Gelbaugh, the mother of a toddler, said she’s worried about how little time it could take for a curious child to slip down the steep bank and get carried away by the current. And it’s not an unfounded worry, because 25 years ago that very thing happened at the park on the opposite side of the creek from Bridge Park.
“It was pretty tragic to the community,” Gelbaugh remembered.
In that tragedy, Tyler Dunn, 2, was at Poteet Park with his daycare group. There was a fence along the creek, but it had been an especially rainy spring, and pieces of the riverbank had eroded as grass grew so tall so fast that holes were invisible. The water ran high and fast below, and when Dunn fell down the bank, nobody could retrieve him quickly enough. No one found him until hours later, by which time he’d washed all the way to Dillsboro.
“Why it’s coming to light again now and not before is Bridge Park is getting so much activity,” Gelbaugh said. Between Friday night Concerts on the Creek, free movie nights, community Vacation Bible School and private events, it seems there’s nearly always something going on there. Gelbaugh said that if the city is inviting people to come use the park, it should also be committed to ensuring that the experience is safe.
“It is a beautiful facility. We don’t want to take away from the beauty, but we certainly don’t want to take away from the safety of our children that we’re promoting to be there,” she told the town board at their last meeting.
She’s not alone in that.
“A kid is sort of like cattle,” said Commissioner Harold Hensley, who is running for re-election. “If you don’t fence them in, they’ll be free range.”
“I’ve been concerned at the concerts because I do see a lot of little children,” said Commissioner Barbara Hamilton, who is running for mayor. “Parents are supposed to be responsible, but some of them aren’t as responsible as others.”
It’s not always even about parental responsibility, said multiple comments on Gelbaugh’s Facebook page.
“We watch our kids like hawks, but it only takes a second, especially in large crowds,” said Heather Kindy, a mother of two.
“It only takes a second for a child to slip away from supervision,” agreed Kelly Doppke, also a mother of two. “The creek moves so quickly at times.”
Putting up a fence would also allow the park to serve a wider segment of the population, said Emily Moss, mother of 5-year-old twins.
“I think it’s more of a matter of being able to hold larger functions there without having this huge worry with every mom, because a lot of moms like me or Mary [Gelbaugh] probably won’t go rather than risk some things,” Moss said.
No one on the town board seemed to be against putting a fence up — in fact, everyone seemed to be pretty favorable toward moving forward with looking into costs and deciding on a fence. But some board members were concerned with cost, especially in light of a town budget that’s been repeatedly dipping into reserve funding. Revenue is likely to fall again next year with a county revaluation impending. They were also worried that a fence — especially more affordable options, like chain-link — would take away from the park’s natural beauty and impair access for people who use the creek to fish or paddle or even get baptized.
“We’ve got trout fishing in the creek and discussed the possibility of a handicapped accessible fishing dock,” Mayor Maurice Moody said. “Anything that you do that restricts access to the creek, for the positives there’s also some negatives.”
The fence could include gates providing access points though, Gelbaugh said, emphasizing that she doesn’t want to keep citizens from enjoying the creek however they want to.
Commissioner Lynda Sossamon — also a mayoral candidate — said the board should look to nearby towns to see how they handle similar issues. Last month, when Gelbaugh originally brought the subject up, Sossamon had questioned why a fence was needed at Bridge Park when other public spaces along the water, like East Laporte and Lake Glenville, had no such structure, though others pointed out those places also have more gently sloping banks and slower water.
At this meeting, Sossamon said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to a fence but would want to make sure it didn’t detract from the park’s aesthetics. The board should look for “different ways to do it that doesn’t make it look like it’s a prison, that still makes it match the beauty of Bridge Park,” she said.
Commissioner Danny Allen, meanwhile, who is also running for mayor, didn’t stake out a firm position. “Bottom line is, I think we need to do something,” he said, but he’s worried that children would interpret a fence as nothing more than a new jungle gym.
And a fence spanning the entire 525 feet of the town’s frontage with the creek wouldn’t be cheap, possibly costing upwards of $10,000 depending on design options. Commissioners pondered the idea of setting up a donation fund for the project rather than using town dollars exclusively, as many people who use the park regularly live outside town limits and therefore don’t pay town taxes.
“I don’t pay Sylva tax, but I’d be happy to put some money into it,” Judy Henderson, who is involved with Sylva’s community Bible school, told commissioners.
Something for the town to consider, however, is the liability incurred by whatever they end up building, said Sylva’s attorney Eric Ridenhour.
“If you put up a fence, then you have to maintain it,” he said. “Depending on the type of fence, I guess it could be considered an attractive nuisance.”
Liability depends on negligence, so if the town put up a fence that gave the illusion of safety but did not maintain it to meet that expectation, they could be sued in the event of an accident. On the other hand, if the town put on an event during which it offered supervision for children, it could be held responsible if a child under a town employee’s charge got hurt.
But at the end, said Grace Blunt, who owned the daycare Dunn was with when he got swept away, money and liability are only small pieces of the puzzle.
“We can talk about safety, we can talk about supervision, we can talk about beauty, we can talk about cost, we can talk about fencing, but some people have to think about not seeing that face every single day, and it doesn’t go away,” she said.
Commissioners will discuss fencing options again at their meeting 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6, at Sylva Town Hall.