South Bethany Park Committee readies park survey

Members of the Richard Hall Memorial Park Committee met on Sunday, Oct. 17, to complete work on the survey package the committee will recommend the town council send out to South Bethany citizens in the coming weeks. The survey is designed get their take on whether or not the town should further develop the park adjacent to town hall.

Committee Chairman and Town Councilman John Fields noted that the meeting had been called on a Sunday in order to get the survey package ready in time for the council to consider at this month’s workshop meeting, set for Oct. 28.

Fields said the committee had had a challenge to meet in compiling the information that will be sent out with the simple survey question – a task that had previously led to the cancelation of a May referendum on the issue, because the council felt not enough information was available at that time.

“It turned out to be a hefty task,” Fields said. “There are still a lot of people out there who don’t have information about the park. … It could have been 10 pages, but we decided to have two pages,” he noted.

With Fields as chairman, the rest of the committee is made up of pro-park Councilwoman Sue Callaway and pro-park community member Pat VanCleave, along with Councilman Tim Saxton, who represents the opponents of the park project, and Andy Ross, who represents the anti-park group that has touted conservation of the existing naturalized park as one of its goals.

Fields explained on Sunday that the committee had been divided in half to more fairly represent the two positions on the project, with half of the committee working on the issue of having a recreational area, and the other half working on the case for leaving it as it stands – heavily wooded and with no structures.

With the two opposing sides at the table together to develop a document for joint recommendation to the council, it was not entirely surprising that both found fault with the other’s written presentation.

VanCleave took issue with Ross’ mention of issues outside the direct issue of why the town should or should not develop the park. Ross, for his part, said he had “serious factual concerns” about VanCleave’s document.

“You’re never going to agree with each other,” Fields told the two sides, “but you have to approve theirs and they have to approve yours.” He added that he didn’t see any factual errors in the documents but that there was some “stretching” of ideas in both.

Callaway cited Ross’ statement that the park is a freshwater seasonal wetland as one area in which the “facts” were in question. Ross – a professional arborist – made the statement in his position paper but did not cite any expert source for that conclusion, which Callaway said she had understood would be provided for all statements of fact.

“It’s his opinion that it is,” Fields concluded.

“You had asked us to justify the information that DNREC and other experts had said what we said they had said,” VanCleave pointed out. “The definition of seasonal wetland on your Web site, it doesn’t fit,” she challenged Ross.

Fields said his concern with the pro-park group’s statements were in whether they had had permission to quote DNREC and other officials as to their opinion of the potential to develop the park. “You can argue over whether it is a freshwater seasonal wetland, but that’s their position,” he added of Ross’ group.

With little or no movement on the positions of either side, Fields was adamant that he wanted to move ahead to bringing the survey package to the council.

“I would like to give these two one-pages to the council,” he said, “and I will say, ‘This is it.’ We can tweak it a little – if someone objects to the word ‘small,’ and the council wants to change it… And if the council chooses not to send this out, then nothing is done, and that means no park. These are your opinions. You were asked to do this and you did it.”

Along with the two one-page statements from each side, the proposed survey package includes a one-page financial statement about the proposed project, put together by the town’s Budget & Finance Committee, which Saxton heads.

The bottom line on the fiscal analysis of the project is an estimated cost of $176,000 for the project, as conceived in a document sent to the Budget & Finance Committee and costed out by town staff.

In addition to those design elements, staff priced a potential fence – which Saxton said the Budget & Finance Committee had felt would be wise to install considering the park’s proximity to traffic, at a cost of about $4,000.

But while the numbers from town staff might seem cut-and-dry, Callaway objected to the $176,000 total, which she said was based not on the pro-park group’s final concept but an alternative that was not what they had finally envisioned and which would cost more than they had planned.

Further, Callaway said the costs for individual items – such as a pavilion – were higher than what the park group had been quoted during their research process. In particular, she noted an $18,000 price difference for the pavilion, up from the $32,000 they had been quoted to $50,000.

“When people have asked, we have tried to create a picture of what this might be,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to put any additional costs in there for lighting, additional restrooms, additional parking … because that’s not part of the proposed design.”

Those were some of the items Ross was adamant needed to be included in any cost estimate for the project, along with paths, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and other site preparation costs he said could be expected but which hadn’t been included because, Saxton said, the town couldn’t get a good estimate of what might be involved in the end.

“If it’s going to be the park design,” Callaway said of the basis of the cost and the additions, “it has to go. I don’t want that. Nobody wants that. … Statewide, very few parks have lighting. Very few have restrooms. Very few have parking if they’re associated with another entity, such as here.”

“When all the people in town get this cost estimate sheet, the intent is not going to be, ‘Oh, it’s this price. It’s this and this and this,” VanCleave added. “We are not proposing parking. People can park along Canal Street and Evergreen Street, like they do when we do the bull roasts. … “We’re not talking about the world ascending on South Bethany.”

Ross, though, challenged Callaway and VanCleave on whether their notions of costs were realistic.

“Every time, you shy away from [the costs]. Who gave you permission to use the parking? Did you even inquire about that? Who’s going to pay to repair the shoulder? These are very real costs. People will be parking there constantly. Somebody’s going to have to maintain the muddy shoulder. Someone’s going to have to repair the sidewalk, because they won’t last 10 years anymore.”

Ross additionally argued that tree preservation and an environmental study should be included in the estimated costs of the project – particularly if the cost was going to be adjusted downward to accommodate the other side.

“You can certainly see how exaggerated or higher costs can influence people’s decisions,” Callaway argued.

“Nobody has an idea what this is going to cost, really,” Fields acknowledged. “I gave you the opportunity last time to send this out without the financial statement, and you two said you had no problem with it,” he told Callaway and VanCleave.

Callaway said she found the figure of $150,000 to be more likely than $176,000, while Ross said he considered $200,000 to be more realistic.

Callaway also argued that the citizens may decide they want a smaller project, such as just building a pavilion and no playground – which she said was the reason the group had fought for a referendum earlier this year, to get an initial idea of what the citizens want. VanCleave also noted offers of free services from a civil engineer, which she said would help keep down the costs.

“That’s not a park committee decision,” Saxton countered. “It’s a town hall decision. We just can’t put that out there. There’s no guarantee that if this thing passes, the town council is not going to say, ‘We don’t need grants. We’re going to spend the whole thing and raise taxes.’ I’m not saying they would do that, but we don’t know what they’re going to do.”

On that point, Callaway and VanCleave were adamant – the park project is not envisioned to go forward without the grant funds needed to build it, with matching funds expected to be raised through the community, and not from taxes.

“We can get grants for planning, land preservation, playground equipment, but it does have a requirement for matching funds,” she said. “I truly believe ... if this town wants a park, they will join forces together and will raise that matching fund.”

On that one point, the group agreed – a statement to the effect of the project not moving forward without grant funding was mutually welcomed.

Saxton said he would look at reducing the final total in the estimate to reflect the lesser plan for the park that Callaway said was their final concept, though he warned that the Budget & Finance Committee had wanted a 20 percent cushion in the estimate for possible cost overruns, which he had overruled so it would more accurately reflect the concept.

Division remained on the issue of the survey, however, with Callaway championing a series of questions that aimed to determine exactly what degree and type of development the citizens might want in the park, while Fields’ single-question survey boiled the question down to a yes-or-no issue of leaving the park in its current state or developing some sort of recreational facility there.

“We want to know if you want anything at all, period,” Fields said. “If the majority of people want something out there…”

Callaway said she was hoping to engage the citizens through the survey.

“I think there’s somewhat of a feeling out there that this has all been decided, what this is going to look like. I want to engage South Bethany property owners to (a) tell us if they want something done, and (b) if they do, what do they want done?

“We should not miss opportunity to ask what they would want to have done,” she said. “If they don’t want it, it will be clear. There will be more checks on the top box than on the other. We should try to engage them and find out what their vision is of what the park should be: ‘We want to engage you and hear from you.’”

Saxton, however, said he felt such questions were better left for a detailed survey like the one the town’s Planning Commission is working on, assuming the single-question survey shows support for developing the park in some manner.

Callaway and VanCleave continued to support the more complex survey, but Fields called an end to any debate.

“We either take what I have to the council unanimously, or we vote on it,” he said. With an agreement to revise the financial statement and to reference leaving the park in its “current” state – instead of in its “natural” state – the committee voted 3-2, with Callaway and VanCleave opposed, to bring the simple survey and three informational pages to the council for consideration at their Oct. 28 workshop.

There, the council could agree to send the survey out as is, make changes or not send it out at all. It is also possible, according to Fields, that the council could wait until its regular meeting in November to make that decision.

Regardless of when it might go out, Fields said he hoped to have the survey turned around quickly – possibly prior to or just after the winter holidays.