City codes and art strike a balance

Stone balancing threatened with citation during Boulder Creek Festival

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Michael Grab

Stone-balancing artist Michael Grab, who’s impromptu sculptures are known to frequent Boulder Creek, was stopped during the Boulder Creek Festival by a Boulder police officer who told him he couldn’t balance rocks in the creek, citing two Boulder City Codes, one against rolling rocks and one on destruction of public property.

Boulder City Attorney Tom Carr says he wasn’t sure whether the police officer was contacted by someone or acting of his own initiative, but the officer did contact the city prosecutor’s office to ask if there was anything Grab could be cited with.

“He was concerned about the environmental effects of moving rocks around in the rivers, particularly during high waters,” Carr says.

Grab was given a warning, but not cited, Carr says.

Grab has been working for the last seven years creating art based on balancing stones and practices regularly in Boulder Creek. He has performed the art across the world, including a live performance for financial leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. He spent Saturday, May 23, balancing rocks in front of an audience crowding the banks of Boulder Creek, returned to do the same on Sunday morning when at around 11 a.m., two police officers passing by said he wasn’t allowed to balance rocks.

“The codes, if they’re interpreted a certain way, then moving rocks is not a good idea. But I think part of that code was actually implemented because in the past there were some people here and there that started building kind of dams through the creek and there’s some kind of rule about altering creek flow,” Grab says. “I think rock stacking is kind of confused with that. It’s not really making dams or anything, it’s just balancing some rocks up that fall right back down.”

Grab makes a point of knocking down his sculptures before he leaves the area, and encourages anyone who balances rocks to make towers to knock them down before they leave a site to prevent them from becoming a risk to passers-by and therefore being seen as a liability to local government agencies.

“I actually knock over any that I see left standing,” he says. “They could be dangerous if they fall on somebody.”

In seven years, his previous encounters with the police have been largely positive. Just one encounter at Eben G. Fine Park ended in an affirmation that he would take down sculptures before he left.

The encounter with the police during the Boulder Creek Festival ended in the officer telling him that he would check with the city attorney’s office, and in a Tuesday morning phone call, Grab was informed that the police officer’s interpretation of the codes was true: People could be written-up for balancing rocks in the creek.

That’s when Grab went public, posting to his Facebook page a lengthy recounting of the event and asking people to contact city offices to voice their objections to the decision.

“We started getting calls from all over the world including one from Hong Kong, so I sat down and read the code,” Carr says, “And it doesn’t seem to apply to stacking rocks.”

He told the prosecutor’s office there was no way to prosecute Grab based on those codes, and called Grab with the same news on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a long-standing tradition in Boulder for people to balance rocks, even way before I started, and there’s also a lot of other people out there that also practice it,” he says. Had it gone the other way, he says, “I would leave the city. Go to somewhere where it is allowed.”

“These things happen and we try to resolve them, I think we resolved this within a few hours,” Carr says. “I think a lot of people kind of enjoy seeing the rocks stacked, and if there’s a concern, it should be addressed as a policy issue and not by my office trying to go after it.”