Crowd calls for South Whidbey Parks field access, staff wants board support

South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District Commissioners Matt Simms and Joel Gerlach addresses the field use policy during a meeting on Wednesday, March 19. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District Commissioners Matt Simms and Joel Gerlach addresses the field use policy during a meeting on Wednesday, March 19.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Division created by a soccer coach’s eviction from the Sports Complex in February remained largely intact at a South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District commissioners meeting Wednesday, March 19.

With more than 25 people attending the meeting to look at a field use policy and the district’s general field use philosophy, figurative battle lines were drawn between people seeking greater access to the parks and those supporting the parks staff’s ability to determine when fields should be closed. Parks director Doug Coutts read through the staff’s philosophy and execution of field use, saying the staff’s paramount duty was to be “responsible stewards of the district’s assets.” He said that the ideal scenario is to have the highest quality of fields possible used and available at all times. Citing an opinion from the district’s risk management firm, Coutts said the staff’s inability to determine when fields should be closed could leave the district liable for injury. For instance, should the district have knowledge that a field has holes or if the turf was frozen, said Coutts, but the district was bound to keep fields open at all times and someone was injured, they could reasonably sue the parks district. Coutts also raised the issue that if the district staff did not have authority to maintain the parks to a high standard, the standard should be lowered.

“If we can’t have control, we shouldn’t be held accountable,” he said.

The commissioners were criticized during the public comment section, and in an occasional outburst from the large crowd, for not supporting the small parks staff of six employees. Maintenance director Tom Fallon and Coutts were named for being “left out to dry” during one outburst with regard to being the parks employee who told youth soccer coach Terry Swanson to get off the fields on Feb. 27. Ben Watanabe / The Record | Terry Swanson, youth soccer coach, discusses past field use with the board.

After refusing to relocate and refusing to leave, the parks district called the Island County Sheriff’s Office to remove Swanson, who was then issued a one-year trespassing ban citation that was lifted by the parks commissioners at a meeting earlier this month.

Six residents spoke during the public comment period for the field use policy, all in favor of expanded access and asking for field rotation during the year-round soccer season on the Sports Complex. Commissioner Matt Simms requested setting a meeting with parks user groups — the South Whidbey Youth Soccer Club, South Whidbey Little League, South Whidbey Youth Football Association, etc. — to assemble a calendar of usage from which to better plan a field use policy. Coutts said the district already keeps a calendar of scheduled usage, but Simms countered that he wanted to get user input to look at how field closure and rotation could be improved.

Fallon, speaking about the issue in a public forum for the first time, said the district already employs a field rotation schedule. Pointing to a photo of Field 1 at the Sports Complex, Fallon highlighted shadows cast by trees lining the property that stretched across a third of the field. During winter, the shadows cover nearly two-thirds of that field, and half of another. That leads to turf disease, Fallon said, which when played on can do lasting damage to the grass.

Commissioner Joel Gerlach became the brunt of criticism after he suggested the district increase the maintenance budget to better tackle increased usage. He also made a point to say that the commissioners fully support the staff, noting that they have worked to fund its needs.

A date was not set for a future workshop with user groups, and the policy was not voted on by the commissioners. They said they hope to vote on the field use policy at their April meeting, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, April 16.


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