Public river access preserved, park status under determination

Parties to hammer out memo of understanding

Friends of Van Wert Park have cleared away overgrown brush, revealing a wide, walkable expanse to the river.

Friends of Van Wert Park have cleared away overgrown brush, revealing a wide, walkable expanse to the river.

A proposed bill to permanently close an access to the St. Johns River in Avondale via a city-owned right-of-way has finally been withdrawn. The bill was originally put on the fast track with the Jacksonville City Council and its removal has left the 60- by 435-foot city property open to the public.

The bill, 2015-360, was introduced to Council on May 12, 2015 and subsequently reviewed, then deferred, by all five standing committees. District 14 Councilman Jim Love is now working on next steps to turn what was once an overgrown, barely visible path into a small waterfront park.

“We are very glad the petition was finally withdrawn, but unfortunately there is still no resolution on any of the key Friends of Van Wert Park consensus points,” said Kim Clontz, a Pine Street resident, whose husband Bryan founded FOVW to maintain the access for public use.

Love said he intends to meet with all the interested parties soon to discuss park hours, maintenance and parking. Those parties include the neighbors on either side of the property – John and Kristen Surface and Charles and Joan Cousar – along with other homeowners on Richmond Street who have formed a nonprofit group called Richmond Street Neighborhood Group (RSNG); Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP), and Friends of Van Wert Park (FOVW).

Despite the successful petition drive by FOVW to have the bill withdrawn, other issues have sprung up, including an attempt by the Richmond Street group to enter a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city, to the exclusion of Friends of Van Wert Park.

“Designating the access as a park for permanent protection, scheduled maintenance and enforceable rules has not occurred nor an agreement on parking,” Clontz said. “The withdrawal was one step in the process to make this a safe, maintained and perpetually conserved community asset for the public to enjoy.”

Multiple MOUs

Typically, a Memorandum of Understanding allows a third party, such as RSNG or FOVW, to work with city departments in a joint effort to improve, enhance or maintain city-owned property. Memorial Park Association and Friends of Boone Park South, for example, have agreements with the Parks Department to maintain and/or replace landscaping as permitted. The MOU also provides for liability releases to be signed by the third parties in the event of any injuries incurred while working in the parks.

According to Love, an MOU is “a handshake, not a contract,” and there can be multiple MOUs for the same property.

The Memorandum of Understanding prepared by attorney Paul Harden on behalf of RSNG dictates some rules that are disturbing to residents who have been fighting for public access.

“Moving the bollards to Richmond Street blocks off the existing parking on the stub end of Van Wert, a not-so-subtle tactic to discourage fisherman and other members of the public from actually using the public space,” said Donna Lewis, a Hedrick Street resident and vocal opponent to the original bill. “Existing parking within the public access is more than adequate for the current demand and should be preserved.

“Also bear in mind that if the bollards are moved, the existing asphalt becomes a problem in terms of both aesthetics and maintenance. Why should the City expend scarce resources to remove asphalt, grade the land and then landscape the area when the asphalt serves a public purpose?” she asked.

Lewis is also unhappy with the RSNG memorandum that seeks to prohibit on-street parking on Richmond Street.

“Public parking on Richmond Street will not be an issue unless and until the existing parking within the public access is eliminated,” she noted in an analysis of that MOU. “So, the simple solution is to leave the existing parking within the public access.”

To meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance for at least one  ulminating at a riverfront park, Love is currently putting together an “if this, then this [proposition]” for review at the meeting.

“I would like the citizens to decide what they would like for this park, and would like them to help, particularly with the labor, to accomplish it. If they can, the buy-in would be good,” said Love.

In the meantime, the councilman is trying to push the transfer from Public Works to Parks in order to get the property on a regular mowing schedule and have the fence, which was installed 10 to 15 feet into the right-of-way, torn down. Love said John Surface indicated he will build an eight-foot privacy wall on his property line, restoring that footage to the city property.

“The city, JEA and Friends of Van Wert Park continue to make improvements to the landscape and we are eager to implement a comprehensive landscape plan when the park designation is achieved,” said Clontz.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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