Morrisville wants more parks. But land is hard to come by in this small town.

In this 2016 file photo, children take part in an Easter egg hunt at Cedar Fork Park, one of a dozen parks in Morrisville.
In this 2016 file photo, children take part in an Easter egg hunt at Cedar Fork Park, one of a dozen parks in Morrisville. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Over the next decade, Morrisville should acquire 135 acres of parkland and build a 45,000-square-foot community center.

Also, the town should build a 10,000-square-foot education building overlooking 36 acres of wetlands. And Morrisville should think about building an event space capable of holding a decent-size crowd.

Those are some of the highlights in a recreation master plan update that the Morrisville Town Council adopted last month.

The plan acknowledges one hurdle Morrisville faces in meeting the parks and recreation needs of a growing population: the availability of land in a town of about 10 square miles.

That's why the plan encourages Morrisville to begin acquiring land now, including in new housing developments. Like many towns, Morrisville now accepts a fee in lieu of forcing developers to set aside land in their projects for recreation.

The plan also calls on land-limited Morrisville to partner with other towns on development of multi-use trails and greenways.

Another hurdle: limited square footage in town recreation facilities, which is why the plan calls for a 45,000-square-foot community center, preferably near the proposed town center.

And maybe an event space. "Much of the feedback received through the community engagement process revealed the desire for additional community event requiring facilities that can support large crowds," the plan notes.

Mayor TJ Cawley gave the plan high marks for incorporating the wishes of residents. "This plan provides recommendations based on feedback from the community as it exists today and not what it was years ago," he said. "It offers suggestions that our council will consider to meet the needs of the residents, including increasing park acreage, additional amenities in existing parks and expansion of programming."

Councilman Steve Rao also praised the plan for drawing many of its recommendations directly from Morrisville residents. "It was developed through community and citizen input and reflects the needs of an increasingly diverse and innovative community," he said.

Rao said he has a sales pitch for developers who might be reluctant to set aside land for parks and recreation uses. "I would sell the idea to a developer that we want a collaborative partnership; we work together to provide the greatest benefits to our citizens," he said. "I want developers to look at us as a partner and invest in our growth and town."

Rao said he wants developers to see Morrisvile as more "than a just a place to build homes."

And if a developer balks at the idea? "If a developer is not willing to partner with us in this way, then I do not want them to invest in the Morrisville partnership, plain and simple," Rao said.

Cawley said he would encourage developers to look at the value of partnering with the town. "By working with developers to provide convenient access to recreation sites, greenways and open spaces, we are making their product more appealing to potential homebuyers," he said. "They can also promote that homeowners will benefit from stronger home values in the future, as statistics show homes near parks and open spaces hold value better than those further from away from these amenities."

Morrisville has a dozen parks spread over 127 acres. They range in size and scope from the quarter-acre Sarah Woody Jenkins Park to the nearly 35-acre Morrisville Community Park.

In its assessment of the parks, the master plan doesn't always speak well of their amenities and upkeep.

Ruritan Park, for example, "appears to miss an opportunity to act as a historic gateway or landmark into Morrisville," the assessment notes in giving the park a "poor" rating. And the lack of improvements "indicates there is little investment in the park."

Even parks rated "excellent" could do better, the assessment says. For instance, the 25-acre Church Street Park, though new, "shows signs of poor drainage along the central green and misses opportunities to connect uses through WIFI and education signage on sustainable stormwater management, the history of the land or other cultural narratives."

The master plan's biggest knock on existing parks is that they're isolated, so the plan calls on Morrisville to overhaul its parks while connecting them with "open space corridors, resulting in an integrated park and trail system."

When it comes to recreation programming, the plan encourages Morrisville to regularly ask people what leagues, activities, classes and other programming they want from their town and to review programming annually, adding or deleting as necessary.

Both Cawley and Rao are OK with residents paying a fair share to take part in recreation programs, but neither foresees the day when all programs will pay for themselves. In particular, Rao wants family events like July 4 fireworks and movies in the park to remain free.

The plan calls on the town to establish a cost-recovery percentage for recreation programs. What's a reasonable percentage?

"It really depends on the program, but I would say between 20 to 30 percent would be a start, pushing for the programs to pay for themselves through innovative public-private partnerships," Rao said.

"I do not believe that our goal is to make money in parks and recreation," he added, "but additional revenue could help us reinvest that money to develop more parks and greenways."

The plan doesn't spell out any capital costs, and it doesn't say exactly how Morrisville should pay for the plan's many recommendations. But it does offer options, including fundraising, partnerships, government financing, cost savings through more-efficient operations and recovering some programming costs from participants.

Cawley expects the town to pay for the plan's recommendations in much the same way it has funded parks and recreation over the years. "In the past, we have used a variety of resources to pay for these kind of improvements including development fees, grant funding from outside agencies, parks and recreation bonds and general tax revenues," he said. "These are the same methods we would continue to use, as well as looking for other sources of funding or partnerships when available."

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack
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