Lucien Cutrera demonstrates the use of the new workout features in Stephensville Park's improvements. The basketball and tennis courts are in the background. (The Daily Review/Bill Decker)
Not just a walk in the park: Stephensville park improvements set to open, but dispute over sewer line installation lingers
The buzz in lower St. Martin Parish is about Stephensville’s new park improvements, which could be open to the public as early as Saturday.
But the opening won’t come without some drama.
Members of St. Martin Recreation District No. 1 met Thursday under a pavilion at the park, joined by members of the St. Mary Water and Sewer District No. 1 Commission and Parish President Chester Cedars, who acted as the peacemaker. The boards have clashed over whether the Recreation District should pay to run a sewer line from the middle of its parking lot, where a line already serves the park, to adjoining property owned by Oak Harbor Development LLC.
Members of the Water and Sewer Commission have said the Recreation District agreed to pay for installing the sewer line, and OK’d a sewer line installation serving the park on that basis even though it wasn’t at an elevation that was optimal for a nearby pump station.
That agreement doesn’t appear in the public record as having been approved by either board.
The creation of the park was made possible in part by a land donation and sale from Larry Doiron, listed in Secretary of State’s Office records as the manager of Oak Harbor.
After the meeting, Water and Sewer Commission member Shelby Daigle characterized the agreement as a handshake deal. He said the public benefit for running the sewer line would be to relieve a potential developer of the need to pay to have the line installed. That could make the property and development more attractive.
The issue is also complicated by the fact that Doiron is related to Jesse Doiron, who has served on the Water and Sewer Commission.
Current members of the Recreation District board say they can’t spend money dedicated to parks and recreation to install a sewer line serving private property. Early in the discussion, board members moved to reject the Water and Sewer Commission’s request to install the sewer line.
Cedars said he hopes to bring the two sides together.
“This is very harmful to the community,” Cedars said.
He said he didn’t want to focus on the potential ethics or conflict of interest issues.
Recreation District board member Donna Vorenkamp replied that the ethics issue is driving the board’s decision.
“This is an ethics issue,” Vorenkamp said. “I don’t want to ignore it.”
But Cedars said there is reason to believe the deal was made.
When the Recreation District received money from a 2016 St. Martin Parish bond issue dedicated partially to parks and recreation, the sewer line installation appeared on a Recreation District list of work it hoped to perform.
“I think that representations were made to expand that sewer line … if not explicit then certainly implied,” Cedars said.
He said he still hopes representatives of the two districts can come together to work out an agreement.
At the end of the discussion, the Recreation District members voted to delay action on the motion to reject the Water and Sewer Commission’s request for the sewer line.
Also Thursday, Cedars urged the district’s board to register with Opensafely.la.gov, the state website that offers information on safe openings for businesses and other entities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He suggested that playground equipment installed under a pavilion as part of the new Phase 4 work should probably be sanitized once a day.
With the prospect of new guidance, board members talked about the possibility of opening the park Saturday. Board members say the park has remained closed because of COVID-19 and because construction work has continued.
The $800,000 cost of the improvements was paid for with a grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund matched by Recreation District funds and money obtained through the parish.
In addition to the covered playground area, the park will have a lighted walking trail; a fenced and lighted basketball court with lines for pickleball; a fenced and lighted tennis court; improvements at the baseball and softball field, including covered grandstands and dugouts; a paved walkway connecting the Stephensville School next door to the park; and equipment that looks like playground attractions but is actually workout equipment suitable for adults.