EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 27, 2013

Sledding safety fix eludes officials

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — City officials say there’s little they can do to prevent sledders from using Greycourt Park, a state park with a steep hill behind City Hall where two young women were seriously injured in late December.

Methuen Public Works Director Raymond DiFiore told the City Council last week that any sign, fence or barrier permanently installed by the city on the hill to dissuade or restrict sledders could leave Methuen taxpayers liable if an accident were to occur.

After the two women were injured in separate sledding accidents Dec. 30 and 31, DiFiore said he sought guidance from a state Department of Conservation and Recreation employee about how to get a permanent “No Sledding” sign approved at the park.

“I have not heard from him since then,” DiFiore told councilors. That news didn’t sit well with City Councilor Michael Condon.

“Do we wait for a kid to get killed on the hill?” said Condon. “It’s too bad that sometimes you have to wait until somebody gets really seriously hurt or killed before people act on it. It’s just really sad, the red tape that you have to go through.”

But according to DCR Spokeswoman S.J. Port, the state has not received an official request from the city for a permanent sign.

“There hasn’t been an ask for permanent signage, period,” Port said yesterday. “We’re certainly open to having those conversations. We need someone to make the ask.”

Greycourt Park is a state park but is maintained by the city. Its steep slope makes it a destination for area sledders.

Seriously injured in the accidents were Elizabeth Patino, 22, of California, and Heather Cunningham, 22, of Georgia. Both women were visiting family in the area and collided with trees while sledding during separate incidents.

Both Patino and Cunningham have since been released from the hospital.

Patino was transported from Greycourt Park to Holy Family Hospital on Dec. 30 after injuring her ribs and complaining of back pain. She was later airlifted to a Boston hospital after it was determined she had suffered serious internal injuries, police said.

DiFiore told city councilors Feb. 19 that he called his contact at Lawrence Heritage State Park following the accident.

“He said he would get back to me as far as what we could and could not do,” said DiFiore. “I also asked him if I could put up a sign that said, ‘No Sledding.’ He said to me that it was OK if I put it up temporarily, but I could not put it up permanently.”

DiFiore said he was told he could tie a sign to a tree, but not place one in the ground.

“In order to put it in the ground and to make it permanent, you’d have to get the permission of the state Department of Recreation,” said DiFiore. “So, I said, ‘Well, could you let me know whatever that would take?’ ... I have not heard from him since then.”

Warning signs ignored

After the accident, the city placed caution tape on the hill along with temporary “No Sledding” sandwich board signs. But that didn’t prevent Cunningham, 22, and her three sisters from sledding there just one day later.

Police said Cunningham and her 11-year-old sister from Manchester, N.H., lost control of their sled and hit a tree, before veering off into a wooded area and striking a second tree. Cunningham suffered a possible broken pelvis, femur and ankle and also appeared to have suffered serious head trauma, having cut her face open and broken her orbital bone after striking a tree with her head, police said.

Cunningham was transported to Lawrence General Hospital and later to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Her 11-year-old sister also suffered minor injuries. DiFiore told city councilors last week that they sledded under the caution tape before striking the trees.

Following the accidents, Methuen police performed extra patrols in the area and threatened to arrest anyone caught sledding there for trespassing. DCR Spokeswoman Port said the city also locked the gate leading up to the park in early January.

Also in early January, Condon called for the construction of fencing on the hill to prevent sledders from using the park.

Located at 37 Pleasant St., Greycourt Park, is home to the former Tenney Estate and Gatehouse and is accessible from both Pleasant Street and the Saint Basil Seminary on East Street.

DiFiore said the city has assumed basic landscaping duties at the gatehouse for years, despite the park being owned by the state.

“In effect we are expending funds on a state park,” said DiFiore. “Quite frankly, if we didn’t do it, you can imagine what that would look like.”

After the second accident, DiFiore told city councilors he sought the advice of City Solicitor Peter McQuillan.

“He recommended to me we should not do anything relative to putting up a sign, putting up a fence, putting up a barrier, because once we did that, we become liable,” said DiFiore.

Police Chief Joseph Solomon said his department has not received any reports of sledding at Greycourt Park since the accidents. But Condon said he witnessed sledders using the park during the blizzard three weeks ago.

In a Jan. 2 letter to city officials and state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen., Condon suggested that “fencing be installed, beginning at the top of the hill going down at least half way to deter sledding in this area.”

But according to Campbell, it’s not clear whether fencing will prevent people from sledding down the hill. Campbell also said the state is reluctant to take on additional liability by constructing a fence.

“I’m not sure that’s an effective means to address the problem,” said Campbell yesterday. “I’m not going to move forward with it until I get a much stronger consensus from the city. ... There really is disagreement as to how this problem should be solved.”