Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh to involve public sooner in parks planning

After a string of park projects beset by opposition battles and lengthy delays, the city’s parks and rec department will soon overhaul the way it works with the public during planning for future parks, ballfields and gyms.

The proposed guidelines, laid out in exhaustive detail in three documents totaling 89 pages, are intended to pinpoint areas of disagreement and bring together citizens groups to give suggestions, particularly when controversial projects are involved.

The idea is to resolve disputes early and not let them fester, said City Manager Russell Allen.

“The hope is that if you take time up front, you don’t get snagged later in the development of the project and run into an element of the public that never bought in,” Allen said.

The changes grew out of an epic two-year battle over the future of Horseshoe Farm Park in northeast Raleigh.

When city officials proposed a park with a large community center and outdoor basketball courts, environmental activists rallied in opposition. They argued that the city’s plans were too intense for land in an environmentally sensitive area. The 146-acre site along a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Neuse River is home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals.

The conflict ended in 2007 when the City Council adopted a master plan that mandated a passive recreational park rather than the intense uses originally envisioned.

Mark Turner, chair of the city’s parks and greenways advisory board, said public perceptions of the parks department were damaged by skirmishes such as the Horseshoe Farm Park conflict.

“A lot of times, the city would come up with plans and then present them to the public,” Turner said. “It would be the city saying, ‘This is what we have in mind.’ ”

Turner added, “Now the public will be engaged earlier in the process.”

‘Full discussion’

Among other things, the new approach creates a ranking system to denote the strength of opposition and also specifies points when the City Council will weigh in.

The idea is to add more structure, said Councilman Russ Stephenson.

“It’s not just an opportunity to complain and stonewall,” he said. “There is a responsibility to stay engaged, do the homework. There is going to be an opportunity for a full discussion.”

But the system acknowledges that “it’s not always possible to get 100 percent consensus.”

The City Council is expected to vote on the measure within weeks following a review by the council’s comprehensive planning committee.

When park projects encounter long delays, the city can lose money as inflation rates go up on park bonds. Conflicts should not drag out for two years and beyond, said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin.

“We have to be able to say we’re going to do this quicker, better and smarter,” Baldwin said.

‘A lot of words’

Not everyone is pleased with the proposed procedures. The policy, which includes terms such as “shareholder matrix” and “situation assessment,” is difficult to understand, some critics wrote in comments submitted to the city.

Raleigh allowed opinions to be shared anonymously to encourage candor.

“These documents have a lot of words and not much that will guarantee citizens a real voice,” one person wrote.

“I have talked with many parks fans, and do not know of a single person other than myself who has read everything,” another wrote.

For help with devising the procedures, the city brought in consultants from the Natural Resources Leadership Institute at N.C. State University.

Under previous administrations, the city put too much emphasis on “active” parks – those with courts and playing fields, said Dr. Norm Camp, a Southeast Raleigh advocate and environmental leader.

But Camp said things are changing under Diane Sauer, a 22-year city veteran who became parks and rec director in 2008.

“It’s important to have our kids out in nature, learning about the environment,” he said.