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Planning would preserve neighborhood parks
Several water areas, a playground, an education pavilion and bat house, along with a boardwalk are among amenities proposed in this plan for Meadlowlark Park by EDAW Inc. Seattle, Fischer & Associates and Peaks to Plains Landscape Architects. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Kenneth Hollar, left, donated five lots to create Frances's Park, in honor of his mother, who is 96. Landscape architect David Groshens is laying out the park, which is under construction. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Meadowlark Park is being touted as a special opportunity for Billings to have a wetlands park.

Neighborhoods across Billings are pitching in to preserve green space by saving small, neighborhood parks.

Last summer, when the city submitted a list of 10 city parks to be sold because they were too small or were deemed undesirable for parks, neighbors rallied to save six of them. Now they're working to form park maintenance districts to pay the annual upkeep costs of those parks.

Park supporters Two of the parks, Rolling Hills and Lutheran Park, are in the Heights, and supporters are working with the City Parks and Recreation Department to get the maintenance districts in place by summer.

Gene Blackwell supervisor of city parks and forestry, said forming the districts takes neighborhoods time and effort, but the city is willing to help residents through the process.

To form a district, boundaries are established, and tax codes are recorded for each home within the district. The cost for maintenance is then determined and spread amongst the home owners.

The Lutheran Park district, for example, will include 70 lots, which will split the annual maintenance cost of $3,200, Blackwell said.

Since the 1980s, Billings developers have been required to donate up to 11 percent of the land in each development to the city of Billings to be used for parks. Blackwell said that sometimes the land parcels are too small to be used as community parks so neighborhoods are encouraged to create park districts to fund annual maintenance.

Providing park land At one time the city allowed developers to give cash instead of land, but Blackwell said the amounts paid were too small to help the city, and the requirement returned to providing park land.

"We're looking at trying to get out of those tiny parcels of land and keep focusing our resources on large community parks," Blackwell said. "They are very much neighborhood parks."

In some cases, developers have helped create parks far beyond what they were required to do.

Longtime Heights developer Ken Hollar has been establishing parks throughout the Heights since the 1950s. Castle Rock Park, Hawthorne Park and now Frances's Park are among the park lands he has donated to the city.

At Frances's Park in the Lake Hills Subdivision, Hollar paid for improvements, landscaping and playground equipment, which is still being installed. He even fenced the park to keep the antelope and deer from eating the shrubbery. In the 1950s, Hollar planted the trees at Hawthorne Park between Maurine and Janie streets.

Without donations such as Hollar's, the city of Billings struggles to pay for improvements to park lands or to pay for maintenance of parks. Throughout the city, there are 18 park maintenance districts — three on the Heights — and six more are in the process of forming, Blackwell said.

Neighbors who live near Meadowlark Park, an undeveloped wetlands park on Cody Drive, have been encouraged to form a district there. And homeowners near Lutheran Park on Lake Elmo and Wicks Lane and Rolling Hills Park north of Lake Elmo are working to form maintenance districts after their protests kept the city from selling the parks last summer.

Another issue with neighborhood parks is deciding how they should be developed.

Neighbors around Meadowlark Park are in the process of figuring out what Meadowlark Park should be — a natural wetlands area with no improvements or a preserved wetlands with enhanced features such as interpretative centers, boardwalks and increased recreational offerings.

About 20 people attended a master-plan meeting on the Meadowlark Park last week at Castle Rock Middle School. Thirteen of them filled out surveys.

Seventy percent of those said they approve of the proposed recommendations or the recommendations with minor modifications. Fifteen percent said they will actively oppose the recommendations and 8 percent said they do not fully support the recommendations but will not oppose them.

Fifteen percent said they wanted the park left its current state and size, and 39 percent said they wanted it enhanced. Sixty-two percent said they want to adopt a revised long-range plan for the park and phase in implementation considering neighborhood priorities and funds.

Two designs, both of which offer ponds, open space, parking, educational interpretative centers and a playground, were presented.

Neighbors' primary concerns, however, were about the effects of development on the water table, and a hydrological study of the area is planned. One neighbor complained that his basement often floods, and he said he believes that adding more water to the park would make the problem worse.

One proposal is to create a 100-foot-long pond at the park to provide more diverse habitat for water fowl and other wetland animals.

"I live across the street from the park, and we've had our share of problems," he said. "The sight of open water over there just about gives me heart failure."

Other neighbors expressed concerns about parking and mosquitoes. Both plans called for a small parking lot as part of the park.

Some supporters of Meadowlark Park say they would like to provide a link between the park and Lake Elmo State Park, perhaps by getting an easement through the subdivision now in the development stage. Developer Victor Reichenbach, who owns property next to the park and is building homes there, said the city has talked for years about buying the half-mile of land between Meadowlark Park and Lake Elmo State Park.

Heights City Council member Larry Brewster is supportive of the idea to develop Meadowlark Park as a wetlands-preservation area with educational opportunities and limited recreational offerings.

"One of the reasons I've been supportive of this is it's a unique way to preserve the wetlands," Brewster said. "We all know this area will grow and fill up with houses. There are so many ways we can find money to pay for this park."

Because wetland areas are so scarce in Montana, with only 1 percent of the land designated for such areas, supporters believe they can find private and public funding to help preserve the wetlands park and create more diverse wetlands habitat in it.

Jolene Rieck, a landscape architect with Peaks to Plains Landscape Architects and a Heights resident, created one of the designs for the park, and landscape architect Sandy Fische, created another. Rieck's design allowed for berms to help separate the park from the neighborhood, buffering any noise from the park.

Both plans called for several different types of wetlands, including ponds with islands and areas with marshy areas.

Blackwell said neighbors should view the master plan as a work in progress and not something that will be achieved immediately.

"We do need to get a consensus so we have something to take to the City Council," Blackwell said. "The city doesn't have money so it's up to the citizens to raise the money to develop the park."

Jaci Webb may be reached at 657-1359 or at jwebb@billingsgazette.com.

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