SB park issue heads to committee

The South Bethany Town Council may be divided on the issue of a referendum on a proposed town park adjacent to town hall, but the division this week appeared to be focused primarily on what level of detail the town wants to offer in terms of information about the referendum issue before voters head to the polls.

The South Bethany Property Owners Association (SBPOA) committee that has been working on the park issue has proposed a simple question be asked of voters in the upcoming election this spring: Do they want a park – with a pavilion, playground and fitness stations – developed on the property donated to the town by the Hall family?

Council Members Robert Youngs and Diane Matera at a Dec. 17 council workshop said they favor asking voters that question this spring, as a prelude to any town investment in developing the park.

Other council members, however, said they felt the issues surrounding the potential development of a park on the triangular wooded parcel should be fully explored, with cost estimates available and all legal issues fully resolved, before any voting takes place.

“I think the decent think to do is to track down the Hall family and see what they wanted to do,” Mayor Gary Jayne suggested as a first step last Thursday, adding that the “old timers” he’d talked to about the issue had said that all the family had wanted in the park was a memorial to its namesake, Richard Hall, such as a plaque, stone monument or bench, amidst the undeveloped land.

The bequest included a requirement that no more than 10 percent of the land be developed but no other specifics of what could or could not be done with the parcel donated to the town as parkland.

Jayne offered a laundry list of concerns and areas he said the town needed to investigate and document before developing the park as proposed could be pursued – information he said he felt was vital for voters to have before they gave a yea or nay on whether they want a park constructed.

The mayor said he felt the SBPOA-provided Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) finding that the park did not contain wetlands fell short of giving the town a go-ahead for development, since it was labeled as an “unofficial delineation” and therefore, he said, would require the town to hire an engineer to perform tests for an official finding.

An engineer looking at the property that the new town hall was built upon had labeled the parkland and another adjacent area as “probable wetlands,” Jayne said.

“We have seen those woods full of water,” he noted, saying the town had “some homework to do” on whether it can even construct anything on the parkland, including a likely expenditure, he estimated, of about $5,000 for an official wetlands delineation and legal determination on whether the town can legally build the proposed features in the park.

“It’s not budgeted,” he emphasized of that cost. “Not in this year’s budget.” Jayne said the town council would first have to decide if it even wanted to spend the money on those engineering and legal fees, as an addition to the current budget or in a future one.

Further additional costs to the SBPOA’s $120,000 estimate for the park could come in the form of site engineering and preparation, he warned.

“By the time we get done tearing down trees and resurfacing, it’s going to be a lot more than $120,000,” he asserted. “Grants these days are not what they used to be,” he added, countering the SBPOA committee’s suggestion that some of the cost might be offset by grant money.

Jayne also pointed out that the town has a 100-foot setback requirement that would limit the buildable area of the triangular parcel to a very small center area – provided the town’s Board of Adjustments didn’t approve a variance. He also noted 18 “areas of concern” about the proposal from code enforcement official Joe Vogel, none of which, he acknowledged, were “showstoppers.”

More additional costs for the town, Jayne said, could come in the form of added insurance requirements. The park committee had been told liability would be covered under the town’s umbrella policy.

Jayne also pointed out the potential need to construct restrooms for park users. “I don’t think we can rely on town hall and the police department, because they’re closed so much,” he said.

“There’s a list of things that need to be looked at,” he concluded. “I could go on and on.”

Jayne recommended the entire issue first go to the town’s Budget and Finance Committee, to see if they felt spending money on the initial legal and engineering issues was workable in the current fiscal year, to potentially get some answers there before voters would weigh in.

His own list of concerns wasn’t all Jayne offered by way of caution on Dec. 17.

“Keep in mind, there’s a lot of opposition,” Jayne also pointed out, “and this will likely be challenged.”

“He’s the opposition,” resident Ed Nazarian commented from among a group of park supporters present but not permitted to provide input at the workshop.

No time for presentations this month

Along with the basic division on the issue of pursuing the referendum vote before doing additional research and incurring additional expense, the council was also divided last week on when more discussion and input on the issue should be held.

Councilman Jay Headman said he had some questions for the SBPOA park committee and asked that they be able to make a formal presentation to the council and respond to those questions.

But Jayne said there was insufficient time to do so on Dec. 17 and that he felt opponents of the park proposal should also be permitted to make a presentation and respond to questions if the proponents were given time to do so.

“We did the best we could to accommodate the committee,” Jayne asserted. “This was just sprung on us Friday night (Dec. 11). The committee asked to make a presentation, and I told them if they did we’d have to let the opposition make a presentation as well. We only had 30 minutes. … And I didn’t want to have an us-vs.-them situation.”

“I felt tonight was an opportunity to hear what they have already done,” Headman replied. “I have some questions.”

“We didn’t think this was going to be settled here tonight,” Jayne responded. “It will have to go to some kind of committee.”

Details of referendum divide council

While not opposing a referendum on the issue, Council Members Timothy Saxton, Marge Gassinger and John Fields all said they felt more information needed to be available to voters before a referendum could be held. Jayne pointed out that the town has traditionally held public hearings or workshops prior to referendum votes, whether binding or not.

“There probably is more cost involved,” acknowledged Matera. “But why can’t we let the town vote on it in May with the existing cost figures and say there will be more costs, and let them say yes or no before we go through any more cost and effort? Let’s let the people decide if they want to spend $200,000 on a park over the next five years,” she suggested.

Youngs, who had proposed just such a referendum question during the most recent council meeting on Dec. 11, only to have the issue tabled to the Dec. 17 council workshop, again accused the council of stonewalling the public.

“This document,” Youngs said of Jayne’s list of areas of concern, “is nothing more than stonewalling. You could take any project and make a list of negative reasons,” he said, rejecting the list in its entirety as being irrelevant to the issue of whether or not to hold a referendum on the public’s desire to pursue a park.

Jayne took umbrage at Youngs’ statement.

“I don’t like these accusations of stonewalling,” he interrupted.

“The committee understands there are hurdles,” Youngs continued, “between the time the town says it wants a park and the realization of the park. … Before we spend any money, we should hold a referendum to allow the town to say, ‘We don’t want it.’ These aren’t relevant – not now,” he added of Jayne’s list.

“The park committee has requested the right of referendum to see if the community wants a park,” Youngs underscored, referring to town code specifying that the council may determine, by a resolution, to hold a non-binding referendum “to obtain the opinion of qualified voters” on any issue before it.

“The committee is asking for an opinion,” he emphasized, saying he would again put forth such a resolution when the council workshop was concluded and the council returned to its special meeting segment.

“Don’t you think they should know whether this can be a park before they decide that?” asked Gassinger.

“All the research that can be done without major expenditure of funds has been done,” Youngs replied, referencing the SBPOA committee’s work.

“You’re going to get people all excited about a park before we know it can be one,” Gassinger warned.

Fields, too, referenced the opposition to the park, which has been vocal, though the park committee has a list of more than 100 property owners it said favor the park being developed.

“I got a lot of e-mails in opposition,” Fields said, “particularly from people who live near the park. And I’m getting more now. … We have to respect the rights of the minority,” he added.

Committee members, in their materials presented to the council, suggested the opposition is exactly the reason a referendum on the issue of desire for a park should be held – to determine if a majority want it.

Fields suggested that summer might be a more appropriate time for a townwide vote on the issue than May, since council members favored having more information than might be obtained by the earlier date. He, too, recommended the issue go to a committee.

But Headman again said he wanted to hear from, and ask questions of, the park committee.

“This is more than just costs,” he said. “I thought the purpose of this workshop was to hear from these people,” he said of the committee.

“If these people want to come and make a presentation, they can do that, and we’ll have an opportunity for the opponents to do the same thing,” Jayne replied. “This is not the final decision by any means.”

With that, the council voted 5-2 not to set a referendum on the park issue for May but to instead send the issue to the Budget and Finance Committee, which is due to meet again on Jan. 14, in the next of its planned series of budget-related meetings for the 2011 fiscal year. A Feb. 6 meeting at 10 a.m. will be held with the intention of inviting public input on the upcoming budget.

Also on Dec. 17:

• The council modified an earlier approval for up to $15,000 to be spent on drainage projects in the town, approving the same amount to be spent from Municipal Street Aid funding the town already has in the bank, at Town Manager Mel Cusick’s discretion, and only at locations where Cusick determines property owners have done the most they can to help resolve drainage problems as permitted under town code.

Headman voted against the motion, saying he felt a more comprehensive drainage plan was needed for the town before individual projects were approved.

• The council agreed that the conditions under which a prior council had approved the installation of a streetlight at York and Bristol had been met with the completion of contacts with neighboring property owners. While some of those property owners had opposed the streetlight, the council said they felt the conditions of letting the property owners know about the proposal and informing them that the streetlight would be there to stay had been met, with a majority in favor.

• The council approved the purchase of a tractor and accessories for the Public Works department to use. The Budget and Finance Committee had recommended the purchase after determining the town would recoup its cost through cost savings it generates over the next one to two years.

• Matera presented to the council three proposed budgeting levels for beautification in the town in the 2011 fiscal year, ranging from wildflower planting designed to retain existing planting beds without significant herbicide use, at $6,000, to a modest investment in annuals, perennials, wildflowers and mulch, along with staff and volunteer time, at $12,000. Council members suggested she offer the Beautification Committee’s preferred budget to the Budget and Finance Committee as her recommendation.

• The council opted not to pursue a town-specific ban on cell phone use or text-messaging while driving, citing the difficulty of enforcing such a ban. Instead, Jayne said he would write a letter on behalf of the town urging state legislators to pursue statewide bans.

• The council also voiced support for a grant application from canal water quality group members to obtain funding for a pilot project to install diffusers in the Anchorage Canal.