Pondicherry Park concerns addressed

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

Last week, Bridgton selectmen Doug Taft and Earl Cash announced that they had received “some feedback” regarding the public’s concern about the cost of the town taking over Pondicherry Park.

Voters will likely be asked in November to approve the town taking over ownership of the 65-acre park that has trail systems and is home to the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge.

The Pondicherry Park project has been overseen since 2006 and up to this point, by Loon Echo Land Trust, Lakes Environmental Association, as well as a volunteer Stewardship Committee.

Selectman Taft said he “has nothing against a walking park,” but he stated he has wondered about the “possible strain on the town’s parks workers” should the town become responsible for Pondicherry Park.

“I wish there was a way to educate the community of the potential costs to open this park and help them make a decision,” Taft said, “before asking voters to make a decision on something that I don’t feel we have been fully educated on (and which could be) an enormous expense for us and a burden to our employees.”

Selectman Cash asked if the question that will be posed to voters asking them to authorize the selectmen to have the town take over ownership of Pondicherry Park could be put off until a referendum vote at the polls in November.

As to placing the question on the June annual town meeting ballot, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz told the five selectmen, “If it is not acted on tonight (April 26 by the selectmen), you have no choice but to wait till November.”

Selectman Woody Woodward said he believed voters had already given their cursory approval in a non-binding vote a few years ago and that at that time, “Loon Echo Land Trust and Lakes Environmental Association said they would take care of this (maintenance and care of the park).

“They said they had a volunteer group available,” Woodward said.

Cash said he didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision, stating, “We had one meeting (with Peter Lowell of LEA and Carrie Walia of LELT) and to make a decision without having more information ourselves — we’ve got to know better what the other side has — they’ve got all the cards — and we’re dealing with a dead hand. What are they really thinking?”

Public Works Director Jim Kidder said he was concerned, should there be a washout in the park during the spring or if trees come down.

“I respectfully have to disagree with Woody,” Kidder said. “It’s going to cost us some money, and there is no money this year.”

Selectman Paul Hoyt suggested the town could use monies from the Moose Pond Trust Fund for maintenance of Pondicherry Park.

“Those (MPTF) funds are available to do maintenance on town parks, and it wouldn’t be taxpayer dollars being spent,” said Hoyt.

Selectmen also said they would like to hold a workshop with Lowell and Walia to discuss the language contained in the conservation easement and other documents relating to the transfer of ownership of Pondicherry Park to the town.

Lowell, who was watching the April 26 selectmen’s meeting at home on Lake Region Television drove to the selectmen’s meeting and spoke at length about what will be done and who will take care of any maintenance and repair issues at Pondicherry Park.

Lowell suggested the town set up “a sinking fund” and appropriate approximately $5,000 as seed money for the maintenance of Pondicherry Park.

“We’ve been maintaining the park, and it’s really been used for five years now,” said Lowell. “We’ve been taking care of it.”

“I think it’s important to have a Stewardship Committee to take the burden off the town,” Lowell said. “We think it’s a fabulous gift to offer to the town, but it doesn’t mean we’re walking away from it.”

As for liability insurance that would be obtained for Pondicherry Park, Lowell stated, “I think the thinking here was this is a central park — something the town should be part of — it’s in the middle of downtown — it should be Bridgton’s park.”

“I hear you on the stewardship thing,” Lowell told the board of selectmen April 26. “That’s our responsibility. We hear a lot of people appreciate it (the park), when they stand on the (Bob Dunning Memorial) Bridge and look up river — it’s fabulous.”

Lowell said he believes the reason Pondicherry Park draws so many people is “because it’s an urban park — more people use it.”

Local children also enjoy the park and understand its importance, Lowell pointed out.

“Kids really see it as their park,” Lowell stated. “I think kids, through our (LEA) education programs, appreciate the environment and feel a real sense of stewardship.”

The one thing that is not yet finalized, according to Lowell, is the conservation easement. He said he wanted to clarify that the main intent of the conservation easement was to preserve the natural beauty of Pondicherry Park.

“Seventy-five years from now, we don’t want to have basketball courts and race tracks there,” said Lowell.

“The park is still relatively wild — it’s like going into the forest primeval, 100 yards from Renys. People go in there and enjoy the quiet and the beauty,” Lowell said.

Selectman Taft asked Lowell, “How much is it going to cost the taxpayers, now or eventually? If the Stewardship Committee decides to add another mile (of trail), where is the money going to come from? Not that I’m not in favor of this, but at this point in time, you just said ‘for a period of time’ you’re going to maintain it.”

“It’s an ongoing commitment — for six weeks, six years, sixty years — for the life of the park, ” Lowell replied.

Taft asked Lowell, “It won’t be cumbersome on the Parks and Public Works crews?”

“I think if $5,000 were put away from the Moose Pond Trust Fund — the intent of the Stewardship Committee is for it to be perpetual (care and maintenance),” Lowell said. “You’ve got budgeting control, and we’re not walking away. You have the ultimate say,” he told the five selectmen.

“I think I’m just looking to make sure people are comfortable with this, and the Park is 98% done,” said Lowell. “I would prefer to see the town owning it. I think that’s appropriate. And, you could turn the tables on us. People want to do these (volunteer) things, such as serving on the Recycling Committee or the Economic Development Committee. This is the way Maine is.”

“The thing that concerned me were the people with problems and issues,” stated Lowell. “I wanted to make sure those were addressed. I want people to understand we’ve tried to be up front.”

Taft said he appreciated Lowell coming to the meeting to address the concerns that had been expressed. Lowell then said he’d like to take the board of selectmen “on a trip through” Pondicherry Park.

The board members voted unanimously April 26 to remove the question of the town taking over ownership of Pondicherry Park from the June annual town meeting ballot, which means voters will likely be asked to approve the change of ownership of the park at the polls in early November, 2011.

Please follow and like us: