Easton approves $900,000 for park projects

Star Democrat, March 9, 2023. By NATALIE JONES njones@chespub.com

EASTON — After extensive discussion Monday night, the Easton Town Council unanimously approved moving forward with several new park bond projects and coming back together with a plan to spend $900,000 of the remaining funds.

The bond funding, which was received in fall 2020 and totals $7 million, is intended for two spectrums of projects: park improvements within the town and municipal buildings. About $6.75 million of the bond funding was allocated to parks, with the remaining $250,000 going toward the town buildings.

The bond funding needs to be spent within a three-year term, which is up in October. The bond funding is the equivalent of borrowing money to buy a house, or from a town perspective, borrowing money to complete and execute projects, said Town Manager Don Richardson.

If the money isn’t spent, the town could undergo an IRS review of its bond ratings, which are some of the highest that Easton can achieve. Having those ratings changed would reduce future borrowing power, so it’s crucial for the town to meet deadlines associated with bond obligations to maintain the high bond ratings.

Starting the discussion Monday, Easton Mayor Robert Willey noted that most of the projects on the list were underway. The 17 projects in progress include improvements to the Rails to Trails, the North Easton Sports Complex, Easton Point Park and public works facilities, access to John Ford Park, underground infrastructure for Port Street and several land acquisitions, among others.

Nearly a dozen new projects were brought up, including the kayak launch and road at Easton Point Park, the east side Rails to Trails project, a skatepark expansion and entrance wall at the North Easton Sports Complex, sidewalks and landscaping at Matthewstown Run Park and Mulberry Station Park, playground equipment at Hunters Mill Park and a proposed dog park at Brewers Lane.

Easton Town Council members, joined by town administrators, first discussed the status of the new projects at a Feb. 24 workshop.

Ward 1 Councilman Al Silverstein jumped in with questions on the Easton Point kayak launch at Monday’s meeting, asking about who would be constructing the launch. A proposed trail leading to the water’s edge to support the kayak launch was allocated $30,000 from the park bond money and was under consideration by the council.

An Eagle Scout, who’s also Richardson’s son, will be constructing the launch, along with help from volunteers and contracted services, the town manager said.

Silverstein raised concern with money being raised for the project and a possible break of protocol in announcing projects in the town’s parks without obtaining proper recommendations and approvals from the town park board and council first, calling out Richardson for allowing the process to “be skirted.”

Richardson denied any conflict of interest, adding that he attempted to stay out of the process and believed there was no wrongdoing. He further explained the project approval process within the scouting organization and the project’s previous appearances before the park board and planning commission.

The two did not reach any agreement on the situation.

Silverstein also noted that the town still has about $3.5 million to expend on projects by the late October deadline, prompting him to propose striking a $900,000 land acquisition of the land lots at Harrison Street and South Street and reallocating funding to several new projects.

The councilman’s proposed projects include improvements to a storage building at the North Easton Sports Complex, a restroom at the Brewers Lane dog park and water fountains at North Easton Sports Complex and Idlewild Park. He also suggested adding $100,000 to the $150,000 already allocated for the Hunters Mill playground, adding a pump track to the skate park for $200,000, developing an access road and parking for the Easton Woodland Park for an estimated $400,000 and paving the North South portion of the Rails to Trails for $160,000.

Silverstein’s proposals add up to $1,270,000, which would help the town spend all of the bond funds, he said.

Abbatiello raised a question on funding for the Brewers Lane dog park, noting that when discussions on the dog park first began, a group of supporters had planned to fundraise for the project. But now, it appeared that the town was providing the bulk of the funding, he said — a $425,000 allocation from the park bond.

Silverstein said that from his perspective, fundraising for the dog park hadn’t been successful. However, with the town having bond money in need of spending, along with significant public interest in the dog park, he said, the funding created an opportunity for the dog park to come to fruition. The dog park would also be owned and managed by the town with assistance from volunteers.

He added that the funding was a “great opportunity to build the right kind of dog park,” which would include retaining walls and artificial turf.

Ward 3 Councilman Ron Engle echoed Abbatiello’s concerns on funding for the dog park, recalling that the initial cost for the project was under $200,000. However, the restroom facilities would account for about $300,000 of the project’s allocation with current prices, Richardson said.

After further discussion, the Council approved moving forward with all listed projects, aside from the $900,000 Harrison Street and South Street land acquisition. The town will return with a plan for spending the remaining funds to reach the $7 million total.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.