A group of kids jumped over a locked fence at Womble Park at 4:30 p.m. on a recent Monday in hopes of playing a pickup game of soccer on the park’s new turf field.
A police officer who was driving by stopped and told them they couldn’t be there. The field was closed because there wasn’t a Holly Springs staff member on duty to supervise play.
Under existing rules in Holly Springs, the five minors – four teenagers and a 12-year-old – could have been banned from all town parks for a year. That’s the punishment for people caught trespassing at local parks.
The police officer sent them home, and the ban wasn’t issued. But the incident highlights a rule that was already under review in Holly Springs – and how the town will meet a growing demand for athletic fields.
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Under a proposal by town staff, the parks ban would be reduced to one month for first-time trespassers, while repeat offenders would be banned for one year.
The proposed changes went before the Holly Springs Town Council on Tuesday, when parents attended the council meeting to criticize the town for the ban and for limiting access to fields.
“My son was wrong to climb the fence, but his crime was wanting to play soccer,” Doug Cox said.
“We in no way condone what she did,” said Howard Babbitt, whose daughter was at the park. “To punish her for 12 months ... 12 months is a lifetime to them.”
Council members said they are in favor of reducing the ban for first-time trespassers, but asked town staff to remove a condition in the proposed rules that would require offenders to go before a panel of employees and police officers.
“I really don’t want it to be a tribunal,” Councilman Hank Dickson said.
“Why take away valuable staff time?” Councilman Jimmy Cobb added.
The council also asked staff to include a statement that says Holly Springs staff or police will contact the parents of minors who are caught trespassing.
“I’m concerned with how the minors were dealt with,” Councilwoman Cheri Lee said.
Town staff did not contact the parents of the kids who were caught trespassing this month because the town decided not to press charges or institute the ban, according to Len Bradley, the town’s parks and recreation director.
“There has not been one thing done to enforce that,” he said of the ban. “Normally, there are letters sent.”
The rules and punishments are in place because vandals have damaged town parks at least 20 times in the last year, and the town wants to protect its investments, Bradley said.
Holly Springs recently spent $3 million to renovate Womble Park, $1 million of which paid for the turf fields.
“The objective here is not to punish good kids,” Bradley said. “Our objective is to try to, in the long run, decrease damage at parks.”
Town staff plan to present a revised version of the proposed rules to the Town Council at the July 1 meeting.
“I’m sure not everyone is going to be totally pleased. But give us a chance to get this right,” Mayor Dick Sears told the crowd.
In the meantime, town staff will look into expanding the amount of time the soccer fields are open to the public for free.
The field is currently open 15 hours per week on a schedule the town posts on its website. The daily schedule changes each week depending on when the field is rented out and when someone with the parks and recreation staff can monitor play.
The town only allows play while a staff member is on duty because it wants to prevent damage and litter on the field.
“We can’t staff it 24/7. We don’t have the money for that,” said Adam Huffman, assistant parks and recreation director.
The town also keeps a quadrant of the field open to the public during rental hours unless someone has booked the entire field.
“The goal is to open it up more in the future,” Huffman said. “It’s a work in progress.”