- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Andrew and Cassie Newton picked their house because it backs onto a city park.

And their five children use Trendwood Park as an extension of their backyard. Almost every day, they are at the park, playing football, finding a little hill for a sled ride or just exploring, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1xtPDpx ) reported.

One of the benefits the Newtons didn’t expect is the social life the park gives them. They’ve gotten to know neighbors at the park, Andrew Newton said.

Every neighborhood should have a park, said Cassie Newton.

“Absolutely. It’s a necessity,” she said.

City leaders in the past have agreed. Lincoln’s Comprehensive Plan envisions a park within walking distance of every home.

A half mile is about a 10-minute walk. So if no larger parks exist, the city buys land for a 4-acre park per square mile of new development, said J.J. Yost, planning and construction manager for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

But faced with growing park maintenance costs, several City Council members have suggested the city look at a moratorium on new neighborhood parks.

“If we can’t afford to take care of what we’ve got, maybe we need to take a look, at least in the short-term, of having a moratorium on creating new neighborhood parks,” said Councilman Roy Christensen.

Now that the budget season is over, it’s time to have a discussion about the future, about how the city might take some of the pressure off future park funding, he said.

The city does have a lot of parks, so a moratorium on parks in new residential areas wouldn’t create a problem, he said.

Maintenance costs often become an issue during budget time, as elected leaders try to make sure “we can take care of what we have,” Yost said.

However Parks and Recreation staff don’t believe a moratorium on creating the smallest of the city parks is the answer to funding problems.

The city has the money to buy small parks, using the impact fees paid by builders and passed on to new homeowners.

A portion of the residential impact fees is used for new city parks and trails. The park and trail portion is $203 to $339 per housing unit.

“You know Lincoln has a fabulous trail system,” said Jerry Shorney, superintendent of parks and operations.

Over the past five years the city has added five neighborhood parks, about one a year on average, he said.

The city buys the parkland early, ahead of development, then waits until there are houses and enough money to put in amenities like playground equipment, Shorney explained.

“We have a window of opportunity when a development goes in to try to get a piece of land for a neighborhood park.” Once that window is gone, once the area is built up, it is very difficult to buy property, he said.

“We ought to be getting that land when we have the opportunity,” he said.

Maintenance cost for parks, on average, is about $1,600 per acre. About 4,600 people live in a residential square mile, which works out to about $1.40 a person for neighborhood park maintenance, Shorney said.

“From that standpoint it (maintenance) is pretty economical.”

Lincoln has made a concerted effort over time to establish parks, and “we’ve done a pretty good job,” said Lynn Johnson, parks and recreation director.

If the city stops creating new parks in new areas, that will create an equity issue. “Everyone pays property taxes and there ought to be some equity in what people get,” Johnson said.

Shorney looks at Lincoln’s park land with pride.

Lincoln has 127 parks, and 49 of them are neighborhood parks. The city also has 86 playgrounds across the system, Shorney said.

When homeowners in new areas realize there is land set aside for a neighborhood park, they start calling Shorney to find out when the playground equipment will go in, he said.

But others see the city’s park land in terms of future costs.

Out of Lincoln’s 91 square miles, 10 are park land. “And many of these parks have been under-maintained,” said Councilman Jon Camp.

Camp frequently raises the future cost issue during budget discussions and when the council is briefed on potential new park projects.

Both he and Christensen have suggested that if people want neighborhood parks in new residential areas, they should create and maintain private parks through homeowners’ associations.

That alleviates the need for the city to provide these parks, Camp said.

But substituting private parks in new areas for what are public parks in older neighborhoods has potential political consequences, said Councilman Jonathan Cook. If some areas of town don’t have any public park land, those residents will be less likely to support a park budget, he said.

The concern about maintaining what the city has extends beyond parks, Cook said. But no one says the city shouldn’t build new streets because it can’t keep up with maintenance costs.

City staff and park supporters have tackled the maintenance argument by creating maintenance endowments for some of the newer, larger park areas. Sunken Gardens, about to celebrate its 10th renovation anniversary, was the first with an endowment, Shorney said.

Since then, endowments have been created for Union Plaza, Centennial Mall (now being renovated), the new Tower Square at 13th and P streets, and the Airport Corridor, a beautification of Cornhusker Drive from the airport toward downtown Lincoln.

It would likely be a little difficult to create an endowment for something as small as a neighborhood park, Shorney said.

One national park leader can’t believe a progressive city is even talking about a moratorium on park land.

Sometimes cutting parks seems to be an easy way to save money, said Richard Dolesh, vice president for conservation and parks at the National Recreation and Park Association. But there is perverse logic in the idea that cutting parks makes good budget sense.

It is a proven fact that property values around parks are higher, he said. Park land increases the tax base and thus the tax revenue.

And parks are almost always ranked in the top three to five city amenities that businesses look at when making relocation decisions. Smart communities are all about making themselves more attractive and more sustainable, he said.

“The benefits of parks are so great, it is laughable to even consider not putting in new ones,” he said.

“Do you really want a lesser quality of life for your community, a less attractive place to live in?” he asked.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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