The Watkinsville Mayor and Council got push back–including from one member of its Advisory Board–last week on its still tentative plans to allow Extra Special People to construct a Miracle League Field and splash pad on four acres at Harris Shoals Park.
Vicki Soutar, chair of Oconeewaters and a member of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee, told the Mayor and Council that the proposed project would have significant negative impact on the park’s environment.
Sarah Bell, another member of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee, had expressed strong opposition to the proposal at the Advisory Board’s meeting the week earlier.
At that Advisory Board Meeting, Jon Kirkpatrick said he was relaying a message from City Administrator Sharyn Dickerson that ESP had removed the splash pad–one of the major concerns to Soutar and others–from the plans for the park.
Laura Whitaker, executive director of ESP, would not confirm that the splash pad has been removed from the proposal, saying ESP was in the design and engineering phase and would make plans public at a later date.
Miracle League Field Proposal
In June, Watkinsville City Council received a plan from Extra Special People Inc. that would convert the existing baseball field in Harris Shoals Park to what is called a Miracle League Field.
A Miracle League Field is a custom-designed, rubberized turf field that can be used by people in wheelchairs.
ESP, which serves children and young adults with developmental disabilities, is located at 189 VFW Drive. That site adjoins the park.
The proposal also called for a 4,700-square-foot splash pad, a 2,000-square-foot dry deck fountain and lounge area, a 2,600-square-foot concessions and bathroom building, and a 1,050-square-foot recreational pavilion.
A new entrance to the park northwest of the existing entrance was included in the initial proposal, as were 85 parking spaces.
The proposal is only for use of about four acres of the park.
At a meeting of the Watkinsville Garden Club at Harris Shoals Park on Sept. 5, Whitaker said ESP had run into some obstacles with its plans.
The project is going to require more money than originally anticipated, Whitaker said.
In addition, the Georgia Department of Transportation has said it will require a turn lane into the entrance to the park that ESP had planned to create for access to the Miracle League Field and other planned facilities.
Whitaker said investment in that turn lane would be a waste of resources as the turn lane would be torn up in the future when Experiment Station Road is widened to four lanes from U.S. 441 to Main Street in downtown Watkinsville.
At its Aug. 21 meeting, the Watkinsville City Council had extended the ESP Letter of Intent for 90 days to November 6, 2019, so the city and the organization can work out the details of the partnership for operation of the Miracle League Field and related facilities.
Impact On Flood Plain
Soutar, 1091 Castle Drive, off Simonton Bridge Road, outside the city, was the first to raise concerns about the ESP proposal at the Council Meeting last week.
She spoke as a representative of Oconee Waters, a unit of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, not as a representative of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee
Soutar told the Mayor and Council, that citizens responding to an Advisory Board survey had said that “maintaining the tranquil, natural environment of the park, dealing with the storm water runoff problems, maintaining the trees, improving restrooms and trails as well as the playground were...more desirable to park users than a splash pad, a baseball field or additional parking.”
Soutar said that “Adding rubbarized features which are underlaid by non porous concrete” for the Miracle League Field would create problems.
“Yes, there is a flood plain,” she said, “no matter how hard you might wish at times it wasn’t there.”
“Please consider how the city can fund the things the park users really want,” Soutar said.
The city has proposed using $400,000 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money for the project.
ESP initially said it would invest $1.4 million, but Whitaker said after the Garden Club meeting on Sept. 5 she thought the cost could go to $2 million.
Jane Bath, 2430 Snows Mill Road, in the west of the county, sat in on the Oct. 7 meeting of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee, though Board Chairman Marc Galvin told me in an email exchange tonight that she isn’t a member at this time, though she may be added in the future.
“Extra Special People organization has taken over the planning of Harris Shoals Park,” said Bath, an expert in landscape planning.
“With lots of money at stake, many have squashed information or even asking for information of the ESP design of the park, a park they do not own,” Bath said. “But the citizens of Watkinsville do.”
“It is small, natural preserve, which, by its setting and terrain, is very restrictive to being expanded or developed for anything except what it is--an environmental wonderland,” Bath said.
Bath said she was happy when she learned that “the splash pad was taken off the design.”
“The directors of ESP are very, very specialized,” Bath said. “Very loving. Wonderful in their work. But shown they are not specialized in developing plans for a high end project like this.”
Carolyn Maultsby, 1050 Taylors Drive, off Simonton Bridge Road, inside the city, was the final speaker at the Council meeting last week.
“What brought me down here is Harris Shoals Park,” she said. “I quite agree. It is a nature preserve. It is a wildlife sanctuary.”
She said the city needed to do more to get citizen input on the proposed changes.
Bell At Advisory Board Meeting
Sarah Bell, 1201 Arrowhead Road east of Butler’s Crossing, told the members of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee at the Sept. 5 meeting that “I’m going to say something that I really believe.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Bell said. “I think ESP ought to go buy a piece of property and do whatever they want to do on it and leave the park alone.
“It’s not a suitable geographic location,” Bell said. “It will cause a lot of problems–traffic, et cetera. More erosion, et cetera. I just think it’s the wrong plan for this piece of property.
“If it were 40 acres we might be able to work it in,” Bell said, “But I just think it is going to materially change what Harris Shoals Park is today. And I don’t think anybody wants that. I really don’t. And I don’t think it’s a good fit for them even though they’re right up the hill.”
Harris Shoals Park is located on 17.62 core acres surrounding the shoals on Calls Creek.
The city also owns 6.56 adjoining acres that include City Hall and playgrounds and another 8.64 undeveloped acres at the corner of the exit ramp from U.S. 441 bypass and Experiment Station Road.
ESP is located on 1.44 acres on VFW Drive. That site adjoins the park.
Kirkpatrick said at the Oct. 7 meeting of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee that City Administrator Dickerson told him that ESP is “going to pull the splash pad out. They are going to redo the playground and the Miracle League.”
I talked with Dickerson after the Oct. 10 work session of the Watkinsville Mayor and Council and asked her to confirm that Whitaker had told her that the splash pad had been removed from the ESP plans for Harris Shoals Park.
I emailed Whitaker on the morning of Oct. 11 and told her that Dickerson “confirmed” that Whitaker had told her that “you have dropped the Water Park from your plans.”
“Can you update me on what is included in your current plans?” I asked Whitaker.
“We have not made firm decisions on plans at this time,” Whitaker wrote back 14 minutes later.
“We are in the redesign and value engineering phase,” she wrote. “When decisions have been made and this information is public, we will let you know.”
I was not able to attend the Oct. 16 Watkinsville Mayor and Council meeting because of another commitment.
Bell attended the meeting and recorded the video below.
Soutar began her comments at 1:53:27 in the video.
She was followed by Bath, by Bell and by Maultsby.
Bell did not speak about Harris Shoals park, but rather on a planned session of the Oconee County Historical Society, of which she is president.
The second video below is from the Oct. 7, meeting of the Harris Shoals Park Advisory Board Executive Committee. The meeting was scheduled to run from 3 to 4 p.m. but started about 10 minutes late.
Present were Bath, Soutar, Gene Lyon, Bell and Kirkpatrick, seated around the table, starting at left, in the video image below. Two members of the Board were absent, Galvin and Sandy Tucker.
I attended the first part of the meeting but could not stay because of two others meetings I had scheduled to attend that day.
I did not have a tripod with me, and the video image is not stable. But it does include the announcement from Kirkpatrick about the splash pad and Bell’s comments.
Bell expressed her opinion about the ESP proposal 2:52 in the second video.
The survey, discussed at that meeting and referenced by Soutar, is available on the Watkinsville web site.