FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks North Star Borough is stepping up pressure on the Occupy Fairbanks protesters at Veterans Memorial Park to remove two tents and a heating stove.
Late last week, the Borough Code Enforcement Office posted an official warning stating the tents need to be removed because they’re damaging the park or else they can be fined.
“Discussions with the Fairbanks North Star Borough Park and Recreation Department indicate the tents and the heat from the stove used by the Occupy Fairbanks participants are damaging park landscaping,” the letter states.
The letter warns further action could be taken if the tents aren’t removed. That could be up to a $50 fine for “moving, defacing, damaging, or destroying park or recreation property,” according to the borough’s fine schedule
Although the dispute likely won’t end with a $50 fine, Ethan Sinsabaugh, a 27-year-old student who has been with the movement since its start, said the group is raising money to deal with any damage they might do to the grass.
“I would say we’re being respectful,” he said, “and we’re taking care of the park and we’re taking proactive steps to take care of the park. They want to fine us for something that we’re going to take care of.”
Any further action on the issue is made difficult because the borough doesn’t actively enforce its code other than what’s contained in the fine schedule, animal control and curfew issues, borough attorney Rene Broker said. Anything that isn’t spelled out in the borough’s ordinance with a specific fine — actions like putting up tents in a park — can’t be acted upon.
Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said there is progress toward activating the borough’s code enforcement officers, something he said is necessitated by serious zoning infractions. But that means the borough doesn’t have the power to remove the tents for violating the borough’s rule against camping. Instead, for those offenses the borough would have to pursue the issue in civil court, a costly and lengthy process.
Hopkins and Broker said they’re not ready to spend tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers money on fighting that issue in court.
“Unless it’s a gross infraction — like excavating on the levee — it’s not pursued in a civil action,” he said
The protesters set up the tents about a month ago, when temperatures plummeted well below zero during a particularly strong cold snap. The protesters argue they need the tents to maintain their right to free speech during the winter. Sinsabaugh said regardless of the borough’s actions or fines, the group plans to keep the tents up.
“If they still intend on fining us, that’s something we feel we can contest,” he said.