A Colorado Springs man who has opened his home up to nationally recognized folk musicians is being ordered to stop the music or face the wrath of the city's lawyers.
On July 18, city land use inspector Ginna Sanders cited Rob Gordon, claiming he is running a commercial venture out of his house. However, Gordon and his lawyer, Colorado Springs attorney Steve Harris, argue that he has the right to host occasional house concerts in his Skyway home west of downtown. This week, they appealed the ruling.
Gordon has hosted four such acoustic concerts since last September, attracting such nationally known folk artists as Ellis Paul and Peter Mayer to town. The shows attract a low-key audience of about 60 to 80 people, mostly in their 30s and 40s.
Gordon does not formally charge an admission price; however suggested donations are accepted and the bulk of the proceeds are given to the performing artist. Gordon advertises his shows in the free listing sections of the Independent, and the city is arguing that the events constitute commercial activity because money changes hands.
Never happened before
Gordon's house concerts are part of a national movement, and the city's stance marks a first. "I know of no other instances where local governments have tried to shut down a house concert for zoning violations," said Phyllis Barney, executive director of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance. "We have many members who present house concerts across the country, and have never heard of this happening before."
Notably, Colorado Springs leaders and residents have long prided the city as a place where private property rights are sacred. Home concerts, Barney noted, come from a long tradition of the way people socialize.
"Remember the scene from the movie Places in the Heart where Sally Fields' character dances with her son?" Barney said. "The house had had all the furniture taken out, the band was playing and dancers were dancing all around the rooms of the house and in the yard."
In his July 30 letter of appeal, Harris noted, "The concept of a house concert can be traced back at least as far as classical recitals during the Renaissance in Europe and antebellum dances in early America."
Gordon pointed out that hosting house concerts is anything but unusual. Similar venues can be found across the United States and throughout Colorado, including in Denver, Fort Collins, Lyons, Boulder and Nederland.
Similar concerts have been hosted in private homes for many years in Colorado Springs as well, including shows sponsored by the Black Rose Acoustic Society, the Pikes Peak Jazz and Swing Society, the American Music Society and Hausmusik, which arranges classical chamber music performances in private homes.
None of those groups have been cited or threatened by the city's zoning department.
"I'm just providing a venue for nationally touring folk acts," Gordon said. "I'm not doing anything unusual; I'm just the one getting in trouble for it."
Gordon, who writes computer software programs and who has published freelance work in the Independent in the past, said he decided to host the shows in his home in part so he could listen to good music "without having to get a babysitter."
"There's a lot of truth to that -- the other truth is there is no other venue in town that does this with the exception of the Acoustic Coffee Lounge," he said.
Remember the Constitution?
Gordon said his concerts posed no problems with his neighbors until an article about them appeared in the daily newspaper. Then, one neighbor contacted the city's zoning department and asked if the activity was legal.
The neighbor, who has not been identified in documents, reportedly could not enumerate any substantive problems but subsequently told Gordon -- when he contacted his neighbors to inquire whether they opposed his concerts -- that "this is not the kind of thing we do in this neighborhood."
"I think this neighbor believes my shows are a congregation of drug-addled hippies listening to Satan's own rock music -- she actually did refer to the shows as 'rock concerts' in a phone call to another neighbor," Gordon wrote in a July 10 letter to Sanders. "I should not be charged, tried and found guilty on the basis of the complaining of one neighbor who refuses to cite a specific grievance."
A week later, during a July 17 concert, Gordon said he noticed Sanders walking around taking pictures of his property and the cars parked nearby. The following day, he was issued a citation accusing him of violating the city code by engaging in a commercial activity in a residential area.
Attorney Harris, who has attended at least one of the house concerts, rejected the notion that the house concerts constitute a commercial activity. He likened the concerts to parties where Tupperware or Amway or cosmetic products are sold. In addition, Harris said, Gordon and his guests have a right to free speech, free expression and free association.
Harris noted that no neighbors have lodged specific complaints with the city about parking, noise, traffic congestion or any other impact.
A dead, lifeless place
On Tuesday, Sanders declined comment, citing a 1-1/2-year-old policy installed by City Manager Jim Mullen that prohibits city employees from talking to the media. Sanders said she was unaware that Gordon had filed an appeal to her ruling.
City Councilwoman Sallie Clark, whom Gordon has also contacted, said she is unsure whether he is technically engaging in a commercial activity and supports the city's effort to clarify the issue.
"I think what he is doing is a neat idea, but you have to be respectful of the neighbors in that area," Clark said. Though none of Gordon's neighbors have lodged formal complaints, Clark insisted, "We have a responsibility to follow up on these things. I don't think the city is overreacting based on complaints in the neighborhood."
In his letter to the city's land use inspector, however, Gordon expressed his feeling that "a neighborhood is a vibrant, active, life-filled place.
"To the one neighbor that objects to my shows, it seems, a neighborhood is a dead, lifeless place. She effectively told me that I should just stay in my house (and watch TV, I suppose)," he wrote.