Residents split as Denver considers full strength beer at city parks

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DENVER -- The Denver Parks and Recreation department is considering a proposal that will allow people to bring full strength beer and wine to parks around the city.

During a Denver city council committee hearing Tuesday, the executive director and her team presented the proposal to council members and President Albus Brooks.

The discussion comes after Colorado state lawmakers passed a bill to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer and give more leeway to cities to make up their own rules for what should be allowed in green spaces. 

“State law passed the baton to the local municipalities with regards to alcohol and what is allowed at parks,” said Fred Weiss, the financial director for the Park and Recreation department.

Weiss told the council the rules haven’t been updated in more than a decade and can be confusing because there are so many exceptions for different parks and different events.

“The alcohol policy was first put into place in 2007. The alcohol policy has gone through some minor tweaks but nothing major,” Weiss said. “The current policy is very complicated. You’re able to serve certain types of alcohol at some parks and not at others or with certain permits and not with others.”

Weiss told the city council that the goal would be to modernize and simplify the rules, get the Parks and Rec department out of the licensing business and give it the final say on how park permits are used with alcohol. Part of the proposal is to do away with special rules for certain parks like Sloane’s Lake and Washington Park and come up with one, uniform policy.

The proposed rules would also change the way alcohol is regulated at festivals, athletic events and inside recreational centers.

“With festivals, which we now call public events, we want to remove the restrictions that says hard liquor has to be served package premixed form,” Weiss said.

However, the festival organizers would need to obtain a permit from the city to be able to serve that sort of alcohol.

Alcohol would be prohibited at all athletic events except for tournaments. It could, however, be served at recreation centers if the center is closed for a private event. The people taking part in those events would not be allowed to have access to the pool or weight rooms if alcohol is present under the proposed rules.

For the general public, full strength beer and wine would be allowed in green spaces, but hard alcohol would still be prohibited.

The Parks and Rec department conducted an online survey over the past several months asking the public about the idea of moving to full-strength beer and wine in parks and received about 4,450 responses.

“Most people we talked to had no idea there was actually a restriction on bringing alcohol into the park,” said another Parks and Rec. representative.

She pointed out that there were some differences in opinion depending on the age of the person taking the survey. However, overall the survey respondents seemed to support the proposed rule change. 

President Brooks told the department he has been wanting to see changes implemented for years and is happy to see some progress being made.

“I just appreciate you guys modernizing this and I knew our constituents are appreciative,” Brooks said.

Many of the people Denver7 spoke with at Washington Park Saturday liked the idea of a rule change.

“It seems like a good idea to me. I mean, parks seem like a good place to drink,” said Kevin Hoth.

Meanwhile, Joan Boline and Bud Bagdon said it’s all about moderation.

“I think in moderation it would be a great thing relaxing, pleasant and who doesn’t want to have wine with the picnic?” Boline said.

“I think it’s a good idea if it’s controlled as long as it doesn’t turn into these crazy drunken parties or that kind of stuff,” Bagdon said.

Other park-goers said they don’t think the rule change would make much of a difference:

“I think it wouldn't make much of a difference. I think there’s plenty of people that drink marbles, drink beer at parks anyway,” said Mike Cortese.

However, other park-goers were not thrilled about the idea. Stephanie Padilla said she worries about the atmosphere bringing full strength beer and wine into parks would create.

“I’m opposed to that at the parks because we have lived across the park for 15 years and we enjoy more of a family atmosphere,” Padilla said. “There’s a lot of places that are perfectly appropriate for people to go and engage in that kind of party and behavior if they want to, just not a park.”

Denver city councilman Wayne New, meanwhile, questioned whether drinking in parks would lead to more drunk drivers or marijuana use in green spaces.

“I’ve had DUI deaths in my district the last two years and I’ve had numerous DUI related accidents - terrible accidents going to homes and yards, and a lot of it is alcohol but also marijuana,” New said in the city council committee hearing. “It’s always the unintended consequences that you have to watch out for.”

Other places across the country and around the world already allow people to drink in parks.

“It’s allowed in England. It’s bad behavior that’s not allowed - it's everywhere, so I suppose it’s more about how you carry on with it,” said Danny Lockwood.

He has visited California numerous times over the years and is now visiting Denver for a rugby tournament.

“I found it weird that you can go to this fantastic beach facilities with dedicated barbecue pits and everything, but you couldn’t have a responsible beer or open a bottle of fizz if you’re celebrating something,” Lockwood said. “For me it was like looking at problem that I’m not sure existed.”

Even if the Parks and Rec. department decides to go forward with the rule change, it wouldn’t go into effect until 2019 and would have a sunset provision so it would only be effective for a year. 

This would allow the department to reflect on how the policy change worked out and whether it needs to be reassessed.

Also, even under the new rules, glass bottles would not be allowed in the parks.

The new policy proposal is being reviewed by the city council and the executive director of the Parks and Rec. Department before a final decision is made.

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