’s lands.

Blair said those current practices compromise bees, other insects, children’s health, water supplies and even microorganisms under the soil. “There are other ways we can achieve the same goals,” she added.

The program was previously discussed before the Parks and Recreation and Natural Lands Preservation advisory boards, both of whom voted unanimously to recommend that council deny the ordinance.

They expressed concerns with mosquito control and West Nile disease, weed control, effects on the Hillcrest Golf Course and sports fields, fire risks, a lack of stakeholder consensus on the issue, time limitations, and a provision in the ordinance that potentially exposes the city to litigation and liability.

The mosquito control concerns were echoed at Tuesday’s meeting with a manager of Animas Mosquito Control listing areas around the Southwest that were currently battling outbreaks of West Nile.

Some supporters of the ordinance offered suggestions for combating mosquitoes with natural predators like dragonflies and bats.

Also echoed was the negative effect management practices under the ordinance could have on the golf course and sports fields with members of the Hillcrest Golf Course and Durango Youth Soccer League’s board of directors in attendance.

Finally, city staff expressed reservations about the potential liability exposure the ordinance would have on the city and the coordinator position. As written, the ordinance allows anyone to sue the city for not adhering to the ordinance and recoup legal fees in the process.

“There’s no other position in the city that has that target on their head,” City Manager Ron Leblanc said during the meeting.

Blair said city ordinances typically have some kind of enforcement and the wording was taken from a model provided by Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization that provides information about pesticides and pesticide alternatives.

If someone filed a civil suit against the city for not following the ordinance, they would simply be able to recover their legal fees, according to Blair.
“There is so much information that is out there in the realm of this topic,” Metz said. And just a portion of it was touched on at Tuesday’s meeting, the first of two public hearings on the matter. The next is 6:30 p.m. Aug. 21, at City Hall. The public is invited to attend and offer testimony on the issue.
Ahead of the next meeting, Rinderle requested petitioners consider the potential impacts of implementing the ordinance.

“Maybe the best approach for our community would be to look at the option to withdraw the ordinance that’s being presented as a vote and come together, all of us, in the spirit of Durango,” she said. “… Let’s look at how we get a win for our community.”