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Feedback received on park proposal

Debate and discussion over the future of Washington Park was passionate — and often contentious — during a special city Parks & Recreation Commission meeting held Tuesday.

The crux of the meeting was a presentation by Mackin Engineering outlining a conceptual site plan for the park — detailing options from doing nothing to the installation of mountain bike trails. After the presentation, the Commission took public comment.

A lot of it.

Comments broke largely into three camps — neighboring property owners who were adamantly opposed, users of the park that would like some refurbishment and the mountain biking community in support of trails they can use.

The park was called a drop off for drugs.

Comments, at times, stretched the limits of the word “civil.”

And there was a proposal from a Commission member to turn the 65-acre park into a nature preserve.

The comment detailed in the rest of this story will appear in the order they were presented to the commission.

Keith Marin spoke about mountain biking as a ministry opportunity for youth in the community and said he lives next to public land.

“I understand that it’s a blessing because I have this huge back yard that I don’t have to take care of,” he said. “I have to remember it’s not my yard.”

He spoke about the importance of opportunities for the next generation and said it would be best for the community to welcome bikers into the area.

“I feel like the trails are one of the things that made me want to stay here,” Jonah Huffman said, and “continue to live here.”

Trails at Washington Park, he added, would be “another thing that would help the community.”

“I can certainly understand the concerns of the people that live around that park,” Andy Georgakis explained. “Having eyes in an area to recreate definitely helps to mitigate” issues. “We cannot eliminate all the bad actors.”

He said trails in town are important for youth who may not be able to get out to the Trails at Jakes Rocks.

“This gives these kids an opportunity to be in open space and enjoy the trails and nature the way I did growing up. … If done right, it’s going to be extremely beneficial for the residents.”

Barry Keller presented a 12 point plan that hit on several items raised in the presentation but called for the restoration of a water pump once at the park as well as camera installation.

“Vandalism up there has been horrendous over the years,” he said.

Keller also raised concern about the interaction between hikers and bikers on the trail.

Jim Decker, president of the Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry, said development is “near and dear to my heart (and) something we strive to do all the time.

“I don’t know what the right answer is for Washington Park,” he said. “(The) only thing that is disturbing me a little bit in the way the dialogue us going, getting people up there recreating… the incidents of vandalism… is significantly down where (we) have more people there.”

Decker said there is a “balancing act… in the end having a more controlled and more active park is going to eliminate some of the negative problems that are being experienced in that area right now.”

He noted it would be nice not to have the 20 minute drive to a mountain bike trailhead that exists now to Jakes Rocks.

Curt Maney, a Beech St. resident, told the Commission that Washington Park “is not the place.”

He said he’d “love to see the park fixed up” but looking at a map of the proposed trails he said “Living on that hill, I know what’s in that woods. There’s too much going on there…. This is our backyard. We live there for a reason.”

He said development of the park “changes our backyard” and should avoid the oil and gas lease roads in the area.

Commission member Kirk Johnson then submitted his proposal that the site be turned into a nature preserve, comparing it to the Anders Run Natural Area in Irvine or the Jamestown Audubon Society.

He said the proposal would prohibit timber harvesting or management and require any nature trails to be goot traffic only.

The proposal, he explained, would “let nature rule the dice” for the future.

Shelby Maney, who also lives on Beech St., cited a prior recreation plan for the city that she said referred to Washington Park as a liability.

“Bikers, they’re good people,” she said. “The problem is patrolling this park. (It) has never been maintained correctly.”

She said municipal officials in the city and township “fight over who is going to respond if there’s a problem.

“That’s a known drug drop off,” she added.

Maney said the city hasn’t maintained the park in years and asked what’s supposed to make her believe that will change now.

City DPW Superintendent Joe Reinke said he lived in the area of the park for 26 years.

“I love that park more than a lot of people in this area,” he said, stressing the importance of adding “good eyes” and potentially a gate overnight.

He rattled off all the unseemly things city crews clean up from the side.

“We have to add more good eyes somehow,” he said.

“What I see is a good process that we should be discussing,” Rich Hatfield commented, lamenting the inability to have “civil conversations” in today’s society.

“(I have been) dismayed to see how some of this… a Facebook page saying some pretty horrible things, dividing the community. I don’t think that’s how we have to do this,” he said. “Can we have this conversation civilly? We don’t talk. We just yell at each other.”

There was a fair amount of ‘yelling at each other’ throughout Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think this is a neat spot,” Hatfield said of the park. I don’t see many people up there… I do think there’s an opportunity for a modest trail system…. This is a backyard community trail system.”

He said that recreation will be part of the future of the county and this “could be one piece” in enhancing those offerings.

Pat Evans raised concerns for the well operators and asked about winter maintenance, restrooms and the roadway.

“My concerns are the practical ones,” she said.

Dave Winans told the Commission he walks to the overlook several days a week and has “seen some of the issues that go on up there.”

He spoke about the history of the park and for town fathers who set it aside as a park.

“If more people are going up there, (that) will improve things during the day,” he said. A gate “would go a long way,” he added.

Pauline Steinmyer highlighted liability issues.

“What if it isn’t solved and what if you’re wrong? Is it really necessary to make this a public park, to put trails there now? What if you’re wrong? Who is going to pay for the liability issue?”

The commission at the outset of the meeting reviewed a proposal to install wayfinding signage in town to point the way to Washington Park.

Staff said there is sufficient funding to purchase the signs. The commission discussed the intersections of Third and Liberty and either Fifth Ave. or Sixth Ave. and Liberty as possible locations.

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