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Horseshoe turn: Raleigh board nixes nature

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I have to admit, it took awhile for me to register exactly why I was so bothered watching the Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Greenways Advisory Board dismember the plan for Horseshoe Farm Park, a 146-acre tract on the Neuse River in North Raleigh.

A master plan committee had toiled for 14 months and, after much internal debate and conflict, had come down on the side of making Horseshoe Farm a nature park. Good. I liked that idea. On the other hand, the parks board wanted a community park, and they were entitled to their opinion too, yes?

OK, so their opinion, which they unveiled over the course of a three-hour recital last Thursday, just happened to coincide with what the city Parks Department wanted, as outlined in its Dec. 5 memo to the master plan committee.

And so what if Board Chair Jan Kirschbaum, despite her oft-stated call for "creative new ideas," finally handed the gavel to her vice chair so she could rattle off her own recommendations, and the main one was building a big recreation center--like the one at Laurel Hills Park. With a double gym.

Kirschbaum also wanted a pair of outdoor basketball courts. And "two to five" tennis courts--this last thing, however, her fellow committee members voted down, along with a dog park.

As I say, however, the parks board gets to vote, and it voted 12-1 (conservationist David Knight dissenting) against the nature park and for the rec center, the outdoor courts and another parking lot.

It was only when the board took a break, and I went over to the fuming pro-nature park contingent at the back of the room, that Jamie Ramsey said something that made a little light go on in my head. "They're not allowed to rewrite the master plan committee's report," she said.

If anybody would know that, it's ex-board member Ramsey, who helped start the advocacy group People for Parks and helped shape the relatively new master-planning process.

Sure enough, when the board resumed, it became clear that Kirschbaum wasn't going to be content with sending an alternative plan for Horseshoe Farm to the City Council, which will make the final call.

Rather, her goal was to amend the master plan committee's work right out of existence--which required not merely voting for more facilities but also reworking the language of the committee report, too, starting where it said: "The written and spoken public comment overwhelmingly supported preserving the natural character of Horseshoe Farm and removing the high intensity active recreation elements [that the parks department proposed]."

Uh-oh. That wouldn't do. "My problem with it ..." Kirschbaum began, but when she paused to consider her exact objection, someone in the audience said in a stage whisper, "... is that it's true."

That was me. It was a cheap shot, and I apologize for it.

Earlier, Kirschbaum had said that "special interest groups" skewed the public comments. So even if the speakers at two public hearings, and the 141 letters and e-mails sent to the parks board, were nearly unanimous in favor of keeping Horseshoe Farm natural, "that may not be representative of the whole city."

That's undoubtedly what she was about to say.

After my outburst, others on the board jumped in to suggest that, rather than amend the master plan committee's text to fog up what the public had said, they should simply forward the committee's report to council with a cover letter detailing their own views and recommendations. Done.

Yhe easy issue here is the rec center. If Northeast Raleigh needs it--and I'll assume that it does--why not put it in a strip mall?

Preferably an abandoned one.

The hard issue is the ongoing culture clash between Raleigh's parks department, backed by its closely held board, and the nature park advocates.

The department exists to serve its "customers," which it defines as the people who play on its fields, swim in its pools, compete on its courts and shower in its locker rooms. These people can be counted--and charged a fee. More importantly, they can be called on--by name--to help get more facilities (and staff) at budget time.

On the other side, the outdoors enthusiasts want more places to walk, fly a kite or see a river, in addition to gyms and fields. They think Horseshoe is exquisitely right the way nature made it, with only an environmental/arts center and some picnic shelters needed to augment it.

They may not be representative, but if there were so many others who disagreed, why couldn't the department turn them out? Public sentiment was so one-sided, in fact, that it actually turned around a committee handpicked by the department to deliver yet another "community" park.

And if you're asking yourself, what's the official difference between a "community" park and a "nature" park? It's that the parks department doesn't have a category for "nature" park.

Horseshoe Farm is on the City Council's Aug. 8 agenda. Updates on our blog--www.indyweekblogs.com/citizen. Or e-mail rjgeary@mac.com.

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