SB could clear way for proposed park project

With the controversy leading up to a planned-but-scrapped May referendum vote on the issue still fresh in their minds, will South Bethany officials move this week to definitively open the way for an enhanced park next to the town hall?

The possibility of just such a move is on the agenda for the South Bethany Town Council’s July 9 meeting, as they consider a proposal to purchase the “reversion clause” in the town’s deed to “Tract II” – otherwise known as Richard Hall Memorial Park.

The triangular piece of wooded land adjacent to town hall was donated to the town by the Hall family, in memory of the late South Bethany resident. The gift mandated that the land be used as parkland and that it reflect its history as a gift in memoriam of Hall, but whether the town can put enhancements such as a pavilion, exercise stations or playground equipment on the land has been unclear.

Just such enhancements have been proposed by a South Bethany Property Owners Association (SBPOA) park committee, and vehemently proposed by some residents, who say they’d like the land to remain in its unimproved, wooded state.

Were the town to do something with the land that was not permitted under the deed restrictions that came with the gift, the property would revert to the Hall family – so particular care to determine the limits of those restraints has been the watchword for the town.

With the legal restraints on the gift of land unclear, and with some concern expressed about the land’s suitability for development due to is low-lying nature, council members this spring wrangled over whether to let the voters voice their views on what the town should explore for the park or to first explore – at some cost to the town – whether the legal and geological circumstances would even permit an enhanced park on the site.

The council opted to hold referendum first, on a divided council vote.

But the May referendum that would have coincided with town council elections was quickly canceled, with a majority of council members citing a level of confusion about the issue that they felt could not be cleared up in time to allow voters to cast an informed vote in May.

With a new mayor and council in place as of June 5, the issue again rose to the forefront. Mayor Jay Headman appointed the Richard Hall Memorial Park Committee, to be led by Councilman John Fields, who said soon after that he planned to develop a mail-in referendum on citizens’ desires for the park, to be mailed out this fall.

As of July 1, that committee had not met yet, though. And Fields said at the council’s July 1 workshop that a legal question had been raised on June 8 that the council would have to decide before the committee could move ahead. He said he expected to call a meeting of that committee before the end of July, to work on the referendum.

Council members on July 1 held two closed executive sessions, at the beginning and end of their workshop meeting. Executive sessions are generally called to deal with sensitive matters of personnel and legal issues, or to discuss land acquisition. That served to fuel expectations this week that something was brewing on the issue of the park.

Members of the SBPOA park committee had been invited to speak to the council at the July 1 workshop and said they had been told something substantial had happened or was happening. But those committee members said they were almost immediately uninvited from participating in any workshop discussion about the park.

They came to the July 1 workshop anyway, taking advantage of an unexpected change in policy that now permits citizens to address the council at the beginning and end of each workshop session, whereas previously, no one not invited by council to speak at workshops was permitted to do so.

SBPoA Park Committee member Pat VanCleave took the time last Thursday to ask the council for greater transparency and communication – particularly on the issues related to the park – and to encourage the council to have an attorney review the legal issue surrounding the deed before “writing any letters.” But little else was said about the issue – only Fields’ statement that the council had a legal question to deal with before his committee could proceed with its work.

The Hall family, the Coastal Point confirmed this week, has offered to allow the town to buy the full rights to the property, clearing the way for its use as a park – or any use it might select – and the issue’s appearance on the council’s July 9 meeting agenda further suggests that the council may be entertaining making such an offer.

The issue also appears on the Budget & Finance Committee’s agenda for earlier that day, in the form of a discussion item on the funding for removal of the reversion clause in the deed to the park property.

“We have to determine if we have the funding to buy out the clause from the heirs,” said Councilman and Budget & Finance Committee Chairman Tim Saxton. “They’ve made an offer, and on Friday I’ll be sitting down with the committee to see if the money’s there.”

Saxton declined to reveal the heirs’ asking price to clear the reversion clause, saying it would be given to committee members on Friday and made public then.

He said the objective of the issue, from the town council’s perspective is “to have a deed that is free and clear of any encumbrances. We, at that point, can have full say about what happens to that piece of land, without anyone coming back to us about it.”

“I think that bothered most of us, to have a situation where we can’t do whatever the town decides to do,” he continued.

But Saxton was quick to point out that a decision to purchase the revision clause for the park property isn’t a decision to further develop the park as proposed.

“I think the town council all feels this is separate, even though we’ve put on the agenda the name of the park,” he said. “The reason that’s on there is so that people can identify what is Tract 2, so they knew what it was about when they saw it on the agenda.”

Saxton said that, with the wide knowledge that the parcel is being considered for a park, citizens “need to know that that’s the piece of land we’re thinking about buying the reversion clause on.”

“The council feels it’s important that, if we do something on that piece of land, that we don’t have to take chances on something happening with it legally later on,” he concluded.

So, proceeding with building the park is not the issue at hand – yet. But the South Bethany Town Council could decide this week whether it will pay to clear the deed of its restrictions and thus open the property to use – or future use – as an enhanced park.