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ANOTHER VOICE: Barrett Park plan does not solve county-wide problem

Talk to a coach, athlete or parent involved in team sports and you’ll hear about our county’s ball field shortage.

In its 2012 Master Plan, the Hood River Parks and Recreation District identified additional ball fields as our community’s number-one recreational need. New sports like lacrosse, rugby and ultimate Frisbee have put added pressure on already strained facilities.

It’s getting ugly as different sports are pitted against each other; kids teams pitted against adult leagues all in competition for limited field space. This is a serious problem and it needs a real solution — a solution that the Parks and Recreation District’s proposed Barrett Park does not begin to provide.

The proposed 31-acre park on Barrett Road is zoned “High Value Exclusive Farm Use,” fancy wording used to specify our very best farmland. Because it is so valuable for farming, state and county law heavily restricts its use for anything else.

Before it purchased the property, Parks and Rec was advised of “the substantial limitations on recreational activities in EFU zones” by the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, Department of Agriculture and others who warned “proposals to locate urban area parks outside an urban growth boundary on EFU land have not been successful.”

The Parks and Rec District purchased the land anyway and applied for a ball field complex in 2007. The County denied the project because, just as Parks and Rec had been warned, state law does not allow ball fields on EFU land. The law does, however, permit “passive, low-impact parks” on farmland as a conditional use.

Parks and Rec is now back before the County with a proposal that tries to thread the needle by including “open playing fields.”

Unfortunately, these “open playing fields” will do nothing to address our ball field shortage because they won’t be “ball fields” in any meaningful way. The playing fields are prohibited from having any of the physical characteristics of ball fields: no goal posts, backstops, bases or striped fields. They also won’t have the operational characteristics of ball fields as they are prohibited from hosting “organized or scheduled practices or games.”

Barrett’s playing fields might be a good place for a game of pick-up football or to fly a kite but they will have no effect whatsoever on the chronic shortage of field space for our popular team sports.

In six years of wrangling with the County’s land-use laws, Parks and Rec has spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on high-priced land-use attorneys and consultants to show that its project is legal. But it’s more important to address the fundamental question: Does Barrett Park give our community something we really need?

Parks and Rec is a small agency with limited funding so it must carefully choose which projects to take on. With true ball fields off the table, Parks and Rec has struggled to add features to Barrett to draw the public to a park located three miles outside city limits.

Its recently completed Traffic Impact Analysis shows what many of us have long suspected: Barrett Park will attract few users. In these tight times, taxpayers expect their dollars to be spent in a way that does the most good. In this case, it means addressing what Park and Rec has itself identified as our most pressing recreational need — more ball fields.

The ball field shortage is a countywide problem needing a countywide solution spanning multiple agencies and private groups. Earlier this year, the County convened a ball field committee comprised of folks from the school district, Parks and Rec, County, sports leagues, parents and other stakeholders. The committee did a good job researching real estate options, management plans, operations funding, etc. but its work ended with a few reports and no real action.

In the meantime, conflicts between sports have gotten worse. The time is ripe to reconvene the ball field committee with a clear mandate to come up with a solution and put it into action.

Parks and Rec has a core role to play. The first step is acknowledging that Barrett Park doesn’t solve our most critical recreational problem.

If you care about ball fields, come to the Oct. 9 County Planning Commission hearing and let them know that Barrett Park is no solution.

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Polly Wood served on the County’s Ball Field Committee. She is president of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee whose mission is to protect Hood River Valley’s farm and forestland and the livability of its cities and rural communities.

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