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City playground set for DRB review

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Development Review Board will on Feb. 2 get its first look at a scaled-down version of a preschool playground proposed for a small, city-owned parcel next to the Vergennes city pool.
Vergennes aldermen voted in December to reduce the playground’s footprint on the 0.3-acre East Street lot by about 40 percent after neighbors and some other city residents complained about its location, impact on the area and $42,000 cost in the face of other priorities.
The Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services awarded Vergennes a $21,000 grant for the playground, and aldermen plan to take $21,000 from the city’s Water Tower Fund to pay the remainder. The Water Tower Fund is fed by cell phone companies that lease space on the city’s former water tower for broadcasting equipment.
Aldermen said no direct city taxpayer money would be used to fund the park, although they acknowledged there would be ongoing maintenance costs.
Vergennes is operating under a timetable. State officials have notified the city that unless it breaks ground on the playground by the spring that they will revoke the two-year-old grant.
The new park proposal still includes a boat-like structure — which features climbing and sliding — and a swing set that were in the original design, but removes a climbing structure that was in the plan voted down in December. It also calls for seven trees to be planted to shield the park from East Street.
Officials said the park is designed for children between the ages of 2 and 6 who are not served by existing playgrounds behind the nearby Vergennes Union Elementary School. Those playgrounds are also off limits during school hours.
Mayor Bill Benton said he and Mel Hawley — who sat down late last month with landscape designer David Raphael, VUES Principal June Sargent, and Alderman and recreation committee head Joe Klopfenstein to redesign and scale down the park — believe the new proposal is a good one.
“Mel has said, and I agree with him, we’re going to do a nice park. It’s going to be well designed, well constructed, so the neighbors and citizens are going to be proud of it.” Benton said. “Hopefully we can get it through the DRB and get it built in the spring.”
Benton said when casting the decisive vote against the larger park he wanted to end the divisiveness he believed the playground proposal had sparked. At least some opponents had said they would accept a smaller playground, and Benton said he was hopeful all could move forward now.
“It basically retains that 40 percent open space, which is what I think the neighbors wanted,” he said.
At the same time, Benton acknowledged that no decision on any issue would satisfy all.
“I think there were some other people who weren’t terribly happy, but you’re not going to make everybody happy,” he said.  “So I guess I’m cautiously optimistic we can get a final design and get it built.”
As well as during the DRB hearing process, Vergennes residents will also have another chance to offer their opinions on the proposed playground: Opponent Susan Ferland in December passed in a petition with enough signatures to get on the Town Meeting Day ballot.
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, but the vote would be non-binding.
Hawley and others in December also criticized the petition for not mentioning that the other half of the money would not come from the general fund budget, but from a state grant.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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