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Occupy's construction should spark legislation

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 26, 2011 7:20 AM

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Occupy Iowa City protesters have made the correct decision in signing a permit with the city government in order to establish a sensible relationship with authorities, but they continue to push their boundaries.

By building a new wooden structure in a public park, Occupy has called attention to various gray areas that need to be addressed in the case of future — or present — abuse.

After the occupation of College Green Park decidedly outlived the "spontaneity clause" of rules on public demonstrations, City Manager Tom Markus and Parks and Recreation Director Mike Moran asked the group to agree upon some terms to ensure its legality and safety.

One of those terms is a guarantee of a four-month window in which the members can inhabit the space — more than enough time to show their solidarity through the brutal winters that Iowans endure.

These conditions have given the occupiers cause to begin the construction of a small shelter in the park. Sensible planning for the future weather patterns that they will inevitably face is a good thing. But is it legal?

Lisa Bonar, an Occupy Iowa City member, says city officials informed her that the structure would be legal as long as it exists outside the city building code. The Iowa City website explains the criteria, requiring a floor size of 144 square feet before building codes kick into effect.

If it were larger, a permit would need to be filed and fees that are determined by the value of the building would need to be paid. Failure to do so would result in fines that would include a doubling of the permit fee and a municipal citation.

Originally, the occupiers were constructing the shelter at 16-by-16 feet, which lies outside of the guidelines. The structure's floor is now approximately 10-by-12 feet. It will likely accommodate 10 or fewer people in uncomfortable conditions.

"I was a little frustrated that we did not do our homework," Bonar said in regard to the shelter.

For the rest of the occupiers (or, perhaps, if the venture is not successful), she said, they are preparing a series of insulated tents, composed of a small tent covered by bags of leaves, inside a larger tent, and sitting on top of a pallet that is filled with leaves and cardboard.

While this may represent the ingenuity of the demonstrators, it brings up significant concerns about the permit system as a whole, what is considered public or private property, and a host of other issues.

Does this mean that anyone who holds a permit for occupation of a public space can build as many structures as they wish in that area, as long as they are all less than 144 square feet in size?

What's stopping those without property in Iowa City from camping out on prime, public real estate under the guise of a political protest — say, "Advocates Against Poverty?"

Is the interior of those buildings considered private property, even if they are constructed on public ground? This is a significant issue at Zuccotti Park with the Wall Street occupation. The private company that owns the park — Brookfield Office Properties — considers the space to be one of New York City's 500 "bonus plazas" in which people are free to come and go as they please, not dissimilar to a public space. Demonstrators have taken this to new levels that suggest that they are not subject to police interference through search and seizure because of the private ownership of the park.

Relatedly, Iowa City Parks and Recreation regulations state, "No person shall … occupy any shelter or building or recreation area that has been reserved by others through the provisions of this chapter." Would that mean that this new shelter would become a private complex that no one can enter without the explicit permission of the "owners" or without a search warrant?

Legal gray areas and loopholes could get out of hand sooner rather than later. The law needs clarification. This situation has clearly opened a rabbit hole that warrants further comment by city officials and a possible revamping of city code related to commercial building and public demonstration.


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