Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Businesses will need permits to use parks

Sarah Coppola
David Braswell of Outright Fitness times people in a class. Braswell will be required to get a permit to hold classes on city parkland under the new rule.

Fitness businesses will soon have to get a permit and pay fees to hold classes in city parks.

The change could affect personal trainers, dog trainers, yoga instructors, boot camps and dozens of other businesses.

Some have said the fees will conflict with the city's goal of encouraging health and wellness.

But officials with Austin's Parks and Recreation Department say they've seen a steady increase in fitness businesses using public green space and want to regulate those businesses to prevent excessive wear and tear on public parkland and help protect the safety of fitness clients and other park visitors.

The parks department has searched for new sources of revenue in the past few years, saying it can no longer rely just on taxpayer money to keep parks in good shape.

The new program has been in the works for a few years, but parks officials began working on it in earnest last fall and formed a task force of fitness instructors to help write the details.

Officials will explain and answer questions about the program at a public meeting Friday .

Fitness instructors will each have to get $50 , six -month permits. Each month, they'll have to submit a report listing city parks they've used and the number of clients they've served, and pay fees of 45 cents per client per session . The maximum fee for a six-month period will be $1,500 .

Instructors for nonprofit groups and trainers who hold free classes in city parks will have to follow those rules, said Gilbert Hernandez , a contracts administrator at the parks department.

Instructors who hold classes of fewer than four people will have to get a permit but won't have to pay the 45-cent fee.

Trainers can start applying for the permits now, and the program will take effect Jan. 1 .

To apply, they will have to provide records showing they're certified in CPR and have $500,000 in liability insurance. They'll also have to list where they plan to hold classes.

The department will allow trainers to use only about two dozen parks, including Auditorium Shores and Zilker Park, out of several dozen citywide. It won't allow fitness classes along the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake.

If a large number of trainers applies to use one or two parks, parks officials will have the discretion to ask some to use other spaces, Hernandez said.

Parks officials also won't allow fitness classes in areas that conflict with other obvious park uses, such as on a playground or a basketball court, he said.

The parks department will have a website listing businesses that have the park use permits.

Running groups won't have to get a permit to use city hike-and-bike trails because they aren't static in any one park and don't have the same impact that fitness groups may have concentrated in one location, Hernandez said.

Until now, only about a dozen businesses have been required to have permits or contracts to operate in city parks, but most are food, rowing or amusement businesses, Hernandez said.

The cost of a six -month permit for food vendors is $500 to operate in smaller parks and $1,500 for district parks such as Zilker.

Parks officials have no estimate of how much money the new program will generate. The money will go into the city's general fund, which pays for many city services, including parks, libraries and police.

David Braswell , who offers speed and fitness coaching at his business, Outright Fitness , said he is OK with paying for the permit and fees "because my business is already established."

"My concern is that for businesses just starting out, it might be a deterrent or barrier to them."

He said he charges rates that equate to about $10 per person per class and sometimes holds classes in Butler Park - which is not on the list of approved spots - so he would instead move to Zilker Park.

But he said he's concerned that the revenue won't go directly back into park upkeep. "That was the whole basis for doing this, to make up for the wear and tear on city parks," he said.

Most fees the parks department collects go into the city's general fund, not directly to the department, Hernandez said.

Rich Goldstein , the owner of Yoga Yoga , a business that occasionally holds free classes in city parks, said requiring a permit makes sense, but "the 45-cents-a-customer fee seems more complicated than will be practical for small businesses."

"It can be hard to keep track of people if they're walking in and out of a class at different times," he said. "It seems like (the city is) creating an incentive not to report attendees."

The parks department will depend on instructors to provide an accurate count of the clients they serve, though officials could seek to audit a business if they believe a trainer is low-balling numbers to avoid paying the fees, Hernandez said.

Existing park staffers or park rangers will do regular inspections or spot checks of parks to ensure that instructors are carrying permits, Hernandez said.

Instructors who don't have a permit will get a warning first and then possibly a citation for trespassing, he said. Trespassing is a Class B misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail.

Parks officials plan to reassess the program after six and 12 months.

"It's a work in progress," Hernandez said. "We will fine-tune it as necessary."

scoppola@statesman.com; 912-2939

If you go