SOUTHWEST HARBOR — After months of discussions, selectmen have decided not to include funding for a new school playground on the May town meeting ballot.
“Having the voters have accurate information [about what] they’re voting on and not an open-ended project is always a good thing,” said Chair Dan Norwood.
“I would prefer to defer it to the School Board at this point and ask them to develop the project further and bring it back to us, and we’ll put it on the nearest agenda we can.”
The board asked for a boundary survey to be conducted and the soil to be tested for contamination before the reconstruction plans more forward.
Principal Rhonda Fortin and civil engineer Greg Johnston, who is consulting for the school on the project, presented the board with a draft design of the playground, an indication of the property’s legal boundary lines and a detailed breakdown of projected expenditures, such as earthwork, possible drainage installation, electricity, playground equipment, landscaping, rebuilding the retaining wall adjacent to the post office parking lot and accessibility surfacing.
Fortin said the playground would serve 40 to 50 children in kindergarten through second grade. Accounting for the approximately $30,000 that the school committee raised in donations for the project, they requested a total of $294,691 in funding from the Board of Selectmen.
Dani Piquette-Kelly, school committee member and playground committee organizer, said this sum was a top-cost estimation. Once the committee was in a position to take bids, she added, the committee would be able to work with concrete costs, and “hopefully they’ll come in under what we’re looking at now.”
But some residents thought the request was too high.
“You’ll find a comparable playground for a third of the cost,” said Corey Pettegrow of the Harbor Committee. “I think you can achieve a nice playground without these gold-plated numbers, and that’s why I request some town oversight. Let’s do it realistically, and let’s do it at a known cost.”
Fortin said the costs are high partly because the area “hasn’t been taken care of for 40 years.”
Johnston, the consultant, pointed out that the sizable cost involves considerations to make the playground wheelchair accessible.
“I wouldn’t say that’s gold-plated, I think that’s just what sets it aside, and that has a price tag to it.”
Concerns about the playground’s location in terms of safety, as well as potential benefits to Harbor House, were again brought up by residents who were at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think that, whether it’s Harbor House or the school or the town, it’s all taxpayer money, and instead of being against each other, we should be coming together for the kids,” Fortin said.
“If we have no children and we’re already paying for the school, then that’s understandable, but if there’s extracurriculars that makes it more convenient for people who do have children, why should we have that burden as well?” resident Julie Hill asked.
“We’re an aging community, and if we want young families to come in, we need to have things that attract young families,” said Selectman Chad Terry.
Piquette-Kelly added that the playground isn’t only used during school days. She said it serves mom groups, grandparents who spend time with their grandchildren and visitors in the summer.
“It’s really at the heart of the town, it’s not just a school playground.”
Resident Anne Napier referenced a recently completed playground project in Bar Harbor, which was largely financed with private donations of money, time and materials. “If this is a community playground, then what about getting some donations from locals to supplement some of this?” she said. “We’ve got masons, we’ve got people who work with stone, we’ve got all kinds of folks around that might be able to contribute in kind if properly asked.”
Piquette-Kelly said that even with in-kind contributions, the school would have to get bids, which they can only do once they know the playground project is a possibility.
Norwood said he thinks the playground has a better chance of approval if voters had more information. He suggested the school use existing funds to do the testing and design work.
“As much as I would love to see this project completed and off my plate, I think that I don’t know about voting and politics and I would go with your recommendation of success,” said Piquette-Kelly.
“Ultimately, we want the project done, and we want it done well, and if it takes a little more time, it does. That’s how I feel, not as a school committee member but as myself.”