Saturday, October 8, 2011

Parks and Recreation, Part I

This is part of the opening statement in Dunwoody's Parks and Recreation Master plan:
Public input is the most critical component in developing a comprehensive plan for a Parks and Recreation Division. The citizens are the participants in and users of the parks system and recreation programs, and without strong support and usage by them, the parks system becomes ineffective. For the plan to be effective in improving service delivery and facilities, it must accurately reflect the facilities and programs most desired by the community.

There are two bonds on the ballot.  I did not put them there, neither did any of the mayoral candidates, neither did the two people running for office in district 2, and neither did one of my opponents.  The candidates currently  have no influence on these bond issues.  I get one vote for each bond, same as every resident.  None of the candidates have any control if the bonds pass or fail. The next council will decide how funds are spent if one or both bonds pass.

When I am out talking to people parks is the number one question.  It seems to be the litmus test for candidates.  Instead of asking candidates about high density apartments, zoning, trash service options, road paving, expansion of the police department, or something else, people want to know where candidates stand on parks. What I really think they are asking is 'how will you spend the money if it passes'?

Is Callihan for an active or passive Brook Run?  Would Dallas want three baseball fields?  Would Davis push for a renovation of the Donaldson farm?  Does Wittenstein still favor moving baseball to Brook Run?  Would Deutsch vote to buy apartments and knock them down?  Is Nall interested in a joint venture with DeKalb schools to improve the fields at Peachtree Middle? Does de Vallette like one bond over the other? Does Jackson support selling or keeping the PVC farm?

Issue #1 - Every Dunwoody voter will vote yes or no on allowing the city to borrow up to $33 million to buy land.  The $33 million is for land only, no development of the property.
The city has already contracted about 20+ acres of land, contingent upon the passing of this bond.  That land was NOT destined to have apartments.  It was NOT zoned for apartments.  It was NOT going to be rezoned for apartments.  It is zoned Office/Industrial.  Eventually it would be the home to tax-paying employers. Two things we need in Dunwoody: tax revenue and jobs.  These two things will never come to this prime location if made into a park. 

Issue #2 - Every Dunwoody voter will vote yes or no on allowing the city to borrow up to $33 million to spend on improving parks and buying land

What is an improvement to a park?  What one person calls an improvement, another calls an intrusion.  As an example, I doubt the average voters knows that the current Parks Master Plan calls for $2 million for a new theater in Brook Run yet has ZERO sports fields. What would current council do if they had the $33 million today?  Go to the city web site and take a look at the Parks Master Plan.      

When I fist caught wind of  the idea to increase revenue to the city (slightly increased taxes) to improve park amenities I was open to the idea, but wanted to learn more.  I spoke to a few people, thought about the current parks, and decided I'd be willing to pay a little more for certain things.  I do that every day of my life.  I can order a cheese pizza at Mellow Mushroom, or I can pay a little extra and get ham or sausage added.  But when the parks master plan (and price tag) came back, I was surprised. I was expecting something in the $8 million range, not $33 million.

In regards to the parks and land bonds coming up, I think we need to know the purpose of it all.  An often stated goal of folks in favor of more parks/land is the desire to increase acres per resident.  This is a flawed goal.  For those in favor of the parks/green space bonds, citing a goal to simply add more is not the way to win (pass the bonds).

Currently we have 160 acres of parks.  Well, not really parks - we have 160 acres categorized as parks.  Anyone who has ever made the short drive to Morgan Falls park in Sandy Springs or visited a park anywhere outside of Dunwody knows we have inferior 'parks' - we have land designated as parks, but for the most part they are not really parks.  The city has allowed the Donaldson Chesnut house to nearly fall apart from the inside out.  Water leaks there are driving costs of renovation higher and higher.  The city mows the lawn and that's about it.  It's a shame we spend $100,000 for a copycat logo and branding and ignore a piece of history. The city council just approved spending $39,000 for a study on signs and monuments while an actual monument at the intersection of Vermack and Chamblee Dunwoody Roads fades away. Maybe the city should do a 100 year lease ($1 a year) of the Donaldson place to the Dunwoody Preservation Trust.  It's obvious the city has no  interest currently in investing any money into the place - why not pass it off to a group that actually cares about it?

Anyway, back to the bonds and land and parks.  According to some national think-tank Dunwoody should have 460 acres of park space based on our number of residents.  I think that figure needs thrown out the window.  No one is suggesting we have 460 acres (I take that back, some of you may want 460 acres and would try to accomplish that by knocking down subdivisions in your quest to 'green' Dunwoody).  Our magic number is 250 acres of parks/green space in the parks plan.  Where did the 250 figure come from?  It came from a consultant at a Parks and Recreation committee meeting.  He told us 460 was impossible and that we should aim for a more realistic number.  He told us 250 was that number. We have 160 acres, the consultant says we need 250 acres, so the quest for 90 acres is on.

If our goal is simply to get to a magical number of 250 acres for the sake of having a certain number of acres per resident then Dunwoody should buy 90 acres in Dade County (NW corner of GA) for $5000 an acre, then have our city manager work out an IGA (Interngovernmental Agreement) with Dade County whereas Dunwoody residents can use the 90 acres at their leisure.  City Hall could then announce to the world that we have X acres of green space per resident, we are awarded Gold status by the Sustainability Posse, and life is good.  If our goal is to simply have 250 acres, then why not?

I know, 90 empty acres in Dade County is not worth much to anyone in Dunwoody (except those interested in spring gobbler season).  But I hope you get my point.  The bonds issue should NOT be about accumulating acres of land for the sake of accumulating land to reach some artificial ratio.  The bonds should be about what will you do with parks to make my life better, to make my home more valuable, to make my life and/or my kids' life in Dunwoody more enjoyable, to improve quality of life in Dunwoody, and to make Dunwoody attractive to new families and businesses

If you want to improve Dunwoody then don't tell us we need land just for the sake of having land - that is ridiculous.  Tell us how these bonds will improve our quality of life.  Tell us how in five years residents won't have to drive to Chamblee, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Decatur, and Roswell for outdoor activities.  Please don't tell us we need 90 additional acres because a consultant said we need 90 additional acres.

People I talk to want land with a purpose.  They want a Dunwoody tennis center, they want a field for girls lacrosse, they want baseball fields, they want a nice walking trail around Brook Run, they want a nice playground on the north side of the city.  They want to preserve some history.  They don't want to pay $200+ a month for 30 years on a big chunk of undeveloped undevelopable acres off Vermack Road just to say Dunwoody has 250 acres of green space.

Today, a couple hundred of Dunwoody families will drive their kids to Murphy Candler, to Morgan Falls, to Hammond Park, to tennis academies in east Cobb and Norcross, to Dynamo, to NASA, to Concorde Fire, to other areas.  The question these voters need to ask is, "Okay, what do I get out of $216 a year or $240 a year?"  "How do these bonds make my life better and my city better?"  A majority of Dunwoody residents do not care about how many acres of green space/parks per resident.  That figure means nothing to the average taxpayer!

NOTE: $216 a year is what you, owner of a $350,000 home, would pay per year, on two bonds - $240 a year for a $500,000 home.

What does matter are the details - details not available in the current parks plan.  Originally we had $8 million for baseball fields and pretty much $0 for soccer, lacrosse, and tennis.  That sounds great, if you have a baseball player in the family (ages 13-18 only).  If one or both bonds pass would other sports be addressed?  We do not know.  That's the problem.  Council never committed to anything specific in regards to organized sports. The current Master Parks Plan has ZERO fields dedicated to organized sports in it.

If you have young kids and you plan to vote YES for bonds, please read the prior sentence again.

I know, the next council can ignore the Master Parks Plan and do what they want.  That's the problem.  Those of you wanting improvements to the Donaldson Chesnut house - there are no guarantees the city council would allocate a dime to this place.  Current council has done little there - what makes you think the next council would if it is not specified in the bond language?  Same goes for the Dunwoody Nature center.  You DNC folks think you'll get a new building?  Maybe, maybe not.

Trust council we are told.  During preliminary discussions I wondered why baseball was pushed so hard.  I've got no issues with baseball, but I do have a problem with baseball being the lone organized sport ever discussed in the master plan for parks.  Lots of big-hitters in the city are involved with Dunwoody Senior baseball. Just because Dunwoody Senior baseball has been using (and maintaining) the fields here for years does not mean taxpayers pay $120 a year for 30 years (cost of one bond) to build a new baseball complex while other sports are totally ignored.If the city commits to baseball, then why not girls lacrosse or Concorde Fire? There was a survey conducted at the beginning of this process.  Other sports ranked higher than baseball in that survey. See image above for survey results.

I played baseball from age 5 to 19.  As a kid some of my best memories are playing baseball, and looking back, I'm glad we had fields close to home to play on.  I'm not upset with the kids playing baseball or the adults with baseball players in their family, but I need explained to me why baseball was the only sport ever seriously discussed by council. If the baseball people want baseball fields, they should also be in favor of supporting other organized sports in Dunwoody.  Maybe they are already.

The big question in all this is Will Dunwoody seriously enter the organized sports business or not? That is what future councils will decide. Once that question is answered, then a new bond should be presented.

Two Brook Run Parks
For your consideration, I present two approaches to Brook Run Park.  I think it is very difficult to combine passive and active programs at Brook Run. The two don't mix.
passive park

active park

Imagine a Brook Run with three baseball fields, two soccer fields, a lacrosse field, a football field, 16 tennis courts, two basketball courts, volleyball courts, and of course Frisbee golf.  It can be done, and it would appeal to many in Dunwoody.  It would be an active park, with active kids and active adults, and activities. The active Brook Run would rival Morgan Falls.  It would keep more Dunwoody kids in Dunwoody.

Remove all the buildings at Brook Run (except green houses), Remove all the inner paved roads, remove the skate park, remove the dog park  Have one parking lot up front, one off Peeler.  Create walking paths, walking trails, bike paths, bike trails, picnic tables, picnic pavilions, some open fields.  100% passive. No trees cut, no need for a bond.  This could be accomplished with the $5 million expected from DeKalb County.  It would be similar to the Big Tree Forest Preserve in nearby Roswell.

If the passive plan is accepted for Brook Run, then use the newly acquired PVC farm for athletic fields.  Fill it with as many fields as possible.  Perhaps three baseball and three soccer/lacrosse fields.  Seek private/public partnerships to keep costs down. An active park in this area, I contend, would help spawn new retail in the Georgetown area. There are talks that the city will sell part or all of the PVC location (confirmed by the city manager at the last DHA meeting).  We were told this property was bought to stop apartments and to add to our green-space.
a park in neighboring Sandy Springs

The big picture on bonds and parks is will the city seriously enter the organized sports arena?  Cities like Roswell and Sandy Springs (higher taxes than us, no doubt) do a great job.  One issue we have in Dunwoody, starting from scratch, is trying to do everything at one time.  That's why the bonds are $66 million dollars.  If the city were to focus on one segment this year, then maybe a different segment of parks and rec in two years, maybe it would be better received. The stumbling block for bond supporters is the wide variety of plans for the $33 million.  Council tried to give a little bit to everyone;  A new $2 million theater for the thespian crowd, a new and improved working farm and entertainment complex to appeal to the Preservation crowd, etc.    

During the writing of the Parks master Plan did the city council pay too much attention catering to special interest groups and forget about the families with young children?
"Vote for parks" young families are told. Meanwhile, the Master Parks Plan has a $2 million theater and $3 million for restoring and commercializing the Donaldson Chesnut house, $3 million for the nature center, a whopping $13 million in green-ways and $0 million for sports fields. 

So what is the answer? If the bonds fail this year is our city doomed? Quite the contrary.  Stay tuned for Part II.



SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

You proved the point I made at DHA last week. The surveys and focus groups gathered statistics on what "the community wants" but there was no effort put in to determine how accurate the answers were. That is, were people telling the truth in their answers, or were they aspiring to an ideal, or giving what they thought would be the "correct" answer for the benefit of the "green" advocates, or was there some other undue influence? There's a way to tease that apart, the consultants didn't bother.

I'm with you on sports @ the PVC farm. I blogged on that a while back.

Mark said...

Thank you for a superb presentation, Rick. I look forward to part II.

Site Admin said...

Consider for inclusion in Part II...

Between the "parks bond" which really seems like a tool for "re-developing" Dunwoody according to certain demographic ideals and the oft-ignored "TAD" vote on the ballot, it seems we have a City Manager who is totally out of control and hell bent on driving the undesirables out of town. Or "in control" if by that you mean he unilaterally does what he wants. Perhaps Council should, to use a baseball analogy, step up to the plate and provide some adult supervision. Or even worse, perhaps they have and ole 5K is doing their bidding? So, what, if anything, would you do to change that? As a member of Council that is.

You played baseball for 14 years. Good for you. Remember "racket ball", a fad in the '80s most noted for instant mediocrity? What if we had built courts because "all my kids love it"? Would we be stuck with a white a skate park? These bonds commit us to 30 years of payment, and I suspect any extra money (should property values increase, etc.) will disappear into the general fund, pay for a lawyer's raise or send another cop to Israel. What will you do to ensure that decisions backed by a 30 year commitment to taxation have a similarly long-range implementation perspective--something better than "my daughter is in middle school and just loves lacrosse"?

Can anyone honestly say there are not enough tennis courts in Dunwoody? Or is the real issue that in order to use them you might have to pay $500-$600 per year and if the city runs tennis facilities you'd pay less than half that? Me, I like ranges. Cooking, driving and shooting. Can the city provide these for me? Why not? Let me guess: that's just selfish on my part. Right...gotcha.

This city is approaching three years old and needs a house-cleaning. We have HOA-hangover cronyism, with the connected exerting more influence than is justifiable even in a representative government. We have highly compensated employees who are on staff only because they "knew someone"--at the time they got the job no professional search firm would have even considered their resume for the job they now hold. As a councilman will you take a hard look at the role of city government and assess whether the current organization or employees fit the mission?

Anon said...

I think that the desire to clean up the undesirables is being driven by the council and even some officials higher up.