Town has many recreational needs, but how to pay for them?
By Greg Elias and Tom Gresham
When the Planning Commission studied Williston’s recreational needs earlier this year, it did not debate for long. It was easy to make a list — a swimming pool, an indoor skating rink, more playing fields and parks, teen and senior centers — and no need to argue about it.
However, the Planning Commission did not wade into the deep end of municipal recreation matters — funding and location. Sometime in the undefined future, town officials will have to determine which recreational facilities to financially back and where to put them.
“That’s the hard part: figuring out how we’re going to do this,” said Town Planner Lee Nellis.
A draft of the updated Comprehensive Plan for Williston identifies a long list of recreation needs that will become critical shortfalls if they are not developed in town in five years. It includes: two multi-use fields, one full-sized baseball diamond, one Little League/softball diamond, one basketball court, one picnic shelter, one gymnasium, one ice skating arena, one indoor swimming pool, one teen center, one senior center, one preschool center, a skate park and a dog park.
It’s a daunting list, and it seems apparent the town will at best add only a fraction of the facilities by 2010. The list is based in part on national and state guidelines for recreational facilities based on population. Nellis said the town uses the state and national guidelines for information but not as a standard.
Based on the guidelines, the town is lagging behind in several areas. So the question now facing Williston is not whether the town could use the facilities — it’s how to prioritize and pay for them.
On the bright side, the town meets the standards for multi-purpose paths, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and picnic sites.
“We’re doing pretty well overall,” said Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan. “There are some places where we could improve, but we’re getting there.”
Some residents, however, think the town needs more — and sooner rather than later. Those interviewed mentioned the dearth of indoor facilities, such as gathering places for seniors and teens and play spaces for hockey, swimming and other sports
“At this point, in order to have a strong community, I really feel strongly that we need a multi-use center,” said Tianna Tomasi, a teenager who is the youngest member of the Williston Recreation Committee. “It would give people a central gathering place.” She said such a facility could serve as a gathering place for teens and seniors as well as providing a venue for indoor sports.
John Donnelly, who coaches Williston Central School’s basketball team, said existing indoor spaces like the school’s gym are stretched thin. He said one league could only get space in the gym by starting play at 6:45 a.m. He also felt the town should build an indoor facility.
“I think with a town with a population of 8,200 should have an indoor recreation facility where you can swim or play hockey,” he said.
Tim O’Brien, a member of the Recreation Committee and president of the Williston Little League, said the town is filled with residents who have active lifestyles, leading to a strong demand for facilities.
His children have taken swimming lessons at the municipal pool in Essex Junction. He said if Williston had a pool of its own, it would improve a Red Cross lifeguard program now offered at Lake Iroquois. But on the other hand, he said, “it’s no big deal” to drive the few miles to a neighboring town.
Though Williston appears to have many outdoor facilities, O’Brien said the town has no full-sized baseball field. But he thinks the town should be cautious about spending big bucks for new buildings or fields.
“You have to survey the town and see if there is an interest while you look at costs and return on your investment, he said. “You really have to take baby steps.”
The high cost of fun
Indoor pools and skating rinks cost millions of dollars, so construction of such facilities add significantly to the property tax burden.
About a penny is added to Williston’s tax rate for every $1 million in bond debt, said Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director. A $10 million dollar facility would cost the owner of a $250,000 house about $250 a year.
But Donnelly points out that even the most expensive municipal facility costs far less than a family membership in a private health club.
Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons doubts the public would support another big-ticket item on the heels of the $6.8 million public safety facility voters approved earlier this year. She notes the town has millions of dollars in other outstanding debts to pay off.
“What you have to look at is what kind of burden taxpayers can carry,” Lyons said. “I don’t think we’ll be putting another bond up to vote this year or even the year after.”
The town has to be wary of accumulating too much debt, said Lamb. State guidelines set limits on the amount of bond debt towns can carry at any one time. In addition to the public safety facility, the town is still paying off bonds for sidewalks, fire trucks and a library addition.
Lyons suggested the town could make paying for an expensive facility easier with a public-private partnership. For example, one potential location for an indoor facility with a skating rink is Catamount Family Center. Nellis said the town and Catamount might strike an agreement that gives Williston residents free or discounted access to the facility.
Jim McCullough, whose family owns Catamount, said there had been little talk between Catamount and the town about a collaboration, adding that such an arrangement is “all a lot of high speculation at this point.” But he also thinks an indoor recreational facility is a glaring need in Williston.
“This is something that could happen at Catamount, but we don’t know that it will and we’re not promoting to the public that it’s going to happen,” he said. “But (an indoor recreational facility) is certainly one of the needs Williston has.”
Beyond an indoor facility, McCullough said he believed there were some other potential areas where Catamount could help the town.
“Some of the things the town needs could be solved with a partnership with Catamount, and some might not work out,” McCullough said. “We do hope that Catamount will be an integral part of fulfilling Williston’s future recreational needs.”
New fields on horizon
Though indoor facilities seem first on residents’ wish lists, the town also falls short of the national standards for outdoor facilities.
Nellis notes that the town has a number of subdivisions like Indian Ridge and Lefebvre Lane that include open spaces that serve as community parks. He said the town hopes to ensure that future subdivisions also incorporate recreational space. For instance, plans for the massive multi-use development proposed for the former Pecor horse farm feature several neighborhood parks.
Currently, the town has no concrete plans to add to outdoor recreation facilities aside from the ongoing expansion of the multi-use paths. But it does have land.
Nellis said that could help the town move relatively quickly on developing new fields or parks.
“We’re lucky to already have the land base for some of these needs,” he said. “We don’t have to worry so much about going to find another parcel. We’re in good shape there.”
The central site for future recreational fields is the 107-acre former Mahan Farm property, which was given to the town by the original developers of Maple Tree Place. A 25-acre parcel behind the Allen Brook School has been targeted for sports fields, according to Finnegan.
Finnegan said the town capital plan projects having the fields ready by 2008. The facilities would include two baseball diamonds and “as many multi-use fields as we could squeeze in there,” Finnegan said.
The fields would likely have to obtain an Act 250 permit, as well as to receive approval from the town’s Development Review Board. There is also some remaining property at the Community Park behind Williston Central School that could potentially be used for fields.
Indoor facilities, however, present a thornier problem. Nellis said the addition of a big-ticket item like an indoor pool or skating rink will take years.
“We’re not likely to see an indoor facility in Williston anytime soon,” Nellis said. “It’s expensive and takes a long time to build one.”
Though the cost might seem high, Tomasi said an indoor facility would bring priceless benefits to the community.
“In light of all the factors, it would benefit everyone — parents and their kids,” she said. “We have a great community now. “It would make the community so much stronger if we had one.”
The Williston Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. The meeting takes place in the meeting room at Town Hall. Those who can’t attend can submit written comments to Town Planner Lee Nellis at firstname.lastname@example.org or send them addressed to Nellis at 7900 Williston Road, Williston, Vt. 05495.