At Monday night's Parks & Recreation meeting, the commission unanimously approved a resolution in support of the Lake Leatherwood committee's so-far successful efforts to put a measure on the November ballot approving a 1/8th cent sales tax.
The tax, which has a four-year sunset clause, meaning it will end in 2016, is meant to fund and implement a much-needed Master Plan for Lake Leatherwood Park.
"The background for all this is that we have been meeting regularly for several months roughing out a Master Plan draft with the intent of presenting it in rough form prior to the November election," said Parks Chairman and committee member Bill Featherstone. "We will have a formalized Master Plan by the first of year. Public input will be solicited at every juncture of the process, and they will have lots of say about the final product."
Featherstone said many hours of effort had gone into getting the rough draft ready in time. "We feel either we can all just continue to maintain the status quo in regard to Leatherwood Park, or we can take steps to improve the situation. It's not a news flash that lots of things require being done that aren't now being done out there. The roads into the lake may be the worst but are not the only issue. The south end of the lake is dying, and it requires quite a bit of money to turn that life cycle around. Lack of finance has been a constant hindrance, but we contend the game changer is a Master Plan for Leatherwood to insure it's kept up for many, many years to come."
The Leatherwood committee meanwhile gathered and submitted to the city clerk last week the petition signatures necessary to put the sales tax initiative on the November ballot. "Possibly it was a bit presumptuous [of the Leatherwood committee] to go forward before bringing it to this table," Featherstone said, "but we were up against a deadline and felt as a committee it needed something like this -- no point in stalling further. The community is going to decide regardless, and during a presidential election we want the most number of people voting as possible. We want everybody to show up and basically tell us that either the status quo [with Lake Leatherwood] is okay, or 'The Master Plan sounds good to me, let's get 'er done.'"
As a point of comparison with what Parks & Rec is trying to accomplish, Commissioner Stephen Foster mentioned a Master Plan for Lake Leatherwood from the 1960s that included a golf course, a 4000-square-foot clubhouse, 400 living units, 300 paved camping pads, and a paved road around the edge for easy access. "It was detailed and quite expensive," said Foster, "and would have destroyed Leatherwood. Our Master Plan by comparison is going to cost virtually nothing."
Foster said it was the recent suggestion that a zip line be installed at Leatherwood that clarified in his mind the necessity of a Master Plan. "We truly need to define that 1610.268 acre park," he said. "Define and limit its use. We need to set aside a place for enjoying quiet and nature and appropriate lack of noise levels, as on the lake. When we met with Mayor Pate out there, he said that his outdoor interest started in childhood through nature education programs, and I'd love to have some organized interpretive programs out there for not only grownups but also the next generation, kids birdwatching and learning how to be quiet at the lake, to see a special bird or whatever."
He added the Leatherwood Master Plan needs to encompass these issues as well as more appropriate signage, as well as maintenance and repair of historic structures on site. "It's a big place and has a lot of potential, with some work, to be the source of a lot of enjoyment for everybody," he said.
"When you start saying 'improvements,' people get hysterical," Featherstone said. "No amusement parks are in the works. Nothing could be further from our minds. We're talking about preservation of what is there and very discreet enhancement of those facilities, and restoring the lake are to its former glory. It is nowhere close to where it once was in that regard."
Featherstone broke the numbers down. A sales tax of 1/8th cent for four years with a sunset clause amounts to roughly $100,000 per year for four years, he explained. "That may sound like the pot of gold to some people," Featherstone said, "but to those of us who know what Leatherwood needs at the most basic level, that ain't a whole lot of money. So we're going to have to be very judicious as to how we allocate that money. The Master Plan will have to be prioritized. Any Master Plan we come up with will exceed the range of the sales tax, but hopefully this will grow to be something larger -- not a larger or longer tax, but the effort can take other forms as well."
Commissioner Daniel Jackson expressed some hesitation over the new tax. "In one way I am against new taxes of any kind," he said. "It's a shame we have so many taxes already, even though this is a tax I can get behind. I think it puts a shadow of emotion on the whole issue due to the high tax rate we already have, even though this is a good cause."
In the end, Commissioner Ruth Hager made a motion in support of the Leatherwood committee's efforts to get the initiative on the November ballot.
"You are saying you have confidence in the community and that they will make the right choice in regard to the tax and the future of Lake Leatherwood Park," Featherstone finished.
The resolution was approved 4-0.