Opinion: Vergennes resident explains opposition to playground proposal

After reading Andy Kirkaldy’s article (Thursday, Dec. 4) and Angelo Lynn’s editorial from Monday, Dec. 8, it is painfully obvious to me that both articles about the Vergennes toddler park proposal really only tell one side of the story. As one of the residents who is against this project, I can tell you there is far more to this than what has been reported and there are many reasons why we don’t support this project. It is incredibly disappointing to me that we (the “opposing voices”) have not been approached so the Independent could provide a non-biased article that is based on all the facts. I would like to share our concerns with both the Independent as well as the City Council. I would also like  to state the fact that these same concerns have been brought up since August 2013, well over a year ago. An East Street resident and I, among a couple other citizens, have been attending a majority of the Recreation Committee meetings since then, as well as a couple City Council meetings. We’ve talked to many residents and have spoken on their behalf at the meetings.
First and foremost: the comments about increased traffic, noise, and added activity in the neighborhood — those would be the least of our concerns. We have never mentioned any of those as a problem. To be honest, I would love to see more kids playing in playgrounds, it makes me sad when I take my children to the school’s playground on a beautiful sunny day and there are only a couple other kids there.
Here are the real concerns behind the objections to this project.
•  Location:
*This area of grass is used for countless things as a green space. Parking for school or pool events, children playing, families watching the fireworks. It even “hosted” the neighborhood block party this year.
*This area is prone to flooding, so an extensive drainage system will need to be in place before anything is built. There is one line item on the estimate for the park of $750 for this. The area also includes an access road to which the next door neighbor has right of way. Not one member of the Recreation Committee has approached her about this project. She’s in her 80s and can’t get out to various meetings but has many concerns about this project and has spoken to me and others with her concerns.
*Right next to a busy road with a pool on the other side. Sure, East Street is technically a one-way, 25 mph street. However, there are plenty of cars who drive much faster than that, as well as the wrong way. Many residents park along the side, making visibility a challenge when crossing the road. It is a dangerous street for small children. And in the summer, the pool is open right next door. People involved in overseeing the pool are very concerned that children may run into the pool area. It also increases their responsibilities, as if there are any injuries at the playground, a parent would naturally bring the child to the closest possible place for assistance, plus it will most likely lead to many people asking to use the restroom facilities. (And of course, during the school year, I expect parents will ask to use the school bathrooms.)
*Why put another playground right near where two already exist? There are so few specific “child designed” spaces in Vergennes that it is just wasteful to add another one almost right next to the originals. A swing and slide on the green would be so much more centralized and useful. One down by the boat launch would be helpful for summer visitors and a great option for Vergennes residents who use the newly cleared out area for fishing or walking. It would be a great place for a boat structure and it’s also very close to the library. The school is not exactly central to the town.
*And speaking of the playgrounds by the school: this location is far enough away that many parents won’t feel comfortable splitting up their children if they have older and younger siblings. They have two choices: force the older children to play in the “baby” park or send them to the bigger playgrounds, which are out of sight and hearing range. What happens if a 7-year-old falls off the monkey bars because the mom is in the toddler park with the 2-year-old? A smaller toddler park in the  triangle by the skate park would be a perfect location — parents could have visibility and stay with the younger ones. It would  also give better access for the EEE program.
•  Size and scope: This project started out as a monster, filling up the entire green, far bigger than a “small toddler park.” There were hedge mazes that would need to be trimmed and the original plan did not even include a fence. At one point, the price ballooned up to about $80,000, including expected donated labor and materials (which were not actually previously volunteered — only assumed). Sure, it’s only three objects now, but it still takes up that entire green space. And if it only has three elements, why do we need four parking spaces for such a “small” park? If this project was realistically scaled down to two to three elements and the entire footprint was made smaller, it would be so much more practical if this was the only space available. There are usually enough empty parking spaces at the school to not really need additional spaces and there would still be some green area for free play as well as potential room for expansion of the pool.
•  Cost: There’s an initial cost of building the park, which will come out of the Water Tower fund. While it’s not directly coming from taxes, per se, the money does belong to the citizens. And maintenance will need to be done. At this point, the school custodians are taking care of the lawn when they mow the school’s property. The park will be part of the city’s responsibility and mowing around a fence and objects will certainly cost far more on a yearly basis than a flat piece of land. And I expect it will increase taxes in the future. Taxpayers should have the right to know and decide on projects that will increase their property taxes and use of public space.
•  Maintenance and security: Take a look at the skate park. On any given day, you can find broken glass, trash and even used condoms down there. The VUES custodians are constantly picking up trash near that area, even though it is not their responsibility. Benches have been thrown into the pool and last summer, there were roof tiles ripped off the school. Vandalism is quite rampant in that area. How can we say adding another area to maintain is a good idea when we can’t even take care of and protect the ones we have?
•  The grant application: sure, there was a mistake made with the percentages, I can accept that. However, did you know the grant required the matching funds to already be in place? This application was filed in August of 2013 and the allocation of the funds was not even brought to the City Council for approval until August of 2014. And the letters of recommendation? I don’t believe a letter from the chairman of the committee and a committee member should be writing the letters, I think the grant asked for people outside the project. There are other issues as well.
•  Transparency: having a “public” meeting at 8 a.m. on Friday mornings isn’t exactly conducive to most residents’ schedules and there were often many members absent, sometimes preventing a quorum. And as far as minutes and agendas, all one has to do is take a look at the city’s website — http://vergennes.org/government/recreation — to see that they have not been posting them consistently — many are missing. I realize this is a small committee, but considering the issue was specifically brought up and promises were made to ensure that all information would be available, this is a bit disappointing.
•  Citizen interest: This is probably my biggest topic. As I said earlier, I have attended many meetings. From the beginning, we have asked the committee to poll the neighbors, poll the residents, as I think most people would agree that a survey with only 127 responses is a pretty small sampling out of 2,600 residents. Especially since it was not just limited to Vergennes residents. I have brought up this concern since the very beginning and we were constantly told that everyone they talked to was in favor of the project. I was shocked to find out how many friends I have that live in Vergennes and have children in the school system that did not know about the project. I kept asking the committee to put out a survey about this specific project or at least talk to nearby residents and they would not. I decided to do one on my own and while I only got about 100 responses, they were very enlightening and reinforced my belief that there is both opposition as well as ignorance about this project. I let the committee know I was doing the survey and while I was asked to clarify in Front Porch Forum that it was not being posted by the committee, they had no interest in the results. Add in the fact that a petition against the park was signed by 55 Vergennes residents, including most on East Street, saying they did not want this to go forward as is.
I think those are most of the actual opinions of the residents who are opposed to this project. Not increased traffic. I can go into far more details than this, but I can sum up my feelings very simply. A couple months ago, I ran into Mayor Bill Benton in the City Green and he asked me what I thought about the proposed location by the skate park. This is what I told him:
“If they want to build a small toddler park in a practical location, like that green, I am fine with that. If they want to build a big $50-, $60-, or even $80,000 park somewhere in town that makes sense and will be available to all ages of children, I am OK with that. However, I am not OK with this project in this location.” And I think many residents feel exactly the same way.
I truly hope this paper will consider investigating this issue further and finding out both sides of the story. I also hope the Vergennes City Council members understand the many concerns. All we are asking is that this is put to a vote and that the citizens have a chance to decide whether or not this park is in their best interest. If we have to vote to donate $250 to go to the Humane Society, how in the world does $21,000 get allocated without a majority approval? If the majority of the citizens want a toddler park and the size and scope of the project makes sense, I would completely back it. However, there has been far too little research in my opinion as far as what the public wants. The committee, for some reason, does not seem to want to explore other options or find out public opinion and I find that very discouraging.
Heather Simons

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