Dotson Park History

1999 - 2009

The need for a com
munity center in Danby has been recognized and discussed for at least forty years. It became clear especially after the closing of the Danby Elementary School, and again in the 1990s after the last of a series of community-supported childcare centers had to be closed. Surveys carried out by the county Youth Bureau and by the Danby Planning Board confirmed the wish for an adequate meeting place, a dedicated building for community activities. The Danby Community Council, then in a period of controversy over issues of organization and program, nevertheless found agreement about the need for a community center. The Planning Board ruled against one proposed site that would have been donated, as too isolated from the town centers and too limited in area for the purposes desired by the community. A committee charged with finding an existing building to serve these purposes was unsuccessful.

Finally a new committee, constituted in 1999, undertook to find land on which a suitable building might be located. Mary Oltz, who chaired this committee, drew up a comprehensive list of available properties in or near central Danby. She discovered early on that the choice was between limited house-lot size and properties of considerable acreage--45 acres or more, and the committee agreed to evaluate the larger properties, with the idea of supplementing the community center with a park accommodating sports facilities--lacking in Danby since the school closing--as well as playgrounds and picnic areas.

At just this time, a 90-acre property of open meadows and woods in the very center of the hamlet of Danby, previously owned by "Duke" Johanson, was listed for sale for the first time. Its characteristics seemed to make it more adaptable than some of the properties already considered, and the committee agreed to submit it for the serious consideration of the Community Council. The Council's officers, however, felt that land acquisition was
beyond the scope of the organization. The Town Board, asked to consider public ownership of the property, felt the need for more time to consider all the dimensions of a possible plan. Meanwhile private offers for the land were forthcoming and it appeared that any delay would forfeit the opportunity of acquisition for public use. The members of the committee decided to make a joint offer, with the idea of acquiring the land temporarily for eventual purchase by the town. Somewhat to their surprise, their fairly modest offer was accepted.

This decisive action has been followed by an almost unbelievable series of hurdles which the members of the DCC committee have had to overcome. First: the parcel of land on which they had made an offer was owned by nine siblings, joint heirs of "Duke" Johanson. All had apparently agreed to put it up for sale, but one of them at this point refused to sell. The other heirs were forced to take the matter to court, and by court decision after almost a year were empowered to sell, but the sale had to be at public auction. The DCC committee members, feeling threatened again that a private bidder might acquire the land, attended the auction, bidding against the family members (and, fortunately, no other bidders) to a figure just below their original offer, since the family was in fact sympathetic to their purpose. Since the purchased land was "landlocked" behind residential and Federated Church properties, Mary Oltz's committee at the same time negotiated with one of the family members, Tom Johanson, for the purchase of a vacant house lot of just under an acre, that would give access to Route 96B. With its possible importance for the local extraction of natural gas in mind, the family kept possession of the mineral rights under the property, with the assurance that no above-ground disturbance would be allowed. One other possible disadvantage also remained: the eastern edge of the property was crossed by a gas pipeline. This too seemed to present no real problems, since the line was on the farthest edge of the woods. Three members of the original DCC committee became, in September 2001, joint owners of a property intended for the use of a Danby Park containing a Danby Community Center.

The committee
drew up a proposed contract with the Town of Danby, approved by the town lawyer, by which the town would take ownership of the land, but the committee would undertake to set up an organization to develop it as a park and community center and to take responsibility for financing the project. However, a staff member of the State Comptroller's office, one of the consultants to whom the contract was submitted, advised strongly against asking the town to take ownership, because by law the town government is barred from soliciting funds from its citizens, which would be the legal interpretation of even fundraising by private citizens for a town-owned park. In other words, the proposed arrangement could only legally be supported by grants and town taxes. Higher property taxes for the support of the park and community center were opposed by all concerned. The alternative advised by the Comptroller's Office was a not-for-profit corporation.

"Danby Community Park Association" was the name Danby Supervisor Ed Inman had put on a bank account to contain donated funds for the community center and park. This name was given to the not-for-profit corporation approved by the Internal Revenue Service, under the law known as 501(c)(3), and by the New York Department of State as an approved charitable organization, in 2002. The owners of the 90-acre property for park and community center worked out a combination of donation and loan to transfer the land to the DCPA.

Meanwhile, an application for funding had been made in the name of the town, to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. The proposal submitted included an access road through the property bought from Tom Johanson, a community center roughly behind the Danby Federated Church, playing fields, playground, picnic areas, and a set-aside at the south end for senior housing, possible pre-school facilities and other non-park activities. A Cornell graduate class in landscape architecture drew up a series of plans for developing the area. After a year passed without response from the state Office of Parks, a slightly changed plan and application for funding was submitted by the new not-for-profit, the Danby Community Park Association, Inc. In the summer of 2002, however, Governor Pataki announced the granting of the original Town of Danby request for $109,000 (to be matched by the same amount locally). It was then necessary for the Danby Community Park Association to explain to the New York State Parks Commissioner that the town's application had been supplanted by the not-for-profit's request, and to ask that the funding be transferred to the new body--a request
that was granted with minor delay.

It seemed that we were on our way. Volunteers cleared the entrance roadway through the Tom Johanson property, cleared meadows of miscellaneous brush, accumulated trash and abandoned equipment, located routes of possible woodland trails, held public meetings to determine priorities in developing the community center/park project, and began the process of securing permits from public agencies--visiting the regional offices of the Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (the regional representatives of both agencies visited the site and gave advice), and submitting plans to the Town of Danby Planning Board. The Board of the DCPA had special meetings with staff from the local office of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation who laid out the requirements for receiving the grant money.

At this juncture, two serious problems emerged. First, Danby neighbors and the Planning Board pointed out that the proposed entrance/exit was at a very dangerous location on Route 96B, at a bend in the highway that restricted visibility, and where incoming traffic from the south had not yet slowed to the 45 mile an hour speed limit of the hamlet. To receive a permit for creating the park, it would be necessary to extend the property to provide access along the straight road north of the church. The next period of the DCPA, despite efforts to think further about fulfilling the needs for community center and park, had to be primarily devoted to negotiating land for a safer entrance. The solution, in fact, was not found by buying land for the entrance, but by the cooperation of a group that was assembling land for hunting, was able to buy a 50-acre property with a 200-foot frontage on 96B almost opposite the Town Hall, and was willing to swap it for the forested eastern 50 acres of the property owned by the DCPA. A separate strip of just less than ten acres, dividing this piece of land from the original purchase, was bought with funds contributed anonymously by a Danby resident.

The second problem arose from the fact that some aspects of the community center envisioned by Danby residents could not b
Image by Shira Golding
e part of the park complex funded by the state, which could include only "recreational" facilities. The community center had been planned to include the Danby Community Library, whose space in the Town Hall was (and is) much too restricted; and it was initially conceived to meet a need for a childcare program. If these or other "non-recreational" components were included, the DCPA Board was told, the community center had to be outside the park. The Office of Parks financing could not be applied to any aspect of the community center. In response a 5-acre area in the new addition to the park area was set aside from the Danby Park, to accommodate a community center which would then face the Danby Town Hall.

Much of the DCPA Board effort since the completion of the land acquisition and the separation of the five-acre property for the community center has been devoted to fulfilling (and financing) the New York State pre-conditions for receiving the grant from the Office of Parks. These included, apart from maps and narratives explaining all the land transactions and the submission of all the legal documents for each transaction, agreement to a conservation easement protecting the park property in perpetuity, appraisals of the property in its first stage and again after the new additions, the financing of an archeological survey to ensure that required land disturbances would not destroy valuable historical evidence, a new wetlands delineation and storm-water disposal plan. Of the last items, only a preliminary wetlands survey was completed in 2006, and a new survey and plan are now in process.

The boundaries of the park and of the separate area for the community center seem to be firmly established after the complex process outlined above (see the attached map). A positive result is that the resulting property has a closer relation than the original plot to the other central sites of the Danby hamlet: the Town Hall, the Danby Federated Church, and the Danby Fire Station. A downside has been the need for the access road from the highway to the recreational areas of the park to be much longer (and much more costly) than the original
property would have required. A further problem arising from the complex process of land-acquisition and disposition has been an unexpected delay in the actual payment of the state grant money. The state agencies must of course be absolutely assured of the DCPA title to the park property. But the very complexity of the process, and perhaps an oversight by our lawyer, has had the result that the state Office of Parks and the Office of the Attorney General have sensed a puzzling incompleteness in the legal records submitted, and occasional confusions as to which stage of the land acquisition was represented by some of the records. All these had
to be clarified before we could receive any funds, a situation especially damaging because we were paying interest on a loan (as recommended by the state representatives) to finance the access road being built last year. Finally, after a frustrating exchange of telephone calls, e-mails, and indirect personal communications over 2 years, the state office is assured of having the complete documentation of the park land. We hope soon to have the funds granted in 2002.

The next phase of the Danby Park and Community Center project is the planning of the community center building, which is being undertaken pro bono by the architect serving on the board, Deborah Adams. The DCPA board has adopted a resolution to make the building as "green" as possible, using alternative energy sources and environmentally sensitive materials. The physical dimensions and design of the building will depend on the results of current analysis of the soil and the location of wetlands in the five-acre site set aside for it. The program and the construction phases will be determined in consultation with Danby residents and Danby organizations.

The expenses incurred by the Danby Community Park Association since its formation in 2001 comprise the acquisition of all the different parcels of land now united in the park and the separate 5-acre plot for the community center, legal, surveying, and appraisal expenses (with generous pro bono services donated by a lawyer who took over after the formation of the not-for-profit association), the cost of the archeological survey, and finally, the considerable expense of the access road completed last Spring, on which a balance is due which will require some of the money from the state grant. Various stages of land clearing and some plantings have been generous donations of volunteers. Apart from donations, mostly anonymous, of over $200,000 from members of the Danby community, donations of professional services, and several thousand dollars from local fundraising activities and the value of volunteer work onthe property, the DCPA has received grants ranging from $500 to $25,000 from the Rotary Club, Tompkins Trust Company Smith Fund, the Howland Foundation, Tompkins County's Office of Planning, and Senator James Seward, and has applications pending from various other grant agencies, legislators, and government bodies, directed for the most part to site analysis and preparation for the community center. A major grant for the building of the community center is currently being sought, and a local fundraising effort to accumulate the matching funds required for major grants is projected for 2009 and beyond.

An annual meeting of the DCPA on June 14, 2009 presented the proposals and needs the project to the Danby residents, who are collectively the members of the not-for-profit corporation. At that meeting the board of the DCPA solicited feedback on proposed programs, and elected a new revitalized board. The efforts of the past leadership were recognized, new Board members were elected and a sense of community was built. We are grateful for the Triad Foundation for making a community-wide invitation/solicitation possible and to the American Legion for hosting the gathering. We seek volunteers to help in all aspects of Park and Community Center development. If you are interested in participating at any level, contact any member of the Board of Directors.
Mish Lenhart,
Sep 1, 2014, 6:26 AM