After federal government delay, work finally starts on $260,000 Lincoln playground

LINCOLN — It took excavators only a few hours to dismantle the old Lincoln Community School (LCS) playground last week. The park designed to replace it will require the entire summer to complete.
After a yearlong delay, Potato Hill Park is finally getting built.
A $260,000 project made possible by a $100,000 grant from the Vermont Land and Water Commission Fund, plus matching funds raised by Friends of LCS, Potato Hill Park is designed to be much more than a school playground.
“It will be a community resource that offers a diversity of outdoor and recreational opportunities for all community members and visitors to our mountain town,” said Lincoln Principal Tory Riley.
The park, which is bordered on the north and east by the New Haven River, will include:
•  a wheelchair-accessible walking trail.
•  a timber-frame pavilion to serve as outdoor classroom and picnic area.
•  a Little League–size baseball diamond.
•  a soccer field.
•  accessible climbing structures for children of all ages.
•  an older children’s custom play structure with natural components, multiple levels and inspiration for both imaginative and rigorous play.
The school’s existing greenhouse and garden shed will be moved to new sites and integrated into the park’s gardens.
Plans for the park also include an amphitheater-style stage with seating, which will be funded and built separately, perhaps with volunteer community labor later this autumn, Riley said.
The park’s naming committee had spent a lot of time mulling over ideas, but when LCS teacher Patty Schoenhuber finally suggested Potato Hill Park, “it just seemed so obvious,” Riley said.
Before the nearby mountain was renamed for President Lincoln, nearby Mount Abraham was known as Potato Hill.
The overall design for Potato Hill Park, including the play structures, was developed by landscape architect Deina Olstad, who presented a series of concepts to the community, then incorporated their feedback to create a space that meets school and community needs.
“It’s a spectacular site,” she said, “but it is subject to periodic flooding and other topographic limitations.” Often it is the lay of the land that determines where a ball field or an outdoor stage must go.”
Fundamental to Olstad’s design was transcending the notion of “schoolyard” to achieve a more open-ended “outdoor classroom” design.
“The biggest piece of that was the circular gathering space,” she said. Between the soccer field and the blacktop, a natural play area with low, natured-based elements will overlook the arced amphitheater seating.
Olstad also placed a lot of emphasis on creating developmentally appropriate, as well as accessible, play spaces.
Community support for the project has been “tremendous,” said Andrew Furtsch, who spearheaded the fund-raising campaign for Friends of LCS.
In addition to raising the initial funds to pay for architectural designs, which helped make the grant possible, the Friends raised $100,000 cash in matching funds, plus another $70,000 worth of in-kind material and labor donations.
“We had donations of $10 and donations of $10,000,” Furtsch said. “We made phone calls and sat in living rooms. We also received donations from extended family across the U.S. — uncles in Oregon, brothers and sisters in Florida.”
It was a long and hard 18 months, he added, but it was still easier than jumping through all the federal government hoops Potato Hill Park eventually had to jump through.
Construction was originally scheduled for the summer of 2017, but in April of that year, the U.S. Department of the Interior, headed by Trump appointee Ryan Zinke, began conducting political reviews of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of grants, including the $100,000 the Vermont Land and Water Commission Fund (which is federally funded) had awarded to LCS.
“For a time we didn’t know if we would get the money at all,” said Riley, who had written the grant proposal.
While organizers waited for the federal review, Potato Hill Park suffered a second setback.
In September a team from the UVM Consulting Archaeology Program (CAP) performed a federally mandated site review and unearthed a shard of pre-European contact Native American pottery.
Such artifacts are more often seen in the lowlands of Addison County, especially around Otter Creek and Lake Champlain, but they’re much less often seen in the mountains, said UVM CAP director John Crock, who specializes in pre-contact North American archeology.
The discovery automatically triggered a second round of archeological review to determine the site’s potential historical significance.
For two months the fate of Potato Hill Park hung in the balance.
When the team returned in November they concluded that the artifact had probably found its way to the site from the nearby New Haven River, perhaps during a flood. Though Potato Hill Park is now the highest elevation in Vermont where such an artifact has been found, the review team found no reason to further delay the construction project.
Finally, this past winter, the federal government officially notified LCS that its $100,000 grant was forthcoming.
“The delays actually gave us a chance to really get organized and to be ready to go on day one,” Riley said. “If we had started last summer, the work would have been more piecemeal than it will be now.”
As the Independent toured the property last week, former LCS student Lucas Nezin sat at the controls of an excavator, deftly extracting from the ground a series of tall, heavy poles that once framed the baseball field’s backstop. That backstop had itself been an Eagle Scout project of Matt Brown, who now teaches at Mount Abraham Union High School, Riley pointed out.
Acker Excavating of Bristol is doing the site work, Bobby Stoddard Construction of Starksboro is building the play elements, and Steve Harris of Harris and Harris consulting is donating his services to oversee the entire project.
If all goes according to schedule, Potato Hill Park, sans plantings and a few other elements, will be waiting for the Lincoln school’s 112 students when they arrive in late August for the first day of school.
As construction continues, so does the fund-raising. Friends of LCS are raising money for finishing touches on the park as well as for school enrichment programs.
LCS has created initial designs for a future ropes course and a zip line, Riley said, but those projects will require separate regulatory and funding requirements and will be considered later.
A four-foot-high concrete wall near the entrance to the school is also getting an extreme makeover.
LCS art teacher Nancy McClaren has won a $14,904 Animating Infrastructure Grant from the Vermont Arts Council to create a mosaic on both sides of the 30-foot-long wall.
Inspired by Adirondack mosaic artist Kate Hartley, McClaren has designed a night motif for one side of the LCS wall and a day motif for the other. LCS students and community members attached the first tiles last month.
Tile application will continue through the summer on scheduled workdays, McClaren said, and the community is invited to participate.
“Everyone who shows up on a workday will get to work on some part of the mosaic,” she said.
A summer work schedule is forthcoming.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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