Story By JACI WEBB Of The Gazette Staff
By today, Tom Harmon plans to have enough signatures to save Lutheran Park from the auction block.
For 17 years, Harmon has enjoyed the beauty of Lutheran Park, which sits next to his house on Augsburg Drive next to the Atonement Lutheran Church, 407 Wicks Lane.
When the city identified the 1-acre park last summer as one of 10 parks that should be sold because they are unsuitable or difficult to maintain as parks, Harmon and another neighbor, Carmen DeCarlo, began to rally the neighbors. They obtained 72 signatures from the neighborhood on a petition to keep the park.
They're hoping the same neighbors will agree to pay the maintenance costs to keep the park.
"We really want this park; there isn't a neighbor who's against it," Harmon said. "I would say 90 percent are in support of it."
Six parks, including Lutheran Park, were eventually taken off the list of parks to be put up for sale after neighbors protested their sale at a Billings City Council meeting last summer. Four other parks, including two in the Heights, were sold.
Don Kearney, city director of parks and recreation, said neighbors who protested the parks' sale should form a park-maintenance district to help pay the cost of maintenance.
Harmon says that, if it came down to it and he couldn't get the park-maintenance district formed in time, he'd buy the park from the city. He said the city has put a price of $28,000 for the four lots that make up the 1-acre park.
Harmon is critical of the city for trying to get rid of the parks and believes that Heights issues, including parks, have long been overlooked by city officials.
"It's kind of a shame to see the city of Billings treat us like the forgotten stepchild," Harmon said. "My family has lived out here since the 1940s, and it's always been like this. We've got 20 percent of the representation on the City Council, and we've got a third of the city's population out here."
Harmon believes he can muster enough support in his quiet neighborhood to preserve the tiny park that has been a lush swath of grass along Lake Elmo long before the area was annexed into the city. It provides an open, grassy field for recreation, but has no other amenities.
The American Lutheran Church next door has watered the park over the years and put in a sprinkler system. City crews have kept it mowed.
"There are kids coming down here all the time," Harmon said. "Baseball teams and soccer teams come here to practice. I love seeing them here."
Todd Keopp, president of the Atonement Lutheran Church council, said the church has struggled over the past four or five years to keep the park watered.
Under a long-standing agreement with the city of Billings, the church kept the park watered using an underground sprinkling system that the Lutheran Church paid to install several years ago. The church used well water to water the park, but last summer the well went dry and the grass in the park suffered.
"It wasn't a very nice place for the kids anymore," Keopp said. "The park is used pretty heavily, and it wasn't holding up."
Keopp said the church at one time was interested in buying the park and using the room to expand. After the neighbors rallied to keep the area as a park, the church bought 22 acres in the High Sierra Subdivision near Skyview High School for future expansion.
"We didn't want it sold and a couple of duplexes put in it," Keopp said of Lutheran Park.
Jaci Webb may be reached at 657-1359 or at email@example.com.