Municipal responsibility for parks & fields
RECREATION - a municipal service
One of the responsibilities of municipal government is to provide open space and parks for the recreational use of residents. Traditionally these are parks, fields, lakes and streams where citizens can throw a frisbee, picnic, jog, fish, or use their boat. Often these facilities are used for large gatherings such as concerts and seasonal festivals. The municipality may provide some form of equipment or infrastructure to enhance the experience. The most common examples would be playgrounds and restroom facilities that have broad appeal to the community.
Often this type of facility has been designed to incorporate "passive recreation". This generally refers to a range of outdoor activities that will have little impact on, and preserve natural resource functions such as wildlife habitat and floodplain protection. These facilities welcome low impact activities like hiking, fishing, canoeing or kayaking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, birdwatching, and picnicking on a carry-in, carry-out basis. You may also find community gardens, fitness trails and open fields for catch with the kids, or frisbee with your trusted companion.
Municipal parks can also be the centerpiece of active recreation for organized sports or activities that utilize defined or purpose-built facilities. Sports like baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, basketball, and tennis require fields and other surfaces that go beyond the basic grass field. They usually require higher levels of maintenance as well, in order to keep the surface properly groomed for safe play. Consideration also needs to be made for restrooms and concessions to accommodate the larger and concentrated groups that participate in and attend these events.
Not all active recreation is geared to teams. Many towns have also added great activity based facilities like skate parks, splash parks, and even dog parks that allow residents to engage in a multitude of more individually focused activities. In some communities you may find sportsman facilities like archery ranges.
RECREATION - at what cost?
A good community park system is something that can be enjoyed by many residents. It also adds to the desirability of the community, which often translates to increased property values. Naturally, there is a cost associated with providing parkland and recreation facilities, and that cost is borne by the taxpayers themselves, leading to the question, how much tax money should be spent on recreation?
It is generally accepted that a community provide open space for passive recreation. These spaces cost little to establish and maintain, yet provide the largest appeal to the community. Cost to the taxpayers is some basic maintenance like cutting lawns, maintaining trails and removing trash.
Those costs begin to increase dramatically as we add playgrounds that suffer vandalism, tennis and basketball courts that require periodic resurfacing, or sports fields that require turf maintenance, markings and specialized surfaces. Night play brings additional cost for the tremendous power consumption of the high output lighting that simulates daytime conditions on the fields.
Suburban America is defined by open space and organized sports. So much so that the term soccer mom
has come to define supportive sports moms from across the country. First published in the Springfield (PA) Press, on October 17, 1973 the term made it's way into the 2008 presidential campaign when "soccer mom" and Governor Sarah Palin was nominated to run for vice president.
Be it soccer, baseball or any other team sport, there is a need for proper fields. This is where significant consideration, discussion and planning is required to be sure that the needs of the community are met. How many fields? Should they be purpose-built or multipurpose? Turf grass or artificial turf? Should lighting be included for night play? Will fields be used for only township recreation department activities, or will the needs of private leagues need to be considered as well?
One of the largest investments most municipalities will make in community recreation will be for artificial turf fields. Grass fields require constant maintenance, and wear poorly under heavy use, resulting in frequent downtime. But the availability of artificial turf fields comes at a price. In addition to the nearly one million dollars to construct them, there is a significant annual maintenance cost that is required to meet warranty requirements.
RECREATION - private play on public fields
Municipal fields are primarily built to meet the needs of municipal recreation programs. When they are not in use for municipal programs, the town usually issues permits for their use to local private sports leagues, travelling teams and even regional tournaments. Permitted usage is fee based and helps to lessen the burden on taxpayers. The fees for resident non-profit sports leagues are usually set at actual cost, while those for non-residents, tournaments and clinics bring revenue to the municipality.
Municipalities can accommodate the needs of private leagues by partnering with them to create the needed sports facilities. In the first week of April, the city of Andover, Mass. entered into lease agreements with two private sports organizations, Andover Soccer Association and Andover Little League. The signed leases are for 10 years with payments beginning when the fields open for play. Little League will pay the town $350,000 and the ASA will pay $110,000 toward the construction of the fields.
The leases allow both leagues the "right of first refusal" to schedule their spring, summer and fall practices and games between April 1 and Oct. 31, for baseball and Nov. 15 for soccer. The deal does not give the leagues exclusive use of the field. The town will be allowed to grant licenses for other youth sports programs. The complex will include three baseball fields and one collegiate-sized soccer field that can be split into three smaller fields. The fields are expected to open in the fall of 2013, according to the lease agreements.
Arrangements such as this make sense for all involved. It shares the cost of the fields and conserves open space by not building more fields than are necessary. The leagues are granted priority access, but the fields remain available for permitted use, further limiting the cost of recreation to the taxpayer.
RECREATION - parkland vs. fields
Many times we hear reports of people being chased from municipal fields for not having permits. The immediate reaction is often how wrong this is. After all it's public park land, isn't it? The answer is yes, but there are additional considerations that validate the limitation.
Many of us remember sandlot baseball
when we played summer pick-up games with little planning, but all the intensity of the World Series. Everyone playing imagined being on a finely manicured diamond and running along perfectly chalked baselines, just like their major league heroes. It's only natural that sandlot players gravitate to the play fields when they are not in use.
While their play may appear harmless and even rightful, it is not done with benefit of a permit. Because these fields are considered part of the "public trust", the municipality has a fiduciary duty to safeguard them, as well as the residents. Unsupervised play could result in damages and even serious injuries that expose the municipality, and taxpayers, to potential loss. Permits also assure that those using the fields are properly insured, further indemnifying the municipality and taxpayers.
The issue of field access becomes even more complex in the case of artificial turf fields. They represent significant investments and even simple damage can cost many thousands of dollars to repair. Fields need to be ready for play in accordance with permitted use. If field damage is discovered it can cause a game to be delayed or cancelled.
Sandlot baseball and pickup football can be played in the open fields of other recreation facilities without fear of being chased. The parkland is there for all to enjoy. There are no permit or user fees since it is maintained with tax dollars. The additional cost of purpose-built fields is recovered through recreation activity fees as well as permits and leases to private organizations. User fees assure that only those benefiting from the use are required to meet the costs over the basic park land paid for by all taxpayers.
- Jackson Record Staff Report