Amherst Town Council OKs spending for playground, golf course

  • Hickory Ridge Golf Club in Amherst GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer
Published: 12/17/2019 10:57:21 AM

AMHERST — A new downtown playground planned for Kendrick Park and acquisition of Hickory Ridge Golf Course can both move forward following spending approvals by the Town Council this week.

While the $520,000 purchase of the 149-acre golf course was approved Monday in a 12-1 vote, with only District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz voting against transferring money from the stabilization account, Swartz was joined by At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer in casting no votes for using Community Preservation Act money to construct a playground at the northern end of downtown.

To supplement a $400,000 Public Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities state grant for the playground, the town had to agree to provide a $259,000 match by the end of the calendar year, CPA Chairman Nate Budington said.

The 11-2 decision allows the town to borrow the full $659,000 amount.

Acting Finance Director Sonia Aldrich said following reimbursement from the state, the project will cost the CPA account about $35,000 a year for 10 years. The town has the capacity for this spending, she said, because other CPA-funded projects, such as the acquisition of the former Hawthorne property on East Pleasant Street are nearing completion.

Still, Brewer wants to get more specifics about what the town is buying, observing that the council can’t dictate the final design.

One specific concern, Brewer said, is there has been little discussion about securing the playspace with fencing. Brewer said she worries about patrons at downtown bars possibly finding the playground an attractive site to hang out in.

Rebekah Demling, a member of the town’s Leisure Services and Supplemental Education Commission, said the intent is to make the playground suitable only for children.

The purpose of the project, Demling said, is to entice families to come to the town center for socialization, as well as shopping and dining.

“I think it’s an investment in our downtown,” Demling said.

The only other playground in proximity to Kendrick Park is next to War Memorial Pool at Community Field, but that one is inadequate for families, Demling said.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the flight of families from town, evidenced in dropping school population, has been a discussion for town officials, and a playground would help bring families to live in downtown who might otherwise choose to live elsewhere.

“This is a public playground using taxpayer money that is dedicated for things like recreation,” Hanneke said.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said a safe and inviting playground is vital for the community.

Swartz said she worries that the town can’t afford the playground, or Hickory Ridge when four major capital projects are looming.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the town has embarked on other new playgrounds in recent years, at Crocker Farm School and Groff Park, both in South Amherst, and the cost is not unreasonable.

“The straightforward answer is these things are expensive,” Ziomek said,

Most of the play structures will be accessible, and benches and sidewalks will also conform with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A rubberized surface is put beneath the playground to make it safe.

Although District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam supported the spending, she said a challenge is to not have public bathrooms on site. Parents and grandparents will have to go to stores or restaurants nearby to find a bathroom for a small child to use. Ziomek said restrooms are part of a larger conversation about downtown needs and would likely add $200,000 to the cost if they were to be part of the project.

For Hickory Ridge, the town would acquire the West Pomeroy Lane site from Appliedgolf of Millstone, New Jersey, and use it for conservation and nature trails, connecting the open land to neighboring apartment complexes. A portion of the site will have a solar energy project the current owner is developing.

Having already agreed to set aside $200,000 from the CPA account, Town Council put an additional $306,000 from stabilization toward the purchase. Ziomek said discussions on the sale continue to be positive, but one hold up is that the company has only been accepted onto the waiting list for the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, or SMART program. If the solar project falls through, the current owner may ask for more money to secure the deal, Ziomek said.

The site is prone to flooding from the Fort River that passes through it, but Ziomek said the existing footbridges are built to withstand the water and that flooding is an occurrence on other conservation sites in town. Conservation Commission member Ana Devlin Gauthier said the flooding of the golf course is seen as a positive for the habitat and there is no intention by the town to change this when the property is acquired.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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