- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Once catering to high-temperature days spent carelessly drifting along the lazy river or shooting at high speeds down the body flumes, Auburn’s Surfside Water Park now sits stagnant as nothing more than a set of abandoned structures that have some Auburn residents concerned for its future.

“The abandoned water park is an eyesore and a public nuisance, and it’s shameful that the city shows so little concern about the appearance of the southern entrance to the Loveliest Village,” said John Varner, who has lived in the area since 1977.

According to revenue office records, the park on Highway29/South College Street closed in July 2012. Not only does Varner consider its remains a public nuisance and an eyesore, but he also said it is a breeding ground for pests, a venue for vandalism and an environmental hazard to nearby Mill Creek. He said he thinks that its location adjacent to Auburn’s municipal softball fields makes it stand out even more as a troublesome property.

Varner said he was motivated to look up the section in the Alabama code addressing public nuisances after he saw the water park featured in an “Abandoned Alabama” series on al.com, which showcased photographs of neglected structures.

“That it is directly connected to the city’s softball fields and is in dilapidated condition is an obvious violation of the code,” Varner said. “The photographs are empirical proof that the property is run down and overgrown to the point it’s a breeding ground for vermin and mosquitoes. The picture with graffiti painted on the sign proves it is a temptation for vandals, and the water slide structures are a potentially deadly danger for curious children who could easily wander over from the softball fields.”

Varner cited a section of the Code of Alabama giving municipalities the authority to “abate or enjoin any public nuisance” that is detrimental to the well-being of the community.

“The city should either order the owner to clean it up and fine him if he fails to comply, or clean it up and send him the bill,” Varner said. “If the owner fails to purge himself of the expense for cleaning it up, the city should condemn the property and sell it at public auction.

“Unless the property owner has a viable and verifiable plan to reopen the water park, removing the abandoned structures should be required,” he continued. “Trees are fine, but all debris and undergrowth should be cleared. Selling it for scrap, hauling it to a dump, or finding a buyer for it are options.”

According to property owner Tom Hayley, there is a plan for the former water park site - one that promises to continue to provide recreational opportunities there.

“There’s a redevelopment plan for the park,” Hayley said, adding that work on the finance portion of the plan was scheduled to take place starting Tuesday. “We have a vested interest in the property because we own most of it around that. The park we bought a few years ago because of its potential demise, which has occurred.”

Hayley said the park has been vandalized “terribly” in the past year - more than 30 times, he estimates.

He said the redevelopment plan would begin before the end of 2014, and redevelopment would happen in 2015, adding that there are several parties involved who he could not yet name. However, they “have been involved with development for a long time,” he said.

Hayley said as far as specifics of the plan, the developers would make the announcement either right before or right after the first of the year.

“For now, we’re just glad to be able to participate in this redevelopment. It will be recreational, but it will not continue as being a water park.”

Varner was one of many citizens who publicly opposed the water park’s construction in the early 1990s when plans to build it came before the City Council.

An Oct. 1990 article in The Auburn Plainsman quoted Varner and other residents of Old Conway Trailer Park on Highway 29 near Interstate 85, where 10 people lived in five trailers. The article described that the then-potential developer of the water park wanted to buy the trailer park, and residents there were unsure of what that meant for their futures.

“The immediate personal impression I got when I learned of the proposed water park was despair at the thought of having to move,” Varner recalled. “An individual’s inconvenience is a relatively insignificant matter when it comes to making public policy, so I swallowed hard and prepared for the worst. Then it began to sink in how this development would adversely affect the town’s character and the quality of life of its citizens, and I began to twitch. Water parks have their place in Panama City and large municipal areas, but aren’t suited for small college towns.”

A 1991 article in The Lee County Eagle said residents feared that the park would change Auburn’s nickname from the “Loveliest” Village on the Plains to the “Tackiest.”

According to the article, Leisure Partners Inc. proposed to build the park on the 28-acre site at Interstate 85 and U.S. 29 South, and partners were Jimmy Starr, Dick Starr and James May.

As reported in a February 1991 article in the Opelika-Auburn News, the City Council approved rezoning the 28-acre site, giving developers the go-ahead to secure finances to carry out the $6 million project. In addition to the water park, it was also to include a recreational vehicle park and a $1.2 million softball field, which the city was to purchase from developers after the park was in operation.

The article shows that residents were concerned about how the park would commercialize an undeveloped entrance to the city and also how it would impact surrounding protected wetlands.

As confirmed by then-City Manager Doug Watson, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a cease and desist order to construction crews to stop dumping soil in a corner of the property that had been designated as protected wetlands.

In May 1991, the Opelika-Auburn News reported that the construction company had complied with the request from the Army Corps of Engineers to remove tons of dirt that had been dumped in the protected wetlands area, allowing construction to continue.

A 1991 editorial published by The Auburn Plainsman cautioned that poor park management could lead to “an unsightly bit of progress that was not needed enough to warrant further destruction of the look of the city or its fragile environment.”

Surfside Water Park featured a 450,000-gallon wave pool, lazy river, body flume slides, two high-speed slides, a 5,000 square-foot kid’s play area, picnic pavilions and volleyball court.

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Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/

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