August 18, 2014

Council to return to child safety zones in Columbia parks debate

Disputed plan to designate child safety zones in Columbia parks back for more debate at City Council

Columbia City Council on Tuesday once again will talk about how to work around federal restrictions that could sidetrack plans to create the city’s first child protection zone at Roy Lynch Park.

The divided council is not scheduled to vote on the final step of designating the small park in the Elmwood neighborhood an “exclusive child play zone.” That decision would mean that anyone older than 12 could not be near children romping in the protected area unless that person is a relative or has permission to accompany the child.

Council adopted the protection zone concept on July 15 under protest from some residents and a civil rights organization. But council members have yet to select the first park, which requires the city to listen to public reaction before council designates any park.

The rub at Roy Lynch Park is that it’s so small that the roughly one-acre park likely would have to be fenced and signs posted to inform visitors of the restriction.

The National Park Service has alerted city leaders they cannot limit public access to an entire park 24 hours per day if federal money was used for the park. A $30,000 federal Land and Water Conversation Fund grant issued in 1978 helped the city acquire the land for Roy Lynch Park, according to Amy Blinson, a state liaison to the federal agency.

A federal park official in Atlanta, Gwen Smith, has been in regular contact with Blinson about Columbia’s protection zone plans.

“If a time limit is imposed such as 9a-3p ... I think that it is reasonable that less than 50 percent of the park could be available to the general public during those times,” Smith wrote Blinson in a June 13 email. “But if there is a general restriction without a time limit, at least 50 percent of the park should be available to the general public at all times.”

Smith wrote that she consulted with a counterpart in the Midwest, who agreed with her assessment that “... extending the age limitation beyond the playground to the entire park would probably exceed reasonableness” and become a “non-compliance issue,” according to an email to Blinson a day earlier.

Non-compliance might translate to Columbia finding itself having to appraise Roy Lynch at its highest market value, then coming up with that much money to buy another outdoor park, Blinson said. City Hall also could be banned from getting more land and water grant money until the dispute is resolved. A lawsuit also could be filed to block a protection zone designation.

The fallout of non-compliance is what the National Parks Service calls “conversion.”

“It’s not rare, but it’s not easy,” Blinson said Monday of conversions. “It’s a very time-consuming and expensive process because the federal government really does not want this property to go away,” Blinson said Monday.

She estimates it would take a year for the federal agency to decide whether it would approve a new park site – and that’s after the appraisal is done and other paperwork is completed.

The city could not use an existing city park to replace Roy Lynch. That means council could either switch land not designated for an outdoor park or buy a new site, Blinson said.

Blinson said city leaders went through the process several years ago by swapping land in Riverfront Park so the city could build Veterans Memorial Park near police headquarters.

Seven other city parks have received federal land and water conversation money over the years, Columbia parks and recreation director Jeff Caton said. They are: Earlewood, Greenview, Martin Luther King, Melrose, Veterans Memorial, Riverfront and St. Anna’s.

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