HAVERHILL — The arrival of playground equipment at the Crescent Yacht Club last month has sparked a dispute that some city councilors and club members say threatens the survival of the longtime boating and social fraternity on the banks of the Merrimack River in Bradford.
In 2010, the city received $127,000 from the state to build a public park on historic city-owned land next to the private Ferry Street boating club and to clean and improve two old Haverhill burial grounds. The city plans to build the park near the spot where George Washington crossed the Merrimack aboard a ferry in 1789. It is to be named George Washington Crossing Park.
In addition to a fenced-in children's play area, the park is to include a place for families to picnic by the water, a beach area, and plenty of free parking at the public lot used by the yacht club.
The problem is the park land is filled with large boats belonging to members of the club who have nowhere else to store them. One of the club's worst-kept secrets is that it only owns the small piece of land that contains its clubhouse and lounge and no room for parking cars or boats.
The parking lot in front of the building is owned by the city as is the land that includes the dock used to launch boats. Boats of all sizes are currently parked on several parcels of city and private land surrounding the club.
City Councilor William Ryan said he met last week with members of the club who oppose the playground. He said they told him members will have nowhere to store their boats in winter if the city's goes forward with its plan to install the park this spring. Ryan urged Mayor James Fiorentini to abandon his plan and find somewhere else to put the playground, possibly on Water Street on the other side of the river.
"The club is a nonprofit that anyone who's interested in boating can join," Ryan said. "They are good citizens and an asset to the community. If we do this, we might be enhancing the demise of the yacht club."
Ryan noted the club hosts several popular events annually including a boat race, canoe race, fishing derby and fundraising rubber duck race.
Bob Jusko, the club's commodore, said club members were "blind-sided" when the contractor hired to build the playground showed up in early December with the equipment and asked the club to move 10 large boats from the city's land.
"We knew something was in the works, but they never told us exactly where the park was going to be," Jusko said. "It was supposed to be on land further down, not where the boats are. Then I get a call (in December) that they're doing the playground tomorrow and to move the boats, with one day's notice."
Andrew Herlihy, who oversees grants for the city, said the city temporarily resolved the controversy by renting a trailer to store the nautically-themed playground equipment until spring.
Jusko said he is understands the club "doesn't have a leg to stand on" in the dispute, but that he is hoping a compromise can be worked out.
"They've been talking about this park for years, but it was supposed to be a few benches and a sign," Jusko said. "Now it's playground and picnic area and who knows what else. I don't think next to a boat dock and a raging river is a good place to have children playing, but that's not my call."
Ryan also said the council was unaware of the mayor's plans regarding the location of the park — a claim Fiorentini vigorously refuted.
The mayor said he brought the proposal before the council for its review and approval twice — first to approve the grant and a second time to restrict the property from ever being built on or used for anything other than a park.
Fiorentini said the city had hoped to build the playground on land further away from the boats, until the city learned that property is owned by National Grid. He said the city has asked the power company if it can use some of its land for the park and should receive an answer in a few months.
Herlihy, who works in the city's community development office, said the city also plans to use the park to enhance and extend the new Bradford Rail Trail. The railroad corridor the city is using for the pathway runs along the western edge of the park property. The public parking lot used by the club includes plenty of space for rail trail and park parking, he said.
Although the council no longer has control of the project, councilors are split on the issue.
Councilor William Macek said he opposes taking any land used by the club "even if it's public land."
"I don't think we should be cramping them," Macek said. "I don't think we should ramrod a park into that area."
But Councilor Michael Hart told the mayor, "do whatever you have to do to protect the state money and build the playground."
"Accommodate the club if you can, but do what you have to do. Don't lose that grant," Hart told Fiorentini at last week's council meeting.
Councilor Sven Amirian said he doesn't think club members should be storing their boats on city land in the first place. He said he supports building a public park there because "Bradford families need a place to go."
"This could be an opportunity to get kids and families to the river and engage young people in the river," Amirian said. "This could be a catalyst to get more people, specifically young people, involved in the club."
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