Manhattan took the first step toward approving the Warner Memorial Park master plan, which currently envisions a future where Warner Park Road is re-opened for vehicles.
The City Commission approved first reading of the plan Tuesday by 4 to 1 vote, which would plan to open the road up to the location of the existing park shelter among other planned future amenities such as trail improvement, expanded parking at the northeast side, the installation of a ravine bridge on the south side of the park and leaving the existing 9-hole disc golf course as-is. The plan also accounts for invasive species management and attempts to control erosion and was recommended for approval by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
The low cost estimate for all proposed amenities, which will be installed over time, comes in at $230,000 with the high estimate at $716,000.
The park spans 82 acres, acquired by Manhattan in 1957 through donations by Kern Warner as well as purchases made possible by a community fundraising effort with the original intent to maintain it as a natural and open space. In 1990, Warner Park Road was closed due to repeated vandalism of facilities and damage to the prairie.
Debbi DeVenuto, the great-granddaughter of Warner, says the road closure makes much of the park inaccessible and that the entire community should have the unrestricted right to utilize the park within hours of operation. She also says not to judge what might happen on what happened 30 years ago as the park is much less secluded today.
“We cannot let stupid people in this world rule what we do,” says DeVenuto. “You want to talk down vandals, maybe we need to close down that new Bluemont Overlook?”
Multiple residents who neighbor the park were in attendance and advocated for the road situation to remain unchanged. Brenda Bendy says that anyone who wants to access can via vehicle can make a special request for the gate key through Parks and Recreation.
“The existing system is working, they have access to the full length of that park for all sorts of events,” says Bendy. “And there’s accountability for that, too, then, when people are checking out the key that we know who’s been in there and it seems to have been working really well.”
Other residents spoke regarding concerns of traffic intermingling with pedestrians on the gravel road and advocated for the hours for the park to run from dawn to dusk. Commissioners expressed interest in installing boulders or some barrier to keep vehicles from driving on the prairie.
Mayor Pro Tempore Usha Reddi says much of the past conversation about the plan was dominated by the disc golf conversation, pushing back other discussion. She says the re-opening of the road will improve accessibility and questioned whether most people are aware of the process to attain the key.
“I know when I go to parks I don’t think about ‘maybe I should call and ask for a key’,” says Reddi. “I wouldn’t even know that’s what you would need unless I was having some kind of event.”
Mayor Mike Dodson was the sole dissenting vote. He pointed to a lack of parking as the cause for restricted access and likened Warner to a European park intended for walking.
“That’s what the place is made for, we don’t contemplate having hoards of people go around — that’s not what it’s for, it’s a quiet place where there’s birds and animals and so on that you can walk through,” says Dodson. “I just want to keep the thing the way it is.”
Commissioner Jerred McKee says the plan was surrounded by a “big case of NIMBYism” and that the surrounding neighbors have “fully dictated” the plan from the start. He says this is a good compromise that as they’ve already accommodated the neighbors through removing plans to expand the disc golf course and other potential amenities.
“I actually think this is a much bigger ADA issue than it is anything else,” says McKee. “If I’m in a wheelchair or I have a disability there’s no way for me to enjoy any part of Warner Park in its current state.”
He says if vandalism issues begin to become a problem again they may need to close the gate again. Commissioner Linda Morse agreed, saying it’s time to try re-opening the road on a limited basis. She also says she’s not interested in building the ravine bridge at this time due to the city’s financial situation and a potential price tag ranging from $20,000 to $300,000.
“In 10 years we might be able to, but right night now I don’t think we should afford a bridge there.”
Commissioner Wynn Butler noted the plan doesn’t authorize funding for any of the proposed amenities and that not everything in the plan is guaranteed to be constructed.
“It’s a compromise,” says Butler. “When this does get implemented then you can work out all the details on how do you handle access, closure times, vandalism, do you got to put boulders there, gates.”
The plan will return for final approval by the commission at a later date.