The Cary Town Council will continue with a plan to fund Morris Branch Neighborhood Park in the coming years before it plans Cameron Pond Neighborhood Park, despite divided opinions, an online petition and pleas from nearby residents.
The two potential northwestern Cary parks have been the subject of debate over the last month after town staff recommended allocating $100,000 to complete the master plan of Morris Branch Park in the fiscal year 2016-17 budget. This amount was previously planned for Cameron Pond Park.
More than 350 people have since signed an online petition to encourage the council to reconsider Cameron Pond Park, which subdivision residents say they have been expecting for years.
“The park funding keeps being put off year after year,” said Nathaniel Greene, who created the petition, which has stirred up discussion about park priorities among council members.
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The council spent more than an hour at a Monday, June 13, work session discussing when and how the parks should be funded. But after two failed motions – one to plan the parks simultaneously and one to plan Cameron Pond Park first – the town will likely stick with staff’s recommendation to begin planning the Morris Branch Park in fiscal year 2016-17.
“We made a promise to build the neighborhood and the community a park,” councilman Don Frantz said. “I don’t feel like we are reneging on that promise with Morris Branch. It’s just not exactly where they thought it was going to be. It’s still very close to the community and the neighborhood.”
Town staff recommended Morris Branch Park over Cameron Pond Park, which would be about a mile away, because they say it would serve 11,000 residents within a one-mile radius compared to 5,000 residents. It is also would cost $1.5 million less.
While council members agreed with town staff’s reasoning, some, including council members Ed Yerha and Jennifer Robinson have expressed concerns about residents’ expectations that Cameron Pond Park would be completed within the next few years.
They cite a unanimous decision made by the council in 2009 to prioritize the construction of Cameron Pond Park. At the time, current members Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, Jennifer Robinson, Jack Smith and Don Frantz were on the council.
The town has acquired most of the land needed for the project but it has not yet been funded. The town owns all of the land needed for Morris Branch Park.
“I think it’s more than numbers,” Yerha said. “I think there’s that expectation with it, and I can’t get over it that there are hundreds of Cameron Pond residents that think there is going to be a park there.”
Yerha said while the project could still be funded in the future, via a potential 2018 bond referendum or by finding other dollars, not having planned funding on the 10-year capital improvements plan makes the park look like less of a priority. He moved to go back to the original plan of starting with Cameron Pond Park first.
But the motion failed 4-2 with Yerha and councilman Ken George in favor. Robinson could not vote since she was calling into the meeting. Some council members supported the staff’s recommendation while others didn’t want to trade one project for another, particularly since residents near the Morris Branch Park area may now be expecting it.
George also suggested budgeting up to an additional $100,000 from town reserves to pay for Cameron Pond Park’s master plan so both parks could go through that step at the same time.
“I think we would wind up with two better parks down the road if they were planned jointly,” he said, adding that the council could decide which park they would construct first after the master plans were completed.
Robinson supported the idea with the hopes of building both parks in the future but others were more skeptical. Frantz and Smith were vocal about moving forward with only one project.
The motion to master plan both projects using additional funding from town reserves failed 4-2 with George and councilwoman Lori Bush in favor. Before voting, Bush said while she was willing to move forward with the planning of Cameron Pond Park, she didn’t want residents to assume that it would definitely be built in the next few years.
“I’m really worried about the perception for citizens assuming that if you master plan it, it’s going to be there,” Bush said, adding that the town currently doesn’t have the money to fund both Morris Branch and Cameron Pond parks without a bond referendum.
Smith said he didn’t feel the the need for the town to do both at this time.
“The reality is, I didn’t make any commitment,” he said. “We voted on something at that point in time. We now have a situation where we have a better option in front of us that serves the community just as well, and I have no guilt thinking that I owe something to someone when we are offering a better product that (serves) more people and saves us money.”
After the meeting, Greene said he planned to continue to advocate for Cameron Pond Park, including speaking at Thursday’s town council meeting in the hopes that the council will still consider making changes before the budget is approved at the end of the month.
“I see the votes (Monday) as the first attempts by council to expedite the park,” he said in an email. “They are clearly giving this a lot of thought.”
The council will hold a public hearing on the recommended budget Thursday, June 16. The next budget work session will be Wednesday, June 22. The budget will likely be adopted on June 27.
In other business
The council also:
▪ Approved using $400,000 worth of fund balance to pay for master planning the future phases of Downtown Park, which costs $100,000, and restrooms at MacDonald Woods Park, which costs $300,000.
▪ Discussed funding a temporary sidewalk on Louis Stephens Road and Reedy Creek Road as an alternative to funding the widening of Reedy Creek Road from Northeast Maynard Road to North Harrison Avenue. The council likely will not make a decision on which, if either, road project to pursue until a work session this October.
▪ Discussed instructing staff to find a way to help sponsor Cary events like Fest in the West, a new event held in western Cary this year, to encourage similar types of festivities in town.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon