Southampton consultants suggest taxes, fees for recreation

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 14, 2008

COURTLAND—More than six months after starting their review, consultants are recommending that Southampton County establish a fund to improve recreational opportunities for county residents.

Setting up the fund is the first of five actions the county should take during the next three years to begin addressing the needs revealed in citizen surveys earlier this year, consultants said.

The resulting parks and recreation department should be funded through &uot;a combination of user fees and a tax levy,&uot; Eric Walberg, principle planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, told the county’s Planning Commission while presenting that agency’s draft Parks and Recreation Plan.

The money set aside in that fund then could be used to launch needed recreational programs and to finance a long-term capital fund that would be used to develop future physical projects, he said.

Though he suggested that a new meals tax could help raise the money necessary to fund the new Parks and Recreation Department—which would, in turn, &uot;help offset the obesity issues associated with eating out and eating fast food&uot;—Walberg stressed that he wasn’t advocating any particular taxes.

A survey conducted by the HRPDC in March found that three-quarters of respondents would support the creation of such a fund. Most of those, about 68 percent, said they would prefer the fund to be supported through user fees charged for the various activities sponsored by a recreation department. Just under half, however, said they would be willing to pay for the fund with some level of increased taxes.

The next steps, Walberg recommended, would be to hire a program director for the new county department and to begin developing new recreational programs, especially for youth. Youth sports and other recreational opportunities, he said, &uot;came out head and shoulders above anything else&uot; in the survey results.

While maintaining the program’s focus on youth, the director also should develop recreational opportunities for adults, with a concentration on organized sports supported primarily through user fees, he said.

By the new program’s third year of existence, the county should be setting up a capital improvements program geared toward establishing new facilities, Walberg added.

Among the new facilities Southampton officials should consider, he said, are a set of community parks spread throughout the county; various riverine parks that would promote boating, fishing, hiking and biking; and bicycle and walking trails connecting existing facilities in the county’s various communities.

That final suggestion could serve as a launch point for the remaining discussions among members of the Southampton Parks and Recreation Task Force, who will meet in the next few weeks to discuss alterations to the HRPDC’s draft plan.

Assistant County Administrator Jay Randolph said Friday that the task force would be looking to add &uot;district-specific recommendations&uot; to the plan.

By September, he said, it is likely that the plan will be ready for final review and a public hearing before the Planning Commission and, later, the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The goal, he said, would be to get the final plan adopted as an addendum to Southampton’s comprehensive plan.

&uot;With the amount of public comment about recreation in the last couple of years,&uot; he said, &uot;we thought it was important to have it as a component of the comprehensive plan.&uot;