Playground sparks debate in Vergennes

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen held a public forum this past Monday to discuss a proposed $48,000 East Street toddler playground that has sparked debate. After hearing pros and cons from three dozen neighbors and other residents, aldermen said they would continue to study the issue but saw no clear path forward.

Mayor Bill Benton said afterward he was not sure what the council’s next step might be for a project that has already won support from a $21,000 Vermont Department of Buildings and Services grant.

City officials said the Vergennes Water Tower Fund could be tapped for the balance of the cost, which could be reduced by donated materials and labor.

Aldermen said taxpayer money would not be used, except to maintain a playground that would include three structures, picnic tables, four parking spaces, new trees for screening and shade, and vinyl-clad chain-link fencing.

But whether aldermen will approve funding remains up in the air.

“There are some alternatives, but I’m not sure exactly what direction it is going to go,” Benton said.

Benton said he hoped a committee might emerge from Monday’s meeting to develop a compromise proposal, and that he might still seek to “see if we can put together some people who can put together an offer of something that could work.”

Aldermen will discuss the proposed playground and Monday’s comments at their Sept. 9 meeting. They could also still vote to support the city recreation committee’s recommendation that the park be built as designed between the city pool and East Street.

“We’ve got to make a decision one way or another,” Benton said.

City Manager Mel Hawley outlined the choices: Send the grant money back, move forward with the project as is, reduce the scope of the project at the site, or move the project to another site, something for which Vergennes would need permission from state officials if it wants to retain the grant.

Time is not an issue, Hawley said, and the city has the money.

“There are no dates in the grant,” he said.

But residents Darren Donovan and Susan Ferland on Monday questioned whether, in Ferland’s words, the grant was obtained based on “a falsified statement” in the application, and thus should be sent back.

The application stated that about 60 percent of respondents to a 2012 survey favored the playground. City officials acknowledged that provision was in error. On Tuesday, Hawley said although the survey in question stated that about two-thirds of respondents favored spending on recreation improvements, only about 31 percent specifically favored the toddler playground.

“My reading is the application is not consistent with the survey,” Hawley said. “It’s certainly worthy of some explanation.”

Benton said Hawley contacted Buildings and General Services officials later on Tuesday and was initially told the discrepancy would not pose a problem.

PROS AND CONS

Those who spoke against the project on Monday were careful to describe themselves as not doing so for “NIMBY” reasons.

One was East Street resident John O’Donnell, who said he was not a NIMBY before stating why he opposed the project.

O’Donnell said East Street “gets a lot of traffic for a side street,” and the proposed chain link fence, when added to the one surrounding the pool, would mean, “You’re going to see chain link fence as far as the eye can see.”

But project designer and landscape architect David Raphael said planned tree plantings would screen the playground, and that black vinyl sheathing on the fence would make the fencing effectively “disappear” to the viewer.

O’Donnell also said he wasn’t sure turning the existing empty lawn into a playground for toddlers was truly the best use for the site, claiming that many youths now use the site for “unsupervised, unstructured” play.

“We’re not adding a resource, we’re replacing a resource with another,” he said.

Other residents questioned devoting city resources to the playground.

Lynnia Pope said sidewalks should be a higher priority.

“The playground may be a great thing,” Pope said. “But when are they (sidewalks) going to be fixed?”

Martha Sullivan noted the recent city tax increase.

“I got my tax bill,” Sullivan said. “Is anyone else concerned about the cost of maintenance?”

Resident and Evergreen Preschool president Alex McGuire acknowledged resources would be devoted to the playground, but compared the maximum investment of about $27,000 to the $1.55 million new city police station. She also said many supported the playground.

“I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of young families here,” she said. “I know young families want this.”

Resident Sarah Stroup, who said she had 3- and 5-year-old children, also spoke in support. She mentioned what she called the negative tone of some at the meeting and noted such a playground is supported in the city plan, adding that many playground backers had a scheduling conflict on Monday and could not attend the meeting.

“Many of the stakeholders in this aren’t here because 6:30 is bedtime in the toddler set,” Stroup said. “There are many, many people in this community who are heavily in favor of this.”

Still, some argued the location is not ideal. The Otter Creek basin area drew support from several, in part because the city has been seeking ways to increase traffic to that resource.

But recreation committee head and alderman Joe Klopfenstein said the basin would be harder for young families to reach because it meant almost all would have to cross the Otter Creek bridge and Route 22A to do so.

Kevin Rooney suggested the city green, but Klopfenstein on Monday said there is not enough room, an opinion Benton echoed on Wednesday.

Heather Simons and Kathy Rossier suggested siting the new playground near existing Vergennes Union Elementary School playgrounds for older children. But city officials said the land is school property, and also not available for use during school hours, an existing problem for use of the VUES equipment.

Another objection came from those who wondered about parking problems during swim meets and VUES events. The Vergennes Champs host a maximum of four meets per summer, starting at 6 p.m., but athletes gather earlier.

But Hawley on Wednesday said he didn’t believe there would be a conflict. He noted the lawn is not legal for parking, and said he did not believe the playground would increase parking demand during evening hours and during the school year, especially during the colder months.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “We’re really not talking about a toddler park that requires 100 cars.”

Raphael also weighed in on this question.

“The times this will be used will not conflict with neighborhood interests,” Raphael said.

Finally, several said the city should devote its recreation resources to another priority that has been higher on survey lists — walking paths and trails.

Klopfenstein spoke to that objection as the meeting began. He said the recreation committee knows of residents’ desire for walking trails, but that developing them would be a costly, long-term proposition due to the expense and time it would take to obtain easements.

The committee will continue to pursue trails, but in the meantime viewed the playground as a “quick and easy” answer to another identified priority, he said.

As the meeting ended, Benton told the crowd that city officials would take all of what they heard into consideration.

“We’re going to meet to talk about all this information and digest it,” he said.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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