When most of us think of a "park," walking trails and playgrounds come to mind; however, in the past week, the word has unexpectedly become synonymous with controversy in the City of Lebanon.
While the Lebanon City Council unanimously approved land donation, funding and preliminary plans for the "West Side Park" which will be constructed next to Hamilton Springs and with accessibility from Old Horn Springs Road - three West Side Task Force members voiced their opposition during the council's last meeting, sparking speculation of infighting.
These members were concerned about the park's price tag and its long-term obligation to the city taxpayers.
"My family has been here for generations. The first time anything negative has been said about us is when we decided to donate land to the city," Ward 6 Council Member Rick Bell stated, emphasizing the irony.
In 2016, the city council appointed Bell to the Ward 6 seat. He met with The Wilson Post for an exclusive interview where he discussed quality of life and answered questions about his family's 15-acre donation, valued at $1.5 million, and planning a park for current and future generations to enjoy.
To start, the area everybody is talking about is near where Bell and his brother, Jack, grew up.
"We grew up there before it was part of the city. We want that area to be nice. We have a stake in it," he said. "We want it to continue to be a good place to grow up. We want this park to be a place that people can enjoy."
Bell noted that Don Fox Community Park is a "jewel" in our city - one that people use daily.
"Having another park gives people another place to go and Don Fox won't get worn down as fast," he explained. "I think quality of life is important."
According to Bell, the last "quality of life" project in the city was constructing the Jimmy Floyd Family Center 18 years ago.
"When I was first appointed to council I went on a local radio show, Coleman & Company, where I was asked some of my goals. I said then that I wanted there to be a park in Ward 6 so that people could have a safe recreational area," he explained. "I started looking at different parcels of land, and the first thing I noticed is that it would be difficult because of land prices."
Bell learned that Ward 6 was annexed 25 years ago - and although it contains 23 percent of Lebanon's population and is the fastest growing part of the city - zero dollars have been spent on quality of life in the ward in those 25 years.
"We have no sidewalks in most of our neighborhoods, runners running on Lebanon Road - I felt like it was time to make something happen," Bell said.
He sat down with his family and decided to donate 15 acres of land with the intention of building a new park.
The land donation was unanimously approved by council; however, the land has not yet been deeded over to the city, he said.
"We wanted to wait until we knew exactly where the boundaries of the land would be. We have offered the land for a park. We didn't offer it to be built on 30 years from now. There is also a concern of what happens if we donate the land, and then a future city council puts a sewer plant there," Bell said, giving one example.
Now that the land donation, funding and preliminary plans have been approved - the deeding will soon take place as blueprints are drawn up, he said.
One person questioned if donating the property was for personal gain, since the Bell brothers are developers of Hamilton Springs - a transit-oriented community which is situated parallel to the park.
"We could have done a lot of things with these 15 acres. We could have sold it to an apartment complex. We could have developed it ourselves - but we chose to donate it to the city. This is not about growing Hamilton Springs. It is about growing our entire city and providing quality of life for all of its residents. This is not a Hamilton Springs park, it is a city park for everyone," he said.
The park will serve the entire community and be especially convenient for neighborhoods Waters Hill, Shenandoah, Richmond Hills, Southfork, Horn Springs Estates and Five Oaks.
"At the time we agreed to donate it, there was no discussion. Nobody brought up concerns about conflict of interest. Out in town people thanked us. Nobody ever said, 'No you shouldn't do this.'"
At press time, Bell said the number of park naysayers is still low.
"I've only had two or three people call me directly to say they don't support it. Everywhere I go people say that the park will be a great addition to the city and that they are looking forward to it."
Park estimated to cost $2.9-$3.5 million
When Bell started talking about a city park, he worked with the city finance staff on funding.
"People say we did it backwards, that we should have planned the park and then done the funding," he said. "In the early days, we didn't want to plan a park and the community get excited and then not be able to afford it. We wanted on the front end to plan a limit."
The determined limit was $5 million, which would make the maximum annual payout $270,000. However, Bell said cost will be more in the $2.9 to $3.5 million range. In comparison, trash pickup costs the city $1.3 million per year, a number that will grow as more people move here.
"If people are concerned that it's going to be a burden on the taxpayers it won't be. The payment is less than one percent of the total city budget ($28.5 million)," he explained. "We wanted to keep it under one percent. In this way, the amount will not affect the budgets of other areas like the fire department. In fact, the fire budget next year will be approximately $7.5 million, an amount that has more than doubled from a few years ago."
As the city grows, the budget too will grow - and that percentage will shrink over the course of 25 years.
Establishing a Task Force
Creating a nine-member West Side Park Task Force was Bell's idea.
"I wanted the community to design the park," he said. Mayor Bernie Ash picked three candidates for the task force, and the other six council members had one pick each.
In addition to this were Bell, Commissioner of Public Works Jeff Baines, City Economic Development Director Sarah Haston and Parks and Recreation Director William Porter - to serve as ex-officio members, to answer any questions the task force may have had.
"The resolution that created the task force defined their job as working with consultants to create a final concept plan to present to the city council," he said.
Bell missed the first meeting and rarely spoke at the ones that followed.
Bell's task force pick, Jeni Lind Brinkman, was elected to serve as chairman.
Brinkman received her undergraduate degree in recreation and tourism management from the University of Tennessee, and has worked in the park and recreation field since 1999. She formerly worked as aquatics director for two years when the Jimmy Floyd Family Center opened.
She also assisted Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto in establishing the Wilson County Parks Board, and served as chairman.
Brinkman is currently the director of grants and contracts administration for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
"I approached Rick (to help with the park). My own family are within running, walking and biking distance (to the park). I offered my assistance in case I could help in any way," she said, before describing what she likes about preliminary designs. "I love the setting - the rolling hills and the nature feel. I ride the train a couple times a week, so I'm excited for the day when I can get off the train and go for a quick walk or run before getting the kids."
Brinkman added that the $2.9 to $3.5 million is "a very fair representation."
"It will allow us to build a park that is right from the beginning. We want it to be low-maintenance and sustainable. If it's not built well from the beginning (the city) is going to pay for that long-term," Brinkman said.
However, not everyone feels that way. At a work session which preceded Tuesday's council meeting, one of Ash's picks for the task force, Traci Peel, spoke passionately about her concerns. She also wrote a Letter to the Editor about her experience, which can be viewed online by going to the Wilson Post's Opinions tab.
Peel, holding up e-mails as documentation, alleged that members of the task force were told they would reschedule their April 13 meeting. She was under the impression that plans would be sent back to architectural firm, Lose & Associates, and come back to the task force once more before being sent to council. Peel was quickly shut down by Ward 3 Council Member Rob Cesternino who said she was "outside the scope" of her task force mandate when she announced her opposition to the price tag - and questioned members how they could "sleep at night" knowing they have placed a burden "on the taxpayers."
Peel also said that she felt as if she'd participated in a charade and did not approve the preliminary plans to be presented to council, as she felt they were not final but would come back to the task force.
Bell announced at the work session his plans to drop in a resolution to approve park plans.
"The night the task force passed the plans, it was unanimous. Ken Davis was not present and Barbara Payne left early - but the seven remaining task force members voted unanimously on the final plan," Bell said.
A very positive moment for the task force was when they held an open house at Town Hall.
"People were invited to come and let us know what they wanted to see in a park," Bell said. "Eighty-seven people signed in, but we believe over 100 were in attendance. The vast majority of people there were very positive."
Brinkman, on behalf of the task force, said design plans included greenways, a dog park, walking trails, an amphitheater and playground.
"My favorite thing is they decided to leave the nature intact. They felt like it was a pretty piece of property. They wanted to keep the landscaping and the trees," Bell said. "There is a lot of open space where you can have picnics in the grass or just go and find a quiet spot."
Now that plans are approved, Lose & Associates will draw up blueprints.
"Council will look at those and during that process the task force will be involved in choosing materials and more detailed designs," he said. "Once it is presented and we are comfortable with it, then there will be a call for construction bids."