Foundation members share support for transferring ownership of park to City

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Although no official vote was taken, it appears the majority of members of the board that owns Lions Foundation Park now agrees that the private park should be turned over to the City of Liberty Hill.

During the monthly meeting of the Liberty Hill Development Foundation March 6, members were asked how they felt about re-opening discussions with the City about the future of the park. Most responded that they would be in favor of turning the park over to the City, but some offered different ideas about how much of the 18 acres should be deeded.

“There are two camps in our Foundation — those who want to give all or most of the park to the town and those who want to retain part of the park to retain and develop the sculptures,” said Larry Nicholson. “We’re going to have to get past this in order to do the things we need to do.”

It’s the same issue that halted negotiations between the two parties in 2016.

In 2015, the Board and the City began talking about transferring the privately-held park to the City. Foundation Board members wanted to see a portion of the park used for the preservation and display of the sculptures created in the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium. When negotiations first began, those sculptures, which are currently housed on the campus of Liberty Hill Intermediate School, were to be relocated to the park at the school district’s request. The City hired a consultant to draw plans for a sculpture garden at
the park, the City’s Economic Development Corp. paid for development of a website, and lawyers worked on a contract that set aside two acres for the sculptures adjacent to the campus.

However, the City stopped negotiations in May 2016 after Board members changed the direction of a previously-agreed to plan, wanting more than two acres to add a museum and other amenities. At that time, the City stopped mowing the private park and taking care of maintenance issues — service it had been providing for three years. City Administrator Greg Boatright said then that the City had been taking care of the park “to help the volunteers and relieve them of the huge task of maintaining the park. The City was also interested in showing a good faith effort of being able to maintain the park in such a way that the Board would feel confident turning over the park at some point to the City.”

Since then, the Foundation Board has been divided on going back to the table with the City. However, new additions to the Board this winter may have changed the dynamics, as well as the mounting costs and volunteer labor required to maintain the park.

Nicholson suggested last week that the Board consider deeding 10.84 acres to the City and keeping the remaining eight for use as the sculpture garden, a parking lot, and a separate entrance off Loop 332.

Under that plan, the City would have the parcel that contains the baseball and softball fields, the soccer fields and the Liberty Hill Public Library. The walking trail that surrounds the park would stay in place for the immediate future, although Nicholson anticipated that at some point there could be a fence added between the sculpture garden and the trail. He said that the agreement would include 10-year leases between the City and the Liberty Hill Youth League and the public library, and the park would keep its present name — Lions Foundation Park.

Nicholson also proposed revisions to the contract that reflected his suggested changes. Among those was language requiring the City to pay $100,000 toward the development of the Foundation’s sculpture park.

Boatright, who was present for the meeting but did not speak, told The Independent afterward that the plan presented “guts the park. I liked what we had before with the two acres contiguous to the school. But other than that, I think it takes a whole lot away from the park.”

“We need adequate space to develop the sculpture area and I think that seems to be our direction,” said Nicholson. “We’ve done what we wanted to do — we created the ballfields, we opened up the soccer area, so we’ve done what we can and want to do in that area, and provided a place for the library. We did that the first 10 years free so it (the library) could get itself established.”

Boatright said if the Foundation Board agrees to a plan and presents it to City Council, the decision of whether or not to take the park will be up to elected officials.

“But, just me personally, I would hate to see that park divided into different parcels,” he said.

Boatright said in the previously proposed contract, $100,000 was included to help establish the sculpture park when the sculptures were going to have to be relocated from the school grounds. Since that time, Foundation Board members said school district officials changed their minds about wanting them moved.

“Now, they (Nicholson’s plan) just want us to pay $100,000 for the park,” he said. “That’s just something Council would have to consider. Basically, we would be paying for less (land) than what we would have had before, and I think that may be a problem. Basically, all we would have is half — from the trail over.”

“Anything we get from them (the City) would go to developing the sculpture garden,” Nicholson said, adding that the City would maintain the grounds of the sculpture park. He said that provision was included in the first contract.

“The $100,000 was a negotiation item that we were working with the City on,” Nicholson said. “I went to EDC and I felt like I was treated very poorly there, and that’s when I said that ‘I’m not messing with you people’. But it’s written in here that we will deliver the deed once the $100,000 has been expended. We would have a contract to do that.

“We need to focus on those sculptures, so we can get to the point where that has been developed to the best that we can develop it,” Nicholson said.

Board President Larry Floyd said he supports transferring ownership of the park to the City, but wants any agreement to be fair to all parties.

“If it’s reasonable, I’ll do almost anything. If it’s not reasonable, then I’m not going to be for something. As long as the back and forth that we’re going to be going through is reasonable and equitable to all parties, then I’m for it,” Floyd said. “I think I said I’d like to get this done in a year. I said that to (Mayor) Connie Fuller and I said it to Greg, so I think we can do that. All the questions need to be asked and everyone listened to and treated fairly.”

Gary Spivey, the previous Board president who helped develop the park more than 20 years ago, called Nicholson’s plan “a good starting point.”

“I disagree with some of the way Larry (Nicholson) has it laid out. I’d like to see the park remain like it is and the community be able to use it like they’ve used it for the last 20 plus years, yet the Foundation would own a piece of it where the sculptures are,” Spivey said, adding that he didn’t like the idea of fencing off portions of it.

“I agree the City should have control of the park at some point, and maybe sooner than later,” Spivey said. “My concern is that we preserve the sculptures, and that seems to be the major focus right now because everything else is pretty much taking care of itself. We are looking now as a foundation, to move on to something else — focus on sculptures, having enough land that we can expand like what Paul Oglesby suggested and then letting go of the rest of it.”

“I think it’s either time to give it or not because I’ve been on the Board four and a half years, and it’s been talked about for that whole time,” said Angela Palmer, executive director of the public library. “I don’t think you want to take care of it into perpetuity. It’s an asset that’s just setting there wasting away, and it needs to happen.”

“We have failed to get grants to sustain the park the way it needs to be sustained,” added Darwin Wiggers. “It needs to become part of the whole community, not an isolated thing. We should be moving on to other things.”

Members new the Board — Lisa Harlow and Kim Sanders — said they would like to learn more about the pros and cons of turning the park over to the City. Board member John Casico also wanted to see more information.

Boatright said he was invited to the Foundation meeting last week by Mary Lyn Jones, a Board member who also serves on the City’s Parks & Recreation Board. Jones has stated that she believes the park should be turned over to the City.

Board member Jimmy Oliver, who requested the matter be placed on last week’s agenda, agrees the City should own the park.

In other business last week, the Foundation Board voted to allocate funds toward purchase of a product that will be used to clean the sculptures. Members will be trained by an expert on how to clean them, and then possibly train volunteers with the Cross Tracks Church who are interested in helping with the project as part of their Church as a Verb program April 28.

Total costs were estimated at $3,500, and the Liberty Hill Garden Club offered to pay half of the cost of the product.

Vicci Conway, president of the club, said the organization is looking to be more involved in making real improvements in the community, and she believed helping with the sculptures would be a good fit. She said she would take the idea to the club for final approval.

Also last week, a member of the public library board requested the Foundation consider an arrangement whereby the library district could purchase the land where the building is in the park.

Gary Henley, who serves as president of the public library district board, said the district is paying the Foundation $150 per month for a ground lease. The district owns the 2,400-square-foot building, which he said is too small to accommodate a growing number of users. A consultant told the library board in 2017 that it needed 7,000 square feet of space to do just what the library is doing today — not allowing for future growth or expanded programming.

Henley proposed the Foundation Board parcel off the land where the library sets, which he estimated is just over one acre. He suggested giving the library an interest-free note for 15 years, making the library’s payment to the Foundation about $333 per month.

He added that by owning the property, the public library would qualify for various grants. The library is funded primarily by revenue generated from a quarter-cent sales tax.

“The consultant says we need to stay where we are because we’re centrally located,” Henley said. “People are finally starting to figure out where we are.”

No action was taken on the request last week. The matter will remain as a discussion item on future board agendas.

The Board also heard from Jared Sudekum who discussed the idea of creating a community garden at the park.

Sudekum works at Hope House of Austin in Liberty Hill, is a master gardener and has planted other gardens in use by the school district and Operation Liberty Hill.

He suggested that one-third of an acre be set aside at the park to create 32 beds, and estimated the project would cost about $10,000. He also offered to raise funds to pay for the expenses, which would include irrigation and fencing.

“We have an agriculture based community. A lot of people here understand working the land and feeding families. We also have a massive influx of urban population who are green minded and interested in becoming more sustainable. Bringing these two components into our community, it’s (community gardening) going to be essential,” he said.

Floyd said the Board would keep the discussion on the agenda for future meetings.

News@LHIndependent.com

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