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Board discussed plastic playground before vote

Parks officials repeatedly discussed replacing Castle Park with a plastic playground before asking voters for money to “renovate” the structure, public records show. Parks commissioners stress a final decision has not been made about the beloved, community-built structure.  - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Parks officials repeatedly discussed replacing Castle Park with a plastic playground before asking voters for money to “renovate” the structure, public records show. Parks commissioners stress a final decision has not been made about the beloved, community-built structure.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District officials are trying to tamp down the controversy over the district’s emerging plan to replace Castle Park with a plastic playground.

Castle Park, the signature structure in Community Park, is a massive fort made of Alaskan yellow cedar that’s beloved by locals and tourists alike. Last month, the district asked voters to approve a

$1.6 million bond measure that would pay for renovations to Castle Park and fund other improvements at district facilities.

Community concern over the fate of Castle Park has grown since the parks commissioners’ meeting in late March, when officials talked about an estimate the district had received to demolish Castle Park and replace it with an all-plastic structure.

Though voters were never told the district was actually considering replacing the popular wooden castle, and wanted to complete “renovations” instead, park officials have since said they did not mislead the public in the run-up to the election.

“For years, park staff has told us about problems with rotting wood and play elements that have deteriorated over time because of the weather,” said parks commission chairwoman Linda Kast.

“We always knew that when the time came, we would have to go in a direction other than wood. There was never any intention to deceive the public in any way,” Kast added.

Voters narrowly approved the $1.6 million bond for park repairs on Feb. 19. The measure needed a 60 percent vote for approval, and eventually passed with

60.55 percent of the vote.

Documents and e-mails obtained by The Record under the state’s open public records law show that park officials have been talking about replacing Castle Park since September 2007.

Parks officials have been in discussions with Leathers & Associates — an Ithaca, N.Y. company that built the original playground in 1991 with community volunteers — since last year about replacing the park.

Terri Arnold, parks director for the district, repeatedly wrote to representatives of Leathers & Associates in September and October about replacement of the existing structure.

In a Sept. 27, 2007 e-mail, Arnold wrote Michael Cohen of Leathers & Associates and said the district was considering using recycled plastic for the new playground.

“The consensus seems to be the playground will need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Also, the consensus seems to be that we move in the direction of replacing the playground with a similar design using composite materials similar to the one installed in Oak Harbor,” Arnold wrote.

That same day in September, Arnold explained to Cohen the major obstacle to replacing the park.

“We have $300,000 plugged into the budget for a replacement playground,” she wrote. “We have to pass a bond initiative with the voters in order to have that money, however.”

Though correspondence to Leathers from the park district shows that park officials were still talking about “replacing” the park through October 2007, Arnold began using the word “renovation” in November 2007, when talking about changes to Castle Park.

The following month, the parks district hired a playground consultant to inspect Castle Park.

Certified playground auditor Mary Sue Linville submitted her report, based on a four-hour inspection of the park, on

Dec. 31. She said the park was in “fair condition” despite its age and the fact that wood structures are hard to maintain in the Pacific Northwest given the large amounts of rain and limited sunlight.

“The maintenance department is to be commended on the condition of this structure, despite its age, materials and exposure to weather,” Linville wrote in her report.

Even so, Linville found a number of items that needed immediate repair, including “S” hooks that could pinch fingers and swing seats that were dangerous because they were made of molded fiberglass. Park staff fixed the problems within days of receiving the report.

The report also noted that the support poles for Castle Park appeared to be free from dry rot, though several other areas, such as railings and the roof, needed replacement.

During the campaign that followed a few months later for the parks improvement bond, parks representatives pointed repeatedly to repairs that were needed at Castle Park and elsewhere within the parks district as they drummed up support for the ballot measure.

Voters were repeatedly told that $300,000 of the $1.6 million bond would go to renovations at Castle Park.

At presentations to local community groups to sell the park improvement bond, park spokesman Curt Gordon told voters that Castle Park was in trouble, especially areas where the wood is in contact with the ground; he said that certain elements might be replaced with structural steel.

Gordon said that talk of tearing out Castle Park was something new to him, but added that he doubted it would happen.

“I did not know that they were thinking of demolishing it and replacing it with plastic,” he said.

A month following the bond vote, on March 20, the district received an estimate from Leathers & Associates on removing Castle Park and replacing it with all-plastic materials, according to public documents reviewed by The Record.

The estimate said it would cost $40,000 to remove the existing playground and between $175,000 to $190,000 for the new playground.

The total estimate was a range between $267,000 to $295,000.

There was an upswelling of community concern over the replacement of Castle Park — Arnold called it “hysteria” — after The Record reported the parks commission discussion of the estimate at its meeting on March 25.

Since then, parks officials have been stressing that no decision has been made about demolishing the park and replacing it with a plastic playground.

In a recent e-mail to a concerned resident, Arnold said the playground had many years of life left. “Believe me, before any tear down occurs, it will be over my dead body. I go up there every day and look it over, thinking of the best way to preserve it.”

She also said if the yellow cedar is removed, the district will surplus the wood so it can be recycled.

Last week, Arnold said in an

e-mail to The Record that the verdict is still out on demolishing Castle Park. The audit of the playground did not involve the upright posts made out of telephone poles, and said the district would have to contract with a materials testing company to get information about the integrity of the poles.

If the poles are decaying underground, she added, the district would have to “start from scratch” but it would dismantle the playground board by board and save the pieces made by artist Georgia Gerber.

Kast, the parks commission chairwoman, also said Castle Park may be upgraded in pieces over time, with the sections most at risk repaired first.

“I object to the use of the word ‘demolition,’” Kast said. “I prefer the word ‘dismantling,’ which we can do as we replace certain parts over time.”

“It needs to be repaired and I’m not convinced the Leathers option is the best,” she added. “They are an all-or-nothing outfit and we are trying to find someone local to help us with a solution.

“This is clearly a work-in-progress by the board. Maybe we weren’t as clear as we should have been with people but there was no desire to be deceptive in any way.”

Kast said the district is also discussing with local contractors the possibility of replacing the playground section by section using a composite material called Trex.

Park Commissioner Allison Tapert agreed with Kast that the board has always examined the idea of replacing the park with modern materials.

“We’re concerned with the long-term maintenance of that structure, or any of our facilities being pushed to its useful limits,” Tapert said.

“It has to be safe, aesthetically pleasing for the community and fun for the kids. We want to be proactive rather than react to a problem while being responsible to the taxpayers,” she said.

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