Savas takes on inequalities across local park system
Portland Tribune – February 12, 2014
Most children who live in Milwaukie or Happy Valley have their choice of walking to at least two parks, but a couple of the poorer areas of unincorporated North Clackamas County lack neighborhood parks within a half mile.
County officials have long recognized the need for 3-4 acre parks in Jennings Lodge and Southgate especially, two areas with the lowest average incomes in the region, as well as in many other parts of the North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District. However, the district doesn’t have funding streams set aside to acquire or develop any new parks in these areas.
Gary Barth, director of the county’s parks and economic development departments, sees System Development Charges generated by development in an area as the main funding mechanism for new neighborhood parks. With little land available for new development in Southgate and Jennings Lodge, SDC funding for new parkland acquisition is likewise limited. Contrast that with Happy Valley’s Hidden Falls subdivision, where Icon Construction paid SDCs on 50 homes that essentially built a neighborhood park which became one of its marketing tools last year.
“One of our biggest challenges is maintaining an equitable system with areas growing so differently within the same district,” Barth said. “The areas west of Interstate 205 are a little bit of a challenge, so we’ve been cobbling together grants and doing what we can. Bottom line for us is not that we’re not interested in acquiring more space, but we just don’t have the funding.”
In July, a 16.6-acre parcel on the present site of the Jennings Lodge Evangelical Retreat Center became available for purchase, exciting neighbors who have long wanted a nearby park. Barth said the district would “eagerly look at the site” as a possible future park if a developer were interested in reserving three to four acres for parkland.
County Commissioner Paul Savas, pointing to a parks master plan identifying Jennings Lodge as “severely underserved” since 2004, has been pressing for quicker action on the property. Although that plan identified the need for significant new funding to meet the requirements of the community, a majority of county commissioners never directed staff to pursue that funding.
“These once in a lifetime opportunities, when they come available, we have to be better situated to take advantage of them,” Savas said. “I’ve been engaging a developer, and he’ll be visiting the property with me soon, and although he’s not necessarily interested in that property, he’ll be able to give some insight.”
With up to a $1 million matching grant from the state, Savas believes that the SDCs from this area would be enough for the county to purchase a portion of the property. He’ll be putting together a more detailed plan in the coming weeks.
Carol Mastronarde, chairwoman of the Jennings Lodge Community Planning Organization, thanked Savas and Commissioner Martha Schrader for their support of neighborhood efforts to figure out a way to buy all or part of the Evangelical Retreat Center for a community park. Mastronarde and members of the NCPRD Advisory Board have appealed to the other commissioners, but community advocates are worried that time is running out for the county to make a solid commitment to purchase all or part of the land.
“So it is left to the community to try to find a way to make a park happen in Jennings Lodge,” she said. “There probably will not be another piece of property for sale in Jennings Lodge which is so suited to public ownership and use.”
Property taxes from Jennings Lodge homeowners to NCPRD were $240,000 in 2012, and of that, $64,000 went to maintenance of existing facilities. Every household in the district, including those in Jennings Lodge, pays toward parks planning, community-wide facilities like the Trolley Trail and recreational programs, such as those based at the Milwaukie Center and the North Clackamas Aquatic Park.
Barth said that the current park-district tax rate is not sufficient to build up a capital reserve fund to acquire property or construct new capital assets. District officials do reserve funds from the annual operating budget for a “repair, replace and refurbish” fund to help maintain existing assets.
“It is not as much as it should be, but in striking a balance between current needs and future needs, it is the most we can reserve at this time at our current funding levels,” Barth said.
NCPRD’s tax base of about 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed value generates approximately $5.2 million annually, the lowest parks district tax rate, compared with Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation District, $1.31; Bend Metro Parks & Recreation District, $1.46; Willamalane Parks & Recreation (Springfield), $1.9732. NCPRD’s 37 full-time employees, along with hundreds of seasonal employees and volunteers, serve 116,000 residents with 38 parks, 25 natural areas and 15 miles of trail.
As a long-term solution to the parkland shortage, Barth suggested that the district look into a foundation so that locals could donate capital funding.
“At some point in time, the parks district will have to go to the ballot to ask voters for a larger revenue stream,” Savas said.