Backers, Opponents Turn Out for Christo Hearing

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3min 55sec

The massive art project known as Over the River is close to getting the final permits needed for construction along the Arkansas River west of Pueblo. This week, Fremont County commissioners are considering whether to grant permission for the project, and opponents hope to throw a wrench in that process. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee attended the first day of a two-day public hearing.

Fremont County's information on the Over the River Permit

Colorado Public Radio's past reporting on Over the River:

Controversy surrounds Over the River Proposal (2009)

Christo and Jeanne Claude Exhibit at Metro State (2008)

The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report:

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: The canyon in question is a long, twisting gash of brown rocks and tumbling river. For 16 years the artist Christo has doggedly sought permission to drape almost six miles of transparent, silvery fabric over a 42-mile stretch of the river, an installation he envisions rippling in the wind, changing with the movement of the sun.

CHRISTO: "And the silver color fabric panel will absorb the color. In the morning will become rosy, in the midday platinum, and the sunset the fabric become the golden."

REPORTER: Christo is attending this week’s meetings with an entourage of engineers and lawyers, trying to address every concern opponents have raised.

LORI POTTER, ATTORNEY: "Although construction will go on over a two year period, it will be intermittent and the time and location of construction is always going to be known to the public via a website."

REPORTER: The Over the River Corporation has already obtained most of the key permissions, but all that will be meaningless if Fremont County commissioners don’t approve it. So both supporters and opponents are packing this week’s public meetings. Rafting company owner Andy Neinas asked the commissioners to vote yes.

ANDY NEINAS: "Needless to say, there will be an infusion into our community, and the collateral dollars that will be spent here are needed perhaps now more than in living memory."

REPORTER: And Nienas said the artwork is worth more to the community than just money.

NEINAS: "Rarely are we afforded a seat, a front seat, to history in the making. And I can assure you that is not an overstatement. We have been offered a gift that is so much more than the exhibit itself. To conceive of the project deserves our admiration."

JANICE YALCH: "If this project is allowed to go through, those of us who actually live in the canyon will be sacrificed."

REPORTER: Janice Yalch lives in the small town of Howard, alongside the only road that runs through the canyon. She told commissioners the years of construction required for Over the River would make everything from commutes to evacuations more difficult.

YALCH: "Highway 50 is my only way in, the only way out. And I know from experience that whenever there is what they call a short delay, it turns into a very long delay in the canyon."

REPORTER: Traffic isn’t opponents' only concern. Their objections range from the impact on wildlife, to the risk of strong winds tearing the panels down. And they’re not just speaking up in meetings. On Wednesday, the group Rags Over the Arkansas River, known as ROAR, filed suit in federal court, charging the Bureau of Land Management violated its own policies by granting a permit for such an environmentally sensitive area. ROAR members have also sent county commissioners hundreds of concerned comments. Spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo.

JOAN ANZELMO: "It’s hopeful the Fremont county commissioners will hear their citizens and perhaps think twice, or at least press the pause button and get a lot more information before issuing the temporary use permit."

REPORTER: Anzelmo recently retired as superintendent of the Colorado National Monument, where she successfully defeated an attempt to route the Pro Challenge bike race through the park. You might think that the artist Christo, facing a federal court challenge and hostile residents, would be worried about Over the River’s future, but he says this is exactly what he wants.

CHRISTO: "All that is part of the work of art. The work of art involves everything. People who dislike the project, they’re part of the work of art. We are discussing a work of art for 16 years that do not exist."

REPORTER: Whether that work of art does someday exist as swoops of fabric hanging over the Arkansas River, or remains just preparatory drawings hanging on gallery walls, is a decision that now rests in the courts, and with the Fremont County Commissioners. The commission expects to wrap up public hearings on Thursday. A vote on the permit is not yet scheduled.

[Photo:CPR/Megan Verlee, Design: Christo & Jeanne Claude]