FORT COLLINS–As several state-wide efforts to repeal recently passed legislation are underway, some Fort Collins residents are exercising their right to referendum at the local level; seeking to repeal recently enacted restrictions on the use of backyard fire pits.
The City Council on March 19 unanimously passed an ordinance banning the use of wood-burning fire pits after 10:00 p.m., even if used for dual-duty such as cooking food. The ordinance also establishes a 15-foot setback from a property line for use of fire pits. According to maps generated by city staff, the property line setback, coupled with an approximated 15-foot fire code setback from structures, results in a complete ban on backyard fire pits for roughly 22 percent of single-family parcels due to their size.
That’s a step too far for some in Fort Collins.
“We can’t regulate good neighbors by turning neighborhoods in to nanny states where all neighbors do is tattle on each other to the city to fix the problem rather than communication,” said city council candidate Adam Eggleston during the council meeting public comment period.
The Fort Collins City Clerk on April 5 approved a referendum petition for circulation to repeal the ordinance.
One of the organizers of the repeal effort, Penny Laviolette, says she only found out about the proposed ordinance the day before it was voted on, and that many of the people she has talked to since were unaware of the new restrictions until she knocked on their door.
“We’ve had a fire pit for over twenty years,” Laviolette told Complete Colorado. “My neighbors know if they see a fire burning in the backyard that it’s an open invitation to come and join us. It’s a part of being a community.”
According to the Repeal Fort Collins Fire Pit Curfew Facebook page: “This is overreaching and will hinder activities that have been enjoyed by Fort Collins residents for years.”
The repeal proponents are not alone in that sentiment. “Backyard campfires play an enormously positive role in uniting friends and families, cheaply heating our food, and enchanting our children, all while diverting renewable, biomass from landfills, and returning compostable carbon to the earth,” wrote Fort Collins resident Bob Schaffer in an opinion piece for the local newspaper in 2018, when the idea was still just being floated. “The campfire was here first. Kindly leave our backyard sanctuaries alone.”
The Facebook page lists times and places around town where volunteers will be circulating petitions.
The tagline for the repeal campaign is “Save Our S’mores,” in reference to the traditional nighttime campfire treat.
While a reserved right under the Colorado Constitution, home rule municipalities have flexibility to establish certain referendum requirements. Fort Collins allows 20 days from the time the petition is certified for proponents to gather signatures of registered voters equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the last municipal election. This means proponents have until 5:00 p.m. on April 25 to submit 2,991 valid signatures. If they succeed, City Council would have the option of repealing the ordinance, or referring the measure for voters to decide.
Fort Collins is no stranger to citizen-led repeal of unpopular ordinances. In 2014, the City Council enacted a charge on the use of disposable grocery bags. Under Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, new taxes must be approved by voters at the ballot, but legislative bodies can evade this requirement by mislabeling new taxes as fees instead. In turn, a group of citizens ran a repeal effort, gathering enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
In that case, City Council opted to repeal the bag tax ordinance rather than sending it to voters.
“What we’re looking for is a complete repeal to the ordinance,” said Laviolette. “If City Council doesn’t repeal it, then voters will get a say at the ballot in November.”