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Two village leaders would delay new park entrance

FLAT ROCK — Concerned about escalating construction costs and unknown operating costs, two members of the Flat Rock Village Council have suggested a moratorium on new spending and a second look at whether a new entrance is needed at a price of almost $1 million.

"The cost estimate to put in the new entrance road and upgrade the parking situation got to be between $600,000 and $700,000," Councilman Don Farr said. "If you add a 20 percent contingency you're $900,000 and that's just to put in a road and a parking lot and not adding any signage or amenities."
Farr's comments at a Flat Rock Village Council meeting last Thursday and in an interview on Sunday came after Vice Mayor Nick Weedman sounded a cautionary note on the rate of capital spending for the new park at a workshop last month.
Farr said at first he supported the new road as the next major expenditure at the new facility, called the Park at Flat Rock.
"At first I was skeptical" about delaying the entrance, Farr said. "But as the price went up, I agree with him. We ought to do amenities first."
Weedman, who serves as the village finance officer, argues that the entrance road won't be needed until the park attracts more visitors, and that spending at the current rate risks breaking a pledge he made that the village could buy the 60-acre golf course and pay for improvements without spending down its reserve fund and raising taxes.
"My position is one that goes back to when we were first starting to consider purchasing the park," he said. "I put together a presentation which said we could buy the park, develop it and maintain it without raising taxes. We had at one time close to $5 million in the reserve fund. If we took that down to as low as $3 million but not lower, we could do it. And the reason for $3 million is that if the interest rates went back the interest on that $3 million would be sufficient to pay for ongoing yearly operations and maintenance of the park. The last thing I said is it could be done without a tax increase."
The council has spent or set in motion plans to spend $272,000 on park improvements, a figure that is well within an $823,000 appropriation it made for the current fiscal year. Even if started engineering and design today, only a fraction of the entrance road and parking lot work would be paid before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
But Weedman and Farr say there is no urgency in the driveway, and other improvements like playgrounds and a dog park could come first.
"I asked (the council) let's finish what we have started, let's put a one-year moratorium on new capital spending, let's get a year's experience of operations and maintenance so we have a better feel for our costs on a longer-term basis and then revaluate," Weedman said. "We need to set priorities. I'm the finance officer of the organization and my advice to them all along has been let's take it slow, let's get some experience and let's determine what we can and can't do. But there's another school of thought to press ahead, press ahead."
The press-ahead faction will find its strongest allies at the Highland Golf Villas, the park's closest neighbor.
"We have a big problem with it," Golf Villas resident Doug Johnson said of a delay in the new driveway, "because the reason it was put in along Highland Lake Drive was for the pure safety of it as well as not wanting to commercialize or quasi-commercialize Highland Golf Drive itself."
The convergence of the railroad tracks, a curve and a hill make the existing entrance hazardous enough with light traffic, said Johnson, a retired architect and land planner. "It's an unsafe intersection as it is now and the logic of having the new entrance was to avoid any tragedy. Putting it off just dances with the devil because as pedestrians also come to the park that's going to magnify the likelihood of a tragic accident. It's unnecessary to subject everybody to use that tricky existing entranceway."
Veterans of the ferocious fight over the proposal by Henderson County commissioners to turn the golf course into a big soccer park, the Highland Golf Villas homeowners will be gearing for a new battle if the village delays the entrance road.
"We're concerned with any change in priority that is different from what I deem the bill of goods that was sold to our association and the rest of the community. It's like, 'If you like your park you can keep it,'" he added, a reference to the oft-mocked promise by President Obama that the Affordable Care Act would change no existing health insurance terms.
The current president of the Highland Golf Villas property owners association, Barbara Coladarci, said the HOA had already sent letters to the village objecting to a delay in the entrance road project.

Dog park considered

The Village Council is also looking at a new project, adding a fenced dog park, which had not up to now been a high priority. But dog owners have been letting their dogs run loose, which has set off complaints from non-dog walkers and opened a debate over what amenity to add first.
"If you go out to the park now the biggest problem we have are dogs," Weedman said. "A former council member stated it perfectly. If you don't have a dog park the whole park becomes a dog park. That's what's happening right now."
The Village Council last week authorized new signs that remind park visitors to leash their dogs. "Not everyone is comfortable with dogs," it adds.
Given the size and sparse use of the park now, "People's common reaction is that doesn't apply to me," Weedman said.
Councilman Jimmy Chandler, the liaison to a park advisory committee, last week recommended that Village Council members visit the five other dog parks in the county to see what kind Flat Rock might want.
Johnson said the Highland Golf Villas association opposes that, too.
"For some reason it hoisted up to the top and was made a feature du jour which philosophically runs counter to what a passive environmental park is supposed to be," he said. "There are people obviously that are hellbent on having a dog compound in the middle of the park. We simply don't want to see a dog mecca ... It's high maintenance and barking dogs and the scent of dogs is certainly not conducive to the fowl and the birds that are supposed to be encouraged to use the park. It's too much of a counterpoint."

'Amenities first'

At last week's council meeting, Farr followed up on an email he had sent March 9, calling for a one-year delay of the entrance road and the "need to adopt a philosophy of 'amenities first.' I have difficulty accepting spending nearly a million dollars to only enhance what seems to me to be adequate parking for now," he said.
"Let's take the time to find out what the real needs are and then act on actual information, not just what is thought to be the eventual parking needs."
Higher priorities, he said, are completing the restrooms and walking trail, developing an off-leash area for dogs and completing a buffer next to the Golf Villas.
Farr and Weedman are likely to be allies in the more fiscally conservative approach.
"The key word is need," Weedman said. "The need's not demonstrated because we don't have experience. Let's get some time under our belt and then let's do things based on need. ... If turns out the amount of traffic is such that we need a better entrance, I'd be the first support it. But not until we need it because the amount of money is very significant and it's going to take away from the amount of money for amenities. Nobody's going to come to the park because you have a brand new road and a parking lot."


Flat Rock park costs

Purchase and improvements
Purchase of property: $1.15 million (last installment of $150,000 to be paid in Jan. 15, 2015)
Demolition of Course Doctors office and cart barn: $7,036 (complete)
Perimeter trail: $115,105 (under way)
Stream bank restoration: $15,411 (contract awarded)
Clubhouse renovation as rest station: $150,000 (projected, not yet bid)
New entrance drive and parking lot: $700,000 to $900,000 (not yet decided)
Potential total of improvements: $987,552 to $1.19 million.

Operating costs
Appropriation for part-time Recreation Foundation director: $23,000 (projected at $68,000 for an entire year)
Grounds and upkeep: Bids solicited, costs pending.
Security: No decision yet.