2015-10-02 / Front Page

Skatepark debate rolls on

Town officials begin new round of park improvement discussion
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Four months after Kennebunk voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to move the town’s skateboard park to Parsons Field, selectmen have finally got around to debating what to do next.

The consensus at their Sept. 22 meeting: More time is needed before deciding what to do next.

Already, it’s been more than two years since funding was approved to overhaul the skateboard park, built in 1993 on Factory Pasture Lane.

In June 2013, Kennebunk residents voted 394-213 to borrow $1.28 million for various road, sidewalk and park projects. Listed among the items was “skateboard park improvements,” for which selectmen earmarked $100,000 of the bond money.

After deciding adjacent wetlands made expanding the existing park problematic, at best, selectmen reviewed 10 alternate locations during the summer and fall of 2014, eventually settling on Parsons, and tasked Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder to report back with a plan by the spring of 2015.

Before than happened, however, some downtown businesses preemptively killed one concept, which was to put the new park between their stores and the Parsons Field teen center.

Then when plans surfaced that put the new skatepark in the park proper, directly adjacent to the ball fields, residents rose up to oppose that design. Chief among them was Park Street resident Shiloh Schulte, who organized a citizens’ petition meant to impress upon selectmen that they were on the wrong side of public sentiment.

The question, successfully placed on the June ballot — “Do you favor the town allocating green space in Parsons Field to construct a new skateboard park rather than improving the current skateboard park?” — fell hard: 2,766-1,196.

Schulte, who subsequently decided to also throw his hat into the selectmen’s race, rode that wave of public opinion into office, placing third among six candidates for three open seats.

And so, naturally enough, when selectmen got around to debating what to do about voter rejection of their skatepark plan, all eyes turned to Schulte.

“I’d like to hear from Shiloh,” Selectman Ed Karytko said, giving voice to what his peers appeared to be thinking.

Schulte did not shirk from the open invitation.

“I think it’s pretty clear where we stand right now,” he said. “I think the default position is we’re looking at renovating the existing park. That said, I think it would be perfectly legitimate to go forward and look at new sites and this point.”

However, the “fundamental point,” Schulte said, is that if a new location is chosen, final approval of that site should be put to voters.

But not all selectmen shared that view.

“We’ll never get anything done if we have to put it out to voters every single time we make a decision,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “They [the voters] gave us $100,000 to do something, now we just need to go out and do it.”

However, Selectman Richard Morin said that because of how the referendum question was worded, and an either/or proposition, the only interpretation selectmen could reach — what Morin deemed “the overwhelming message” — was that voters wanted the $100,000 spent on the current skatepark.

“If there’s concern that’s not what the intent was, then we should go back to the voters to get clarity,” he said.

“Because it’s almost October, nothing’s going to happen until spring,” Chairman Kevin Donovan said. “We’re not under the gun here, so, from my perspective, we probably should review what our alternatives are and, if we do propose a new location, it should go before voters.”

Cluff said he remains convinced the skatepark does need to move from Factory Pasture Lane, where it is undersized and, because it was purposely tucked there out of public view, poorly policed. Still, while he agreed with Schulte that only “two or three” of the original 10 alternative sites were ever truly “viable,” Cluff said there is no need to launch a new study, as suggested by Morin and Donovan.

“We spent a lot of time looking for a location,” he said. “We already have a list, we don’t need to go reinvent the wheel.”

Instead, Cluff seemed inclined to simply throw in the towel and “give the money back to voters.” Perhaps, he said, the board could return to the topic in the spring when crafting next year’s municipal budget. Although he did not say so directly, the clear implication seemed to be that by wresting control of the funding source from voter approval, selectmen would have free reign to proceed as they pleased.

However, Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said that because the $100,000 was already incorporated into a “bonding instrument,” simply giving it back to voters would not be a simple proposition.

“Well, just because that gave us money doesn’t mean we have to spend it,” Cluff said.

Schulte suggested selectmen form an ad hoc committee to review potential skatepark sites. But, like Cluff, Selectman Deborah Beal saw little value in that proposition.

“I tend to think we’ve been there, done that,” she said. “We had those meetings where we talked to the people and got their votes on what they wanted for apparatus. I just don’t understand why we’re rehashing all of this again. To me, it’s taking way too long and we’re taking too many steps backwards, but I don’t know how to fix it.”

Schulte then adopted a new approach. If it’s too hard to move the skatepark to some spot closer to the center of town, maybe the downtown could be brought to the skatepark, he said.

Schulte suggested still dedicating $100,000 to skatepark improvements, but timing the project to street work that would include building a sidewalk on Factory Pasture Lane, between Winter and Water streets. That, he said, would make a nice connecting loop for pedestrians.

“It [the skatepark] is actually only about a quarter mile from Main Street, so it could be a nice part of the town,” he said.

“Why can’t we make this space into a nice little town park, into something that’s actually attractive in the town, plus improve the road and add a sidewalk? I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t at least explore that,” Schulte said.

Meanwhile, Karytko suggested solving security concerns by installing cameras similar to the ones put in last year at the new Waterhouse Center. Then, he said, parents could oversee skatepark activities from home on their personal computers and smartphones, just as they can now monitor skating at the Waterhouse Center.

Ultimately, Tibbetts said he would gather data and dollar figures on rebuilding the skatepark where it is, and on moving it to a new location. Although RSU 21 had previously declined to host the park on any of its school properties, that door, too, might be re-opened, Tibbetts said.

“I think that conversation needs to be had again,” he said.

“Originally, the answer was no, but there may be some movement in there and we probably ought to explore that as part of the locations and get back to you,” Tibbetts told selectmen.

A package of options should be available for review by the selectmen, “within the next three meetings,” Tibbetts said.

That would put the next chapter in the town’s long-running skatepark saga sometime in November.

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