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Laurel Park group pitches alternative park plan

Jeff Cosgrove explains park plan as Virginia Gambill looks on. Jeff Cosgrove explains park plan as Virginia Gambill looks on.

LAUREL PARK — Plans for a new town green space are turning out to be no stroll in the park.

While the Laurel Park Town Board moves ahead on plans for improvements to the historic Rhododendron Lake area, a small group of town residents is rising up to say wait a minute.
The Laurel Park Town Board hopes to receive a $250,000 grant to relocate a stream running through the nine-acre piece of land and to add a walking trail and other improvements.
The proposal has already taken a long time; the town's interest in doing something about the creek and the lake dates back to when the dam was breached more than 30 years ago. Problems with erosion and flooding have gotten steadily worse, and the creek now threatens to undermine Lake Drive. The town didn't own the property until two to three years ago; it was tied up in a complicated legal ownership. Each of the owners of 105 condos in Laurel Park Villas owned a piece of the lakebed, said Councilman Paul Hansen.
The question now is where to relocate the stream that runs through the park. The town and its consulting engineer, Hunter Marks, have submitted plans to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that reroutes the stream between Lake Drive and the lake. The Corps of Engineers, which has authority over the 2.8-acre stream relocation, will apply strict regulation to tree planting, bushes and other plantings that will become a buffer on either side of the new creek bed.
A handful of town residents met at the park site on Nov. 25 to make the case for a change in plans. At issue is how much of an open meadow the stream's new path would take and how much control over the land the town is losing by following the Corps-approved plans.
The residents pushing an alternative plan include Jeff Cosgrove, who owns a landscape company; Larry Hultquist, a landscape architect and project manager for National Park Service work on the Blue Ridge Parkway who owns the Lakeshore Apartments; Carolyn Widener, a member of the town Parks and Greenways advisory board; Alison Brennan, who owns a home overlooking the park; and Virginia Gambill, a member of the Laurel Park Civic Association.
The residents say they have a more recreation friendly option that's potentially cheaper and has more flexibility than the town's current plan.
"It saves all the green space," Cosgrove said. "Why go to all that trouble (to reroute the stream) when you can run it through the lake. It revitalizes the lake for fishing, recreation and esthetics and it has less environmental impact."
There are several problems with the Cosgrove-Hultquist approach, say Marks and the town board members who have been working most directly on the park — Mayor Carey O'Cain and Councilman Paul Hansen. For starters, they say, the Corps of Engineers almost surely would reject a proposal that rechannels the stream into the lake.
"If you force all the water into the lake you're abandoning 1,300 feet of stream," Marks said. The stream leading to the floodplain property, which is like a bowl below Lake Drive, now splits upstream of the lake. Most of the water stays in the stream and the rest flows through a pipe into the lake. Under the council's plan the pipe would remain and would feed the lake as it does now, O'Cain and Hansen say.
"We fully intend to take care of this lake and to get more water into it but we're going to do it through a weir system," O'Cain said.
The relocation of the stream has no effect on the lake, Marks added.

Lake fishing?
But Cosgrove and Hultquist say their plan takes advantage of the stream location to restore the lake. It would not be a recreational lake as it was from the time W.A. Smith developed Laurel Park in the 1920s and all the way into the 1970s. But their hope is that by dredging the lake and increasing the flow of water into it, they can make the lake healthier and suitable for fish.
"We have a plan to develop it in phases," Cosgrove said. "This plan is so much cheaper than what they're proposing to do."
They can apply for state and federal funding because they save more wetlands, they say, and they would recruit volunteer trail builders from the Carolina Mountain Club.
"By preserving open space you have the opportunity to bring picnic shelters and an amphitheater that the town could make money on," Hultquist said.
And they envision donations from town residents.
"A lot of people in Laurel Park are very generous," Gambill said. "Whenever Laurel Green was built, a lot of people came forward and gave generous donations and that pretty much paid for the park."
"The $250,000 is not a turn-key number," she added. "There's a lot of other expenses to the town of Laurel Park."
O'Cain doesn't disagree with that. Any development beyond the stream location would be at the town's expense unless it got grants to pay for it. He and Marks said while it's true the stream location would take about two-thirds of the open meadow above the lake, that open space could be replaced on another piece of the nine acres that's not under Corps of Engineers jurisdiction.
As for Hultquist's proposal to have income-generating amenities like picnic shelters and a music stage, "If that's the desire of the townspeople you can do that with either scheme," O'Cain said.

Community forum planned
The mayor said town residents have been misled by some of the comments opposing the town board's plans. A Corps-approved stream relocation would not be fenced off. Nor would it result in an impenetrable forest buffer. Instead, Marks's plan includes two bridges, alternating open area and "view plains" and "view corridors" that will expose the stream.
"A hundred different people would have a hundred different ideas about how to design the park," O'Cain said in a statement he drafted to explain the board's actions and the next steps. "The council is more aware of our town's overall finances and knows what we can and cannot do without raising taxes. There are a variety of individuals that have contacted council members and identified that they will not tolerate raising taxes for the project.
"The town intends to have a community forum after the Corps of Engineers reviews the plan to discuss where we are and where we're headed, and we welcome input relative to the overall Rhododendron Lake Park plan. I grew up with Laurel Park Lake, I learned to swim at the lake and taught lifesaving at the lake. I respect the history and heritage of the lake.
"We are working with Hunter Marks on an overall park master plan. We will have the proposal (and maps) to review and receive comments on at our community forum. The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and the Corps of Engineers have met numerous times and offered acceptable solutions so far. There's no reason to believe that an acceptable solution cannot be achieved."