City officials may have uncovered a way to pay down the more than $700,000 in debt owed each year for the still-undeveloped land at Hargett Farm.
Discussion at Wednesday’s mayor and Board of Aldermen workshop revealed the city was sitting on roughly $1.27 million in funds from the fees paid by developers that do not add the required amount of designated parkland in new residential projects. The city’s land management code requires that developers designate 1,000 square feet of parkland for the city for each new residential unit built, but allows certain developers — at the discretion of the Planning Commission — to pay a fee instead of including the parkland.
The revenue from the fees is intended to fund only the acquisition of new parkland, but a proposal submitted by Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak would allow the money to also go toward the the debt service on existing purchases, including the Butterfly Lane farmland that is being eyed for a regional park.
“That was my biggest concern,” Kuzemchak said in reference to Hargett Farm. “I was looking for a way to be able to pay some of that back.”
If passed, the proposal would apply to both incoming fees from new developers and the $1.27 million that has accumulated since sometime before the mid-1990s.
Several other aldermen spoke in support of the proposal. Alderman Phil Dacey praised its flexibility, while Alderman Michael O’Connor said paying down the debt on the land could speed up the process for turning the land into the regional park it was intended to be when the city purchased the 148-acre farm six years ago for $18 million.
“We only acquire that property fully when we complete our debt service obligation,” he said.
Roelkey Myers, the city’s deputy director of parks and recreation, agreed.
“I’d rather pool our money together and use it for Hargett Farm,” he said.
Myers described the less-than-3-acre parklands included in smaller developments that meet the new land requirements as “infill spaces” with limited use.
In contrast, the 148 acres at Hargett Farm could house everything from turf fields, playgrounds and walking paths to an aquatic complex and adventure park, as included in a park plan drafted from community feedback last year.
“The more people we add to the city, the more we need to have a much larger area so that bigger things can happen,” said Kuzemchak, comparing the usability of a large area like Staley Park with a smaller “pocket park” such as Bonita Maas Park downtown. “People come from a much wider area to use Staley Park.”
But Alderwoman Kelly Russell said she was unsure if the existing funds should be used for debt service, since the developers that paid those fees did so under the code’s current requirement that the money go toward new land acquisition only.
While Russell said she understood the benefits of the proposal, she added, “I need to be able to morally accept the decision that’s made, and I’m not quite there yet.”
Since its creation, the fund reflects fee payment from a litany of development projects — among the most recent are $9,000 for the Baker Park Estates and $120,000 for the Monocacy Park Condos, both in 2013 — but only a single instance of spending fund money for new parkland acquisition. In 2004, the city contributed $363,865 from the fund to grants from state and federal emergency management agencies to rebuild two properties on Thomas Avenue and Barbara Street. Both were severely damaged after a city drainage water culvert running past their properties flooded homes with close to 4 feet of water during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
The lack of spending, combined with no new parkland acquisitions planned for the near future, raised questions about the need for the fees at all.
“What’s the impact of having all these fees if there’s no direct need for parkland?” Dacey asked.
With many questions still unanswered by the end of the workshop, the board agreed to seek staff feedback from the involved departments before moving forward on the amendment to the land management code.