Wild and free
Magalia man ordered to pay fees for privately built park
“My last name means ‘son of St. Nicholas’ and my first name is ‘Kris’ with a ‘K,’ so I just kind of naturally grew into the look,” Kris Nikolauson said with a chuckle from behind his snow white beard, remarking on his obvious resemblance to the North Pole’s most famous resident.
The similarities are more than skin deep; for the past 22 years, Nikolauson has invested every spare cent and moment of his time into transforming his wooded, 8-acre Magalia property into a whimsical wonderland complete with a 15-foot-deep swimming hole, waterfall, zip line, rope swing and much more, all designed and mostly built by Nikolauson himself.
Though originally intended to be reserved for group activities, passersby stumbled onto the private property, called Loch Lomond Glen, about five years ago, and the owner decided to let anyone use the park as long as they followed some simple rules: no drugs, alcohol, glass bottles or dogs. Using the park is free, even for large gatherings like weddings, though there is a donation box that generates about $1,000 a year toward an estimated $5,000 in annual maintenance costs. Nikolauson started a nonprofit organization called the Loch Lomond Glen Foundation to oversee the site when the park idea first emerged more than two decades ago.
Nikolauson is a jolly fellow until topics like building permits, use fees and governmental bodies come up, at which point the twinkle in his eye turns into more of an angry gleam. “Just look around at this place,” he said. “It’s a great example of what you can do without the government’s help.”
His ire comes from the fact that many of the improvements made to the park in recent years, including concrete foundations for yet-to-be-finished bathrooms, light poles and other facilities, were built without a conditional-use permit or building permits and without paying development impact fees, and the county is demanding he pay nearly $10,000 to comply. Nikolauson additionally owes nearly $2,500 to noncounty agencies like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. On May 19, he appeared before the Butte County Board of Supervisors, asking that the county waive fees in the interest of keeping Loch Lomond Glen open. It’s the only park in Magalia.
The supervisors decided it was in the public interest to waive $3,990 for the conditional-use permit, but will hold Nikolauson and his foundation accountable for the rest.
“I’m still having a hard time figuring out what I’m forgiven for and what I’m still responsible for,” he said, explaining some of the fees are related to his living on the property in a donated motor home, which he hopes to sell to help cover costs, even though it may leave him without a roof over his head. “All I know is it’s a heckuva lot more money than I have.”
This is not the first time Nikolauson has tangled with detractors over Loch Lomond Glen. Butte County Superior Court records include a litany of conflicts with neighbors, county and state officials over the last several decades.
Nikolauson said his life-long dream has been to start a Christian-oriented kids’ camp, and he pursued an uncompleted recreation degree in his younger days.
Few can deny that what Nikolauson has built at Loch Lomond Glen is impressive, though his sensibilities obviously lean toward a long-gone, less-litigious era. He scoffs at modern playgrounds and the mollycoddled children he believes such sterile environments create, and a sign near the Nimshew Road entrance to the park warns visitors to enter and play at their own risk.
“None of this equipment is rubberized like it is at most playgrounds tody; anyone can get hurt on anything here,” Nikolauson proclaimed with pride. “Kids naturally look for challenges and it helps build up their self-esteem. That’s what my whole park is designed to do; challenge them and help them have fun and learn to believe in themselves.”
Nikolauson’s ideas on that matter may be more progressive than some people realize. As reported in April on National Public Radio, there are a growing number of “adventure playgrounds” in Europe—and at least a few in the United States—that encourage “wild, risky play.” Some even supply kids with matches, hammers and nails. Erin Davis, who directed a documentary called The Land about such a park in Wales, told NPR that the park she filmed at length (also called The Land) is “a play space rooted in the belief that kids are empowered when they learn to manage risks on their own.”
Still, liability issues likely are the biggest hurdle that Nikolauson will have to deal with moving forward, according to Mike Trinca, district manager for the Paradise Recreation and Park District. Trinca said he visited the man and his park four years ago to discuss the possibility of the public organization partnering with Nikolauson for stewardship of Loch Lomond Glen.
“It’s not something we could get involved with because, as a public entity, the safety standards and regulations we have to adhere to are a lot more strict,” Trinca said. “He’s managed to do a lot with a little, much more than we could get done, but Mr. Nikolauson would need to upgrade his building standards if it was a public facility.”
However, Trinca said it’s not unprecedented for a private citizen to build a private park for public use, citing Stirling City’s Clotilde Merlo Park as an example.
In the meantime, Nikolauson said he’s uncomfortable with organized fundraising, though he’s happy to accept donations. He also regrets that any money he raises in the near future likely will go toward paying fees and fines rather than back into the park. He has plenty of plans for improvements, which include developing the remaining 4 acres; installing a high-dive, water slides and a trampoline at the swimming hole; a sound system to host regular music events; an outdoor kitchen; and a miniature train, complete with trestles and tunnels, running around the whole property.
“I keep hoping that someday someone will come along and bless me so I can get [the county] off my back and get this all done,” he said. “If I got $2 million tomorrow, I’d put every penny left back into this park.”