Area photographers object to park fee
Park system initially instituted permits in 2011
By Kali Schumitz Staff Writer
Area photographers are trying to convince the Fairfax County Park Authority Board to remove or lower a permit fee for professional photographers doing photo shoots in county parks.
The park system instituted the permit in 2011 after problems at one park, Green Spring Gardens, that was very popular with wedding photographers.
Regional Photography Fees
Examples of other regional photography fees. Several other local park systems do not charge any fees.
• Brookside Gardens, Montgomery County – Free for groups of 10 or fewer; $350 for 11 or more (no fees at other Montgomery County parks)
• Meadowlark Gardens, NOVA Parks – $25 plus park admission ($4 per person)
• National Mall, National Park Service – $50 to $250 per day, depending on the number of people, plus $90 application processing fee.
While most photographers weren’t causing a problem, according to Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen, there were some trampled garden beds and other issues that led park staff to want to better control photo sessions there.
“They were looking for a mechanism to manage this phenomenon,” she said. “It’s more for coordination rather than anything we would consider to be a money-maker.”
The current permit fee is $100 for two hours, or $500 for an unlimited annual pass. Photographers who purchase the annual pass are still expected to notify the Park Authority when they are going to a park, to ensure that the photo shoot won’t conflict with an event or activity.
Since implementing the permit, Pedersen said the Park Authority has taken a “gentle,” educational approach to informing photographers about the permit requirement. Staff members don’t kick photographers out or demand the permit fee on the spot.
“When they tell us that they’re not commercial or they’re not being paid, we don’t challenge it,” Pedersen said.
There are now signs posted at Green Spring Gardens informing the public of the permit requirement, and the staff recently put together a brochure explaining the permit process that can be provided to photographers.
Local photographer Pamela Lepold, who does some of her portrait sessions in public parks, said she just recently learned about the fee when approached by a park staff member while she was in the middle of a shoot. The staff person dropped a brochure on her bag and let her know she is supposed to have a permit.
Lepold said the fee is way too high, especially when it comes to family portrait photography.
“The average portrait session is only $200, and the Park Authority wants half of that,” she said.
For wedding photos, Lepold acknowledges, the photographer would be more likely to be able to pass some of the added cost to the customer because clients typically have a larger budget for wedding photos.
Pedersen said the Park Authority does not have any way to differentiate between different types of photography.
The $100 fee was initially set by looking at the photography fees charged by botanical gardens because the focus was on managing photographers at Green Spring Gardens. Pedersen said the average fee was over $60 per hour, so they settled on $100 for two hours.
Lepold said she already pays personal taxes and business taxes to the county, part of which go to support the park system. In addition, she said, she doesn’t feel that a photo shoot has any greater impact to the park or park staff than someone just visiting the park.
She is normally shooting early in the morning or late in the day, when the light is best. “There are hardly any patrons at the parks during those hours,” Lepold said.
Lepold said she is also concerned about the logistics of managing multiple permit applications and possible rescheduling due to weather or client illness.
“Just managing all of that seems overwhelming to a one-person small business,” she said.
Although Lepold and other local photographers say they feel singled out by the fees, Pedersen said the Park Authority charges fees to a number of private business using the parks for for-profit purposes.
Food trucks and concession vendors pay permit fees. Private tennis and boot camp instructors pay fees to use park facilities. The Park Authority is also proposing to add a $5 per person fee for daycares, private camps and other for-profit businesses that bring groups of children to the popular Clemyjontri Park in McLean.
“We use business activity fees so that when people are conducting business in parks, the public is getting something back,” Pedersen said.
The park system’s more general “business activity license” is $50 or 15 percent of gross revenue, whichever is greater.
Lepold has started a petition opposing the fees and is working with other Washington, D.C., area photographers to try and convince the Park Authority Board to remove or reduce the fees.
The board is meeting Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. for a public hearing on the park system’s proposed fee adjustments for 2015. The photography fees are not officially part of the proposal, as they are planned to stay the same, but Pedersen said members of the public are welcome to comment on any fee. Comments also can be submitted via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org.