In 2011, the Fairfax County Park Authority instituted a fee for commercial photography. Green Spring Gardens in particular “was being overrun by weddings and commercial photographers,” agency spokeswoman Judy Pedersen says.
One of those photographers is Pamela Lepold, who says she was photographing a family on a park bench at Green Spring Gardens last fall when a park employee approached her. After telling Lepold she needed a $100 permit to do professional photography in the park, the employee “tossed a permit information sheet on my bag and walked away,” she says.
Lepold is trying to get people who feel the fee is unfair to attend a public comment meeting about parks fees Wednesday night. (She has prepared a petition.) Pedersen says the park authority welcomes a discussion. “We’re open to re-examining the issue,” she says, not necessarily about the existence of a fee, but more “are we in the right place, fee-wise?”
The current fee structure requires photographers to pay $100 for two hours, or $500 for a yearlong pass. Lepold says that falls particularly hard on photographers shooting family portraits. She charges $250 for a family photography session and says many of her clientele for those “don’t have manicured lawns to take photos” in front of. “It’s people who don’t have the property and the grand estate that are looking for other places to take their photos,” she says.
Green Spring Gardens is a particularly good spot for those photos because it has a lot of places where toddlers can roam in sight while their parents get their picture taken, Lepold says.
In its 2015 fees proposal, the park authority lays out a number of reasons it seeks increases in some fees—though the commercial photography fee is not listed. Debt obligations of about $1.5 million this year, higher employee healthcare benefit and compensation costs, and golfers responding to “challenging economic conditions with judicious belt tightening” all contribute to the need for some fees to rise, the proposal reads.
Miniature golf fees and carousel tickets at Clemyjontri Park will see modest increases under the proposal. Campers and those who rent athletic fields by the hour will have to pay a little more, too. Greens fees at most of the county’s golf courses will remain the same.
The commercial-photography fee is no different than the charges paid by other businesses that use parks, says Steve Lewis, FCPA’s business office manager. Tennis instructors pay to use public courts. Personal trainers not only pay fees but pay a 15 percent commission on their gross revenues for activities on parkland. Lepold counters that the fees aren’t applied consistently — dog walkers, for instance, don’t pay to use Fairfax parks.
Pedersen says the commercial photography fee is “not a moneymaker” and has brought in “less than $10,000 per year.” Also, she says, the county has been “very soft in terms of enforcement and compliance.”
For Fairfax, it’s a matter of managing park resources. Maybe you can’t snap a photo of your family at Colvin Run Mill’s most picturesque vista because a line of weddings precedes you. Lewis tells the story of Our Special Harbor, a free spray park at the Lee District Recreation Center that became overrun by groups, with long waits for all patrons until the county adopted a group use fee. The county got “not one iota of pushback” from institutional splashers, he says.
Lepold notes that Fairfax is alone among Northern Virginia jurisdictions in charging these fees. (Commercial photography in the District often requires fees, according to Kat Forder’s excellent website, which also lists requirements in Maryland and Virginia.)
Wednesday’s meeting won’t be definitive, Pedersen says: “We have no statutory obligation to hold a public meeting but we do.”
But she expects more comment at this meeting than others, thanks largely to Lepold’s efforts, and says they’ll take all comment to the authority’s board, which may elect to study the fee issue further. Lepold says she doesn’t oppose a fee for weddings but wants the fee eliminated for family photography and groups of fewer than 11 people. “Photographers are not costing the parks anything by taking pictures there,” she says.