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Editorial: Deep-Pockets Parks in Hartford?

The Hartford Selectboard is moving ahead with a plan to efface the ugly scar left across the north face of the Quechee Covered Bridge by Tropical Storm Irene nearly three years ago, agreeing last week to seek engineering and design studies for building pocket parks on either side of the bridge at that end. We applaud this initiative and the due diligence with which it is being undertaken, but wonder if the board should also develop a Plan B.

Current conceptual plans, drawn by ORW Landscape Architects and Planners, envision on the west side of the bridge, where the Quechee Associates real estate office once stood, a series of terraces, sitting areas and sloped walks descending amid trees and shrubs to an overlook above the Ottauquechee River. On the other side, the current parking area would be supplemented by walkways, green areas and an overlook. Among other things, these parks would take advantage of the expansive river prospect opened up by Irene-related flooding.

The engineering and design studies authorized by the Selectboard, which will probably cost between $60,000 and $75,000 taken from the current budget, are intended to yield firm financial estimates for the pocket parks in December before the board decides how to proceed. The options, as described by Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg, include paying for the parks through the operating budget in one or more years; bonding; or doing nothing if the price tag is too high.

The back-of-the-envelope estimate is that the pocket parks would cost in the neighborhood of $425,000 to build, which is not exactly pocket change. If that estimate proves accurate, it seems possible that the Selectboard could be presented with a choice between going forward with a pretty expensive project even as many other town priorities are clamoring for budgetary attention, or doing nothing.

Except in this case, doing nothing is not an option, or at least should not be an option. The area around the Quechee bridge is a leading tourist destination in town and the current vista of concrete, chain link and raw earth is not calculated to enhance the experience of visitors to the bridge and the nearby Simon Pearce complex, to say nothing of residents who have been living with the scene for many months now. Moreover, if the town hopes to have property values rebound in the Quechee Lakes development, and along with them the Grand List, then something needs to be done to clean up that area. As Selectman Chuck Wooster put it, “I think the need is compelling and as a board, we need to commit to fixing it.”

ORW’s representative suggested at last week’s Selectboard meeting that scaling back the project would not result in big savings. But wouldn’t it make sense to have the engineering studies include a minimalist option that focused on stabilizing the river bank and making the parcels as flood-resilient as possible, while attractively landscaping them and installing a couple of benches and aesthetically pleasing safety railings? Yes, this more modest approach might not take full advantage of the opportunity the flooding presented to afford visitors dramatic vistas of the river (although it’s worth noting that one such view is already available from the bridge itself). But at least the Selectboard might have a practical and affordable option to pursue if it found the pocket park plan too expensive for the taxpayers.