GARDEN HOUSE SHOWDOWN
Maybe Itís Time to Democratize
Decision-Making for City's Park
By Edward Shanahan
Words that come to mind when pondering Look Park are gem, jewel, ornament, and treasure.
A gift to the city nearly 75 years ago through the generous bequest of Fannie Burr Look, the 150-acre park is a civic asset of inestimable value, admired and enjoyed by generations past, present, and, one hopes, future.
Yet, another word that comes to mind when thinking about the operation of the park is arrogance - the kind of arrogance that results in park officials spending between $1 and $2 million of scarce resources to create a monument to hedonism in violation of city zoning laws.
And because of the arrogance of the self-perpetuating park board of trustees, the City Council now is in the embarrassing position of having to rewrite the zoning laws to make the Garden House banquet hall legal.
What was going on in the minds of the trustees of the park as they approved plans and voted to spend money on the costly renovation of the former pool house and pavilion?
Would individual members of the board have kept silent if a property owner in the residential neighborhood each of them resides - for example on Blackberry Lane, or Fox Farms Road, or Hillcrest Drive or Franklin Street - poured a million plus dollars into a commercial use that is prohibited by the residential zoning governing the property? Not likely.
Fortunately, a park neighbor - Edwin (Ted) Warner - did not remain silent. He believed what the park trustees had undertaken was wrong, inconsistent with the terms of Mrs. Lookís gift of the park land to the city and the original $450,000 endowment to maintain it, and bad for the neighborhood. Like any outraged citizen, he sued.
And he won, at least for now.
As Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ford wrote in his opinion upholding Warnerís objections to the operation of the Garden House: "I am simply unable to accept the defendantsí (park trustees) argument that the proposed use of the Garden House falls within the definition of Ďcommunity centerí as set forth in the Zoning Ordinance.
"Indeed, I believe that their (park trustees) attempt to fit the proposed use within that definition is tantamount to driving a square peg into a round hole."
The judge continued: "I am constrained to find that Mr. Warner is correct and that the proposed use of the Garden House as a banquet hall is not permitted by the Zoning Ordinance as currently written."
Park trustees are inclined to be arrogant because the public never gets a chance to eavesdrop on the official proceedings of the board, which, at the moment, is made up of: Edward Etheredge, chairman; Franklin King III, vice chairman; Richard Covell, treasurer; and William Brandt, Sharianne Walker, and Nancy Reeves.
While the mayor is an ex-officio member of the board, the public, which pays the fees and supports the park, is totally left out of the decision-making equation.
How much public input was asked for or considered when the amazing outdoor swimming pool itself was closed down some 10 years ago?
On what rationale are fees raised on a regular basis? What evidence is there that additional revenue is required? How is the endowment being invested and who is making those decisions? Who decides which park "improvements" are authorized and which ones rejected?
What about a voice for members of the public who use and value the park and its facilities? What about democratizing the governance of the park?
Without question the park is beautifully, even lovingly, maintained. It looks its very best at all times of the year. The operation of the park is very expensive, no doubt.
But one increasingly gets the impression that the park trustees have a tiger by the tail and canít afford to or are afraid to let go.
Each year brings new "improvements" aimed at generating more revenue to pay the cost of operating the park, which, in turn, increases as more funds are required to cover the cost of more improvements. Obviously, this cycle of improve and spend, improve and spend repeats itself endlessly.
Get the picture?
Itís sort of like the corporate world where expansion and growth are essential to support more expansion until the corporation reaches the point where it is swamped by the excessive costs of growing.
Itís no longer arrogance; itís bad management.
And that is what ultimately got Look Park into the ugly position it finds itself and the city in today.
To prevent the Garden House from being dismantled as might be required if a private citizen undertook such an illegal action, the City Council now will be forced to rework the language of the zoning ordinance to make a special exception for the parkís Garden House, located as it is in a residential zone.
Judge Ford even suggested such a remedy. "If the City Council wishes to further amend the Ordinance, it is free to do so, " he wrote.
And what will that do to community confidence that our zoning rules are consistent, fairly applied and enforced?
Itís time to take a look at who runs the park and what changes are needed. And the place to start the process is by showing up at the Sept. 26 hearing of the planning board and a committee of the City Council.Maybe Look Park is too priceless a community resource to be run solely by its self-selected trustees.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.