Petaluma park projects prioritized

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Petaluma’s cash strapped and understaffed Parks and Recreation Department has a chance to realize long-deferred projects and implement a long-term vision for outdoor enjoyment thanks to a sudden boost in public funding this year.

The Recreation, Music and Parks Commission held a special meeting last week at the Petaluma Community Center to craft a community outreach campaign on Measure M, the eighth-cent sales tax approved by voters last year to support and improve parks countywide.

City officials hope to engage residents through surveys and numerous public meetings over the remainder of the year to identify priorities and collaborate on a comprehensive plan to elevate Petaluma’s parks, trails and facilities.

Two-thirds of the estimated $11.5 million that will be generated annually from Measure M will go directly to regional parks, but the remaining dollars will go to the county’s nine largest cities. According to county officials, Petaluma is eligible for a roughly 17% share, or approximately $5.4 million over the lifespan of the 10-year measure.

Petaluma officials are also anticipating a sizable injection of grant funds through the 2018 Parks and Water Bond Act, or Proposition 68, which authorized a $4 billion general obligation bond for parks, environmental protections and water infrastructure projects statewide.

“This is really a much- needed chance for us to hit a reset button for our community,” said Recreation Supervisor Drew Halter.

Petaluma officials widely celebrated the passage of Measure M, anticipating a significant increase in park services. Parks and Recreation was one of the hardest hit departments in the Great Recession, enduring staff cuts and service reductions in order to keep the city financially solvent.

The Measure M budget for the current fiscal year is $519,000, and was taken into account when the city approved its annual budget earlier this year. Petaluma began receiving funds in April, officials said.

There are seven criteria the city has to follow when using the funds, ranging from improvements and maintenance to establishing programs and developing trails or new facilities.

A portion of this year’s dollars were set aside to restore staffing levels to nine workers, reestablishing a full-time parks position and instituting a seasonal maintenance worker program that could assist with the annual weed abatement process.

Approximately $205,000 is earmarked for preliminary design work on improvements to Prince Park, the Lynch Creek Trail, a turf field at Lucchesi Park, rehabilitating tennis courts and various playground safety enhancements, according to Parks and Landscape Manager Jeff Gittings.

Details on the scope of those projects and their true cost estimates will be available once the design phase is complete, he said.

Petaluma’s parks purse could also increase by as much as 80% in a given year thanks to grant funds from Prop. 68, officials said.

The city is pursuing two grants right away. One is a noncompetitive grant that will provide a minimum of $200,000 for local park rehabilitation, Gittings said. The city is also submitting an application later this fall to help fund a new multi-use bike path that would connect the Petaluma Marina to the Riverfront development site on Hopper Street, a project laid out in the city’s River Access and Enhancement Plan.

Although, since that application is for a competitive grant, it’s not guaranteed to get funding.

The commission had a lengthy discussion on how best to shape the Measure M project list for the next 10 years since many residents that use Petaluma’s parks might not participate in the survey or engage in the public process.

While acknowledging that creating park use analytics can be a challenge, Commissioner Sara Sass suggested using the demographic data of neighborhoods and prioritizing improvements for pockets of Petaluma that have fewer park options nearby.

Commissioner Patricia Souza said comparisons to other cities of similar sizes could help identify things like how many courts for tennis and pickleball are appropriate for a population like Petaluma, especially when local usage is low because of its current state.

Members of the Petaluma Tennis Association were out in force at the meeting, and have been one of the most vocal groups in the pursuit of Measure M funds, eager for much-needed court resurfacing projects. Conditions are so bad that many active players are forced to commute out of the city, said association president Lori Ayre.

“We in the tennis community, of course, would like the money that can be used for tennis to actually be used for tennis,” she said. “We used to have this awesome tennis community in Petaluma. When (Petaluma Valley Athletic Club) closed, we got gutted, and now our tennis community is largely in Rohnert Park.”

City officials are expecting to launch the surveys and a dedicated Measure M website in September and hold a community workshop in October, hopeful that Petalumans participate in a long-awaited makeover for its recreation spaces.

“If this was your wallet, what would you buy?” asked Commissioner Beverly Schor.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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