2018-08-31 / Front Page

Kennebunkport bails on sledding hill

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — It’s been an uphill battle for RSU 21 ever since it discontinued sledding on a hill next to Kennebunkport Consolidated School last fall based on safety concerns.

Now, the town has decided it wants no part of the controversy going into a new season, leaving the school board back at square one, ready to mull a Wright-Pierce Engineering report on alternatives to restore the winter activity.

Superintendent Katie Hawes said Monday the school board’s facilities subcommittee is scheduled to consider that report — which cost the district “just under $3,000” — at its next meeting, on Thursday, Sept. 6.

Already, Hawes said, the district has committed to $47,450 in modifications to a new drainage area next to the school, at the bottom of the hill, “so it will look more like the Kennebunkport folks would like it to look.”

She said work there, while raised at the same time as the sledding hill, are “completely separate” and not part of why sledding was banned last year.

For their part, selectmen balked when an estimate from Risbara Construction to create an alternate sledding hill on the opposite side of the school — on town-owned land above the playing fields, on an area known as “the McCabe property” — came back at $170,000.

“We’re not in favor of doing it right now,” Selectman Allen Daggett said on Monday. “We are in favor of a sledding hill for the kids. We were thinking of doing it in-house, just having materials brought in, and would go ahead and spend $10,000, or $20,000, but it’s going to cost a lot more than we anticipated.

“We decided we would put that on hold, because that is a prime piece of property,” Daggett said. “Somewhere along the line — granted it could be 10, 20, 30 or 50 years from now — we might want to use that for other things, where it’s so close to downtown. But if you put $170,000 into something, you don’t want to tear it back down.”

The new hill project was slated to go before the planning board Aug. 15, but that agenda item was canceled. Selectmen got the word on projected costs at their Aug. 23 meeting, and agreed to step back, Daggett said.

The issue with the sledding hill came about as a result of the $5.1 million renovation to Consolidated School. As part of that work, the district put in a new parking area at the bottom of the hill traditionally used by children for sledding.

A music room was also added to the front of the building, near the bottom of the hill. The area also saw the creation of a new drainage ditches in the front and back of the school, on the same side as the sledding hill. That ares is surrounded by large erosion control stones, known as riprap.

Hawes said the primary concern expressed by parents about the drainage area was that “they didn’t like the look” of it.

“They didn’t like the riprap and said they didn’t feel it was safe. They said it wasn’t draining and was wet and was breeding mosquitoes,” she said. “But it’s the same riprap we have at our other elementary schools and it’s the way the project was designed,” Hawes said. “Harriman (Associates) designs a lot of schools.”

As a result of the parental concerns of the drainage sites, coupled with the other site changes, Hawes asked Harriman to take a fresh look at both the hill and the new drainage system. Also called in to consult were PC Construction, which built the site, and the district’s insurance agent, Liberty Mutual.

“As part of that safety perspective, all three organizations said that is not a safe hill to be sledding on,” Hawes said. “As it is now, kids who would be sledding on that hill are sledding into a parking lot, or into the side of the building where the music room is.”

With that in mind, the school board voted 9-1 at its Nov. 20, 2017 meeting — with Kennebunkport director Peter Fellenz opposed — to close the hill to sledding during school hours. Subsequently, a new “No Sledding” sign was posted.

Even some of those who voted for the motion recognized that sledding is bound to happen anyway, and much debate was expended on potential safety measures.

“It’s Maine. It’s a hill. There’s snow. People might sled,” Kennebunk director Rachel Phipps said, calling the site “an attractive nuisance” as defined by law.

“I would hope people keep sledding somewhere, but what’s important is to make sure the district is not liable for anything that happens there,” she said.

Board member Matthew Fadiman, also of Kennebunk, said doing anything to mitigate possible injury, such as planting a row of hedges at the bottom of the hill to keep kids from barreling into the building or the parking lot, would amount to “tacit approval” of the banned activity.

“I think we have an ability and an obligation, a duty to our children, to control activities, whether it’s during the school day or not,” he said.

Sudent representative Max LeBlanc predicted “a backlash” from parents.

“I think this is an issue that is going to be widely defended or talked about by parents,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to spring a vote, then have a backlash by that community, feeling like it didn’t have time to speak.”

Sure enough, a Dec. 18 board meeting was packed with more than 40 parents, all in an uproar over the change.

“This is reaction instead of action,” said local parent Jim McMann, who had two children at the school at the time. One has since moved to the middle school.

“We keep taking these things away from our kids. If this is unsafe, then let’s make it safe,” McCann said, at the time.

Others pointed out that sledding at the site actually predates the school, which was built in 1955, with significant updates and expansions in 1989 and 2017. One speaker was Jo O’Conner, who said her family once owned the land where the school now stands.

“You talk about 30 years of sledding here? It’s been much longer than that. People have been sledding here for a hundred years, at least,” she said.

On Monday, McMann said everything the school has done since November, including the near-agreement with the town on an alternate hill, and the engineering report to be debated Sept. 6, has amounted to little more than posturing by the board to somehow correct its vote on the hill, without actually altering the decision.

“The school board is just trying to hold to their vote without taking into account any of the opinions or recommendations any of the parents, or even (facilities) committee members, have brought to them,” he said. “It’s time they came out and admitted they were wrong,” he said.

McCann said he is part of a coalition of about 20 parents, many of whom he expects to join him at the Sept. 6 facilities committee meeting. He and a few of those parents actually tested and presented to the district a netting system at the bottom of hill to prevent run-offs into the parking lot.

McCann said his view, and that of other parents, is that the riprap ditch is indeed closely related to the sledding issue, but agreed the primary charge there is that the ditching was poorly designed.

“They’re spending all this money to fix a problem,” he said. “Yeah, $170,000 is a lot of money (for a new sledding hill), but $47,000 is also a lot of money.”

McCann said he is not sorry selectmen chose not to invest in a new hill. The alternate site is too far from the school building, he said.

“Instead of allowing anything on school grounds, we’re going to farm the kids off way over to this field?” he said. “They talk about the safety, but they were willing to let our kids leave school grounds to go off school grounds with very limited resources. With all these school shootings, was the school resource officer going to be tasked to watch these kids, or was it contingent on us parents?”

“Bottom line, it’s Maine,” McCann said. “It’s wintertime. Let’s let the kids have fun. Let them sled and be active. There’s just as much risk for a kindergartener that goes up on the jungle gym in the back (playground), that can be as much as 10 feet high. But if they fall off the top of that, the insurance company covers it. They’ll cover sledding the same way, but for some reason the school board decided they were going to vote against it because of a ‘safety issue.’”

“I really encourage the board to just concede on their decision and figure out how to make sledding work,” McCann said.

“I don’t believe the board made a mistake,” Hawes said, when asked to respond. “That building was built to the specifications that went to the planning board and to voters. We did exactly what we were charged to do.”

Hawes said the rebuild of the drainage area is now underway and should be complete in early September, shortly after the start of classes. To placate parents, the riprap will be replaced with a French drain — a gravel-filled trench lined with a perforated pipe to redirect surface and groundwater away from the building.

What will become of sledding, and whether it will be banned for a second season, remains to be seen.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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