Divided city council opts for smaller toddler park

VERGENNES — A divided Vergennes City Council last week approved a scaled-down preschool playground on East Street. Council members voted, 4-3, against the full $42,000 park that was recommended by the city’s recreation committee but opposed by many East Street residents and some others in Vergennes.
On Tuesday, Dec. 16, aldermen were facing a deadline after a year of debate. The Department of Buildings and General Services, which backed the playground with a $21,000 grant, told city officials they must break ground by the end of June 2015 or lose the funding. That meant, officials said, they had to apply for a zoning permit in January.
Those months of debate had at times become heated about the roughly 0.3-acre park proposed to join the city’s existing recreation area, to be sited on empty lawn next to the city pool, and also to be funded by $21,000 from the city’s Water Tower Fund. That fund is fed by cell phone companies who lease space on the city’s former water tower for broadcasting equipment.
Mayor Bill Benton cited the controversy when he cast the decisive vote against the full park, which was proposed to include a large boat-like structure for play, climbing and sliding, plus a smaller web-climbing structure, a swing set, a picnic table and four parking places.
First, Benton said he did not agree with the critics of the park.
“It’s a good project. It’s a good location,” Benton said. “It’s not something that would devalue property or have adverse affects on the neighborhood.”
But, Benton said, he understood opponents feel strongly about the proposal and did not want those feelings to “grow and fester” over time if the project went forward as proposed.
“I don’t want to see this division continue,” Benton said. “I think I have to vote looking at the larger picture.”
Later in the meeting, Benton added, “What we’ve had to deal with in the last 12 months has hurt the community.”
Opponents have pointed to construction and future maintenance costs, said they didn’t like the location, and criticized a process they claimed was not transparent. City officials have answered that last criticism by pointing to the many efforts they made to engage the public and to ongoing news coverage of the issue.
Benton joined City Council members Lynn Donnelly, Mike Daniels and Randy Ouellette in voting no on the original proposal, while Aldermen Renny Perry, Lowell Bertrand and Joe Klopfenstein, the head of the recreation committee appointed by aldermen, voted yes.
Donnelly also acknowledged the hard feelings and the opposition. 
“I feel the council has to represent everyone,” Donnelly said.
Klopfenstein read a statement in support of the playground — which all agreed on Tuesday should be called a preschool park, not a toddler park, at the recommendation of Vergennes Union Elementary School Principal June Sargent.
And Perry said when he served as city manager he regularly heard complaints that young families had to go to Middlebury for age-appropriate playgrounds. He also said rejecting the state funding could hurt down the road when the city seeks grants to support walking and biking trails, the top choice in a survey of area residents for city recreation improvements.
“If we send back the money, we will probably never get money again,” Perry said.
After Benton’s decisive vote, the council quickly began considering a scaled-back plan. Ouellette moved in favor of one such option, a drawing of which was in the council’s hands, a park reduced by about 40 percent and missing the boat.
Sargent then spoke in favor of retaining the boat, saying it “represents the history of the community. Have that still be the focal point.”
Ouellette soon withdrew his motion, and Klopfenstein proposed a motion that would keep the smaller footprint, but allow officials some flexibility in designing its contents.
“That allows for planning,” Klopfenstein said.
That motion passed unanimously, as did Bertrand’s motion to authorize a committee of Klopfenstein, City Manager Mel Hawley, Sargent and landscape architect David Raphael to submit a design to the Vergennes Development Review Board by Jan. 5.
At least some aldermen said they would be happier with the smaller park if the boat were still included.
“That would make me feel a lot better about doing a (downsized) toddler park,” Perry said.
In an Wednesday interview, Benton said he favored the concept of retaining the boat, but that it could be a “matter of scale.”
“I think everybody kind of thinks that the symbol of a boat is Vergennes,” Benton said. “If the boat is reduced in size and scale it could be part of the park. I think a lot of people would think that would be appropriate.”
Three park opponents spoke, two of them still unhappy.
“It would have been wonderful if the public’s views had been taken into consideration from the start,” said Susan Ferland.
Benton said the process could have probably been better, but defended the city’s efforts.
“It’s up to a resident to keep in touch with the community. We can’t force-feed people information,” Benton said.
DRB Chairman Jason Farrell pointed out residents will still have an opportunity to give input on the project. When the city seeks a zoning permit, the DRB must hold at least one public hearing.
“That is a public process as well,” Farrell said.
Lynnia Pope-Hier said the money from the Water Tower Fund could be put to better use, even if it does not come directly from taxpayers.
“Eventually that Water Tower Fund is going to run out,” Pope-Hier said.
Park neighbor and foe Darren Donovan said he was satisfied with the result.
“I think you are putting forth a good compromise,” Donovan said.
Sargent said her background as an educator made her a supporter.
“Any kind of park that is going to bring preschoolers together is going to be a tremendous benefit in the long run,” Sargent said.
Benton added that in the future the park could possibly be expanded.
“A city council or recreation committee may five or six years from now say we can add to that park,” Benton said.
Another wrinkle cropped up in recent days: Ferland passed in a petition with 103 signatures, enough to be binding on city officials, asking for an up-or-down vote on the playground to be held on Town Meeting Day. Aldermen said not all who signed the petition were park opponents.
It reads: “Should the City of Vergennes build a Toddler/Preschool park adjacent to the Sam Fishman Pool at Vergennes Memorial Park at a cost of $42,000, half of which would come from the city Water Tower Fund?”
Officials said they were required to put the petition on the ballot, even with the smaller playground planned, but Benton said it would have been a “non-binding referendum” even if aldermen had approved the larger plan.
Benton was asked what might happen if voters in March backed the full plan by a large margin.
“If there is a strong vote for that, a committee of sorts could consider changing that,” Benton said. “If it is done in phases, so be it. But in my opinion that is better than continuing dissension.”
The language on the petition also came under fire. Hawley criticized the petition in a Wednesday email:
“Susan Ferland should have had (City Clerk) Joan (Devine) and I assist her in preparing the language of the petition. It doesn’t mention where the other half of the funds are coming from. It should have reflected that the other half was coming from a $21,000 State of Vermont Recreation Facilities Grant. We are not allowed by law to change the wording of a petitioned article. Unfortunately, due to the poor wording of the petition, a voter might wrongly assume that the other half is coming from property tax dollars.”
Farrell said at the meeting it misled voters by “duplicitously” leaving off information about the grant that would fund half the project cost.
Farrell also promised a dueling petition, although on Wednesday he was not ready to say exactly how it would be worded.
“You will have one,” he told the council.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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