Toddler park hinges on council decision

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Dec. 16 will vote on whether to support the city recreation committee’s recommendation for a toddler park between the city pool and East Street.
Aldermen have been pondering for months whether to spend $21,000 of non-taxpayer funds on the project: a playground on a roughly 0.3-acre parcel at a site that was chosen because it is close to most city homes and next to recreation facilities.
The proposal for a $42,000 park, half to be grant-funded and the rest paid for by using the city’s Water Tower Fund, has sparked some opposition. The City Council last week said they will decide on the matter at their Dec. 16 meeting.
The toddler park proposal was supported in a 2012 survey and earlier this fall by several residents at a city council meeting, at which opponents also cited concerns about the park’s appearance, cost, noise and possible contributions to East Street congestion.
The park is proposed to have three pieces of equipment, the largest of which will be a climbing boat; a picnic table; and four parking places on a piece of city-owned lawn.
Twenty-one residents signed a petition that read, “We the undersigned residents of East Street are not in favor of the proposed toddler park to be build on the lot in front of the city pool.”
Another 34 of Vergennes’ roughly 2,600 residents signed a second petition that added, “We also believe that any further projects of this nature need to be discussed openly at a reasonable time and place in order to promote transparency. Thank you.”
Aldermen discussed both sets of numbers last week.
Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly cited the two petitions.
“I am not comfortable until that is fully addressed. Have we truly listened to the people?” Donnelly said.
Alderman and recreation committee chairman Joe Klopfenstein said he thought the opposition was not widespread.
“In my opinion, we’ve heard a lot of noise from a very few people,” Klopfenstein said.
There is evidence of support. In the 2012 survey, 124 area residents responded to the question, “What would you like to see more of in Vergennes?” The greatest single response was 82 choosing “Parks/recreational facilities.”
Another question asked, “What type of new recreational area/facility do you feel would most benefit the greater Vergennes community?” It drew 120 responses, with the highest response “Bike/walking path” at 95, followed by “Dog park” at 42, and by “Toddler playground” at 37.
Some questions have come up about the second petition and the survey numbers.
Recreation committee members and City Manager Mel Hawley believe the wording of the second petition muddied the waters. 
“The petition implies there has been a lack of transparency, which is clearly not the case in my opinion,” Hawley said. “The record clearly shows that the work of the committee has been routinely communicated to the city council and public.”
Hawley provided documentation that:
•  Included a copy of the statement included in the annual report and read at the city’s annual meeting by Klopfenstein that includes details on the park and its financing.
•  Noted the committee’s public meeting on the project in the fall of 2013 at Vergennes Union Elementary School, to which East Street residents received a written invitation and which was publicized by Front Porch Forum, Facebook, school newsletters and the Addison Independent.
•  Noted the May 2013 presentation by the committee and project architect David Raphael made at a Vergennes Downtown/Recreation Planning forum at the Vergennes Opera House. Attendees, according to the document, “agreed with Mel and the recreation committee that the lot adjacent to the swimming pool was the best location.”
•  Cited the August 2013 Vergennes Partnership booth on Vergennes Day that featured playground plans.
•  Cited minutes of city council meetings that regularly reflected Klopfenstein’s reports on the playground project.
•  Noted the Independent reported on the park at least 11 times in 2013 and 2014.
Hawley acknowledged the recreation committee violated state law by not warning meetings or keeping minutes, something he said was corrected as soon as the mistake was uncovered.
“They were meeting informally,” Hawley said. “When it was clear an informal committee must operate under Vermont’s open meeting law, they changed.”
Critics also cite an error in the grant application, in which the author may have confused the overall percentage support for recreation facilities (66.1 percent) with specific support for the playground.
That application states, “over 60 percent of those surveyed felt that a toddler park was the recreational facility that they felt would most benefit the greater Vergennes community.”
Some opponents, including Sue Ferland at the August council meeting, said the grant was obtained based on “a falsified statement.”
But city officials acknowledged the mistake to the state officials and were told the grant would still be awarded.
Opponents also say the recreation committee should have devoted its efforts to the higher priority of bike and walking paths, and Alderman Michael Daniels brought that question up at last week’s meeting.
Klopfenstein and Hawley have said those trails would be much more costly, and that spending $21,000 of city funds meets a need more cheaply.
Hawley last week clarified the survey’s intent.
“The purpose of the survey was to get an understanding of what people desired. It was not to get an idea of what the No. 1 thing was and that’s what we do,” Hawley said. “It was clear people wanted more recreation facilities, and the toddler park … ranked third.”
Hawley suggested that some residents might be looking for ways to oppose what he called “an enhancement project for the pool” at a site chosen only after the committee visited and studied every piece of city-owned property in Vergennes.
“I think a lot of times people don’t like results and blame process,” he said.
Last week, the council learned that a compromise site, one to the rear and right of VUES, would not work out. Hawley and Mayor Bill Benton met VUES Principal June Sargent, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent JoAn Canning, and VUES board member Kate Martin and were told that school officials did not support the location.
However, Benton told the council, “All of them support the concept of the park. They feel it would be a good thing for the community.”
Benton also told aldermen at their Nov. 25 meeting that after months of discussion, they must act “fairly quickly” — the city must break ground by June to keep the $21,000 grant, and before then the playground must go through the city zoning process.
Senior Alderman Randy Ouellette had no problem with moving things along.
“I think we should vote. If the location fails, find another location,” Ouellette said, adding later, “This has gone on far too long.”
In addition to learning more about residents’ opinions, Donnelly and Daniels said they would also like to find out how many children it might serve.
“We’ve got to have a set of numbers,” Daniels said.
Alderman Lowell Bertrand said he would like “a bigger sense of how people feel,” and that the council is elected to follow the will of the voters and should vote with the majority, while Daniels suggested waiting until a Town Meeting Day referendum could be conducted.
But Klopfenstein said there has been plenty of public input on the issue, and disagreed about the role of the council. 
“I think we were voted in because people trust us to make a decision,” he said.
Klopfenstein also wondered about how much of an impact the 0.3-acre playground might have on a neighborhood that already includes VUES, the swimming pool, a skate park, and tennis and basketball courts.
“I don’t understand how a toddler park is going to add to congestion and noise where there is a school and a pool that is jammed all summer,” he said.
Benton said he believed the location “has a lot of positives,” but said the best approach was to vote on Dec. 9, when Renny Perry, who was absent last week, would be back to allow the full seven-member board to weigh in.  
 Klopfenstein then urged council members to set aside the allegations of “conflicts of interest” and “cheating on the application” and hone in on the central questions as they speak to residents before then.
“Does Vergennes need this project in this particular place?” Klopfenstein said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its original posting to correct the date of meeting at which the council will consider the toddler park proposal.

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