Lisa Martin and Carolae Donoghue of the Save Skaha Park Society at their Earth Day event in 2016. The society is continuing to watch council closely regarding parks issues. -Steve Kidd/Western News

Parks an ongoing concern

Waterslides in Skaha Lake Park are gone, but commercial activity remains a concern

The controversy when the City of Penticton attempted to lease a chunk of Skaha Lake Park to a private developer may be wrapped up, but the larger questions raised during the 18-month dispute still remain.

The Parks and Recreation Masterplan steering committee has struggled with the concept of developing a policy to deal with commercial activity in parks, the Save Skaha Park Society is questioning why this is being included.

Lisa Martin, spokesperson for the society, said the problem with having a commercial use policy it is assumed there will eventually be commercial activity.

“We need to stay away from assuming that some kind of commercial development in our parks is going to be a foregone conclusion,” said Martin.

In a press release issued this week, the society is raising awareness of what they say will be a critical discussion at the April 5 meeting of the steering committee: whether or not to include the term unencumbered in the definition of parkland.

“Unencumbered park land is free for everyone to use and enjoy and by definition is land that is kept for rest, respite and recreation — not commercial development,” reads the SSPS release. “Save Skaha Park Society strongly supports the inclusion of this important term in defining parklands in order to protect our publicly owned parks and keep them free and accessible to all.”

Mayor Andrew Jakubeit defends the inclusion of a commercial use policy as part of the parks masterplan, saying that some of the controversy that morphed into the Skaha Park discussion came from not having enough clarity around commercial uses in parks.

“It’s been brought to a head lately, but it’s a decades-old question in the community. Some things got allowed and others didn’t get allowed,” said Jakubeit, noting that when the parks dedication and zoning bylaws were written, they probably didn’t expect the definitions would be tested by a waterside developer.

“Let’s put a bit more certainty around the process so it is a bit more black and white and we don’t have to go through this again down the road,” said Jakubeit. “I think this whole experience is opening up those kind of conversations and bringing more clarity to it.”

We are lot more sensitive, particularly in waterfront parks. Those are probably sensitive areas in terms of any commercial activity. The other ones are still restrictive, but not as much as the waterfront ones,”

The society says a separate classification for commercial use isn’t needed; a parks master plan just needs to ensure that any infrastructure, commercial or not, added to a park must improve the park’s restorative value.

“If the term unencumbered is kept as part of the definition of parkland, that doesn’t say no to any commercial concession” said Martin. “What is the proposed new enhancement going to add to the value of the land in terms of keeping it free, open and accessible and increasing the enjoyment to the owners, who are the taxpayers?”

Proposals that would encumber, or dispose of parkland with commercial development would need the approval of the electorate. In the case of the Skaha Park lease, the city ended spending $34,500 renegotiating the Trio Marine agreement, about as much as a referendum would have cost.

“Probably more,” agreed Jakubeit.

Gerry Karr, an SSPS director, said he has examined parks master plans from many other communities, and none include a commercial use policy.

“Across the country, they are just not looking at parks as revenue generators,” said Karr, adding that a priority for the master plan should be defining what a park is really for: rest, respite and restoration.

Jakubeit said the city needs to be open to new ways to generate revenue, including parks and parking, as they face the annual problem of balancing the budget.

“Every year there was a shortfall. In the past, we dipped into savings, obviously you can’t do that moving forward and now we have to start dealing with a plan for our aging infrastructure,” said Jakubeit. Parks and the amenities people want in them cost a lot of money, he continued.

“Even putting grass by the Rotary Pavilion in Skaha Park was almost $300,000,” said Jakubeit. The alternative is raising taxes.

“If the community says ‘my taxes have to go up a few extra dollars, but that means you’re not bugging me about parking, you’re not doing any revenue generation in parks,’ I am totally good with that.”

The next meeting of the master plan steering committee is on Apr. 5 at 11 a.m. in city hall. Seating is very limited.