DRB approves city’s preschool playground

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Development Review Board agreed on Monday, Feb. 16, to approve a preschool playground on city-owned land on East Street, City Manager and zoning administrator Mel Hawley told Vergennes aldermen at their Feb. 17 meeting.
Hawley said in a Wednesday interview that all DRB members supported the city’s proposal for a boat-like climbing structure and a swing set on about a quarter acre next to the city pool.
The city recreation committee’s initial proposal for a slightly larger playground had been opposed by many neighbors and some other Vergennes residents, but Hawley said the DRB closed the public hearing on Monday night and “unanimously directed me to write an affirmative decision.”
Hawley said three opponents — Susan Ferland, Darren Donovan and Heather Simonds — attended the Feb. 16 meeting, and one letter in opposition was recorded. Vergennes Union Elementary School Principal June Sargent supported the proposal at a public hearing that had been postponed by snow from Feb. 2, he said.   
Vergennes aldermen voted in December to reduce the playground’s footprint on the 0.3-acre East Street lot by about 40 percent after a year of complaints about its location, impact on the area and $42,000 cost.
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. Cell phone companies that lease space on the city’s former water tower for broadcasting equipment feed the Water Tower Fund.
Aldermen say no direct city taxpayer money would be used to fund the park, although they acknowledge there would be ongoing maintenance costs.
Vergennes is operating under a timetable. State officials notified the city that unless it breaks ground on the playground by the spring they will revoke the two-year-old grant, and Hawley and aldermen had hoped for quick DRB approval to allow bids to go out.
They also hope to take advantage of an offer made by project designer David Raphael of Landworks to have members of a class he teaches at the University of Vermont help with playground construction.
The proposal backed by the DRB does not include a climbing structure that was in the larger plan aldermen voted down in December. The approved plan does call 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 nearby VUES. Those playgrounds are also off limits during school hours.
Vergennes residents will have another chance to offer their opinions on the playground: 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 other city officials in December said the petition should have stated that the other half of the money would not come from the general fund budget, but rather from the state grant.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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