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Takeover of Tree Farm Facility Fails

8/23/21 Joint Selectboard & Trustee Meeting

by Irene Wrenner

August 29, 2021

At the August 23rd Joint Selectboard and Trustee Meeting, Brad Luck, Director of Essex Junction Recreation & Parks (EJRP), put forth a formal proposal to supplant decades of successful partnering with the Tree Farm Management Group (TFMG).


He would have the Town and Village Recreation Departments take over management of the former tree nursery, which is bordered by Old Colchester Road and bisected by the Village boundary. That 99+ acre municipal property regularly hosts soccer games on more than a dozen fields. 


Anxious Tree Farm stakeholders, including soccer players, coaches and league managers, reacted to Luck's proposal with disappointment, skepticism and concern. Collectively, they made a case to the governing boards to maintain the working partnership with the TFMG.


Most members of the public who spoke agreed that this renowned Soccer Facility is well run by a bevy of volunteers, who hire staff as needed. 


Luck himself, in fact, lauded the TFMG in his formal proposal, entitled "Future of the Tree Farm Recreational Facility":


The Tree Farm Management Group has done a fantastic job and provided a great service to the community over the last twenty years. They have improved and maintained the property, created a known quality facility for soccer and rugby, all while operating a self-sufficient venture that has not required support from public tax dollars.


Yet, Luck's proposal urged this change: “We want municipal recreation [together] to manage the Essex Tree Farm Facility” based on how “[t]he municipalities ... work harmoniously in many ways. 


A recent rift between the departments was not mentioned by Luck, nor by staff or elected officials. In fact, he had quietly asked EPR last month to move out of his administration building by summer’s end. (See “EJRP to EPR: You’re Out!”)


Ken Willetts, a 17-year Essex resident, soccer coach and player, found the current proposal analogous to “parents [who] are going through a divorce, and in the middle of litigation they decide to have a baby.”


Willetts, who has played soccer all over the US, praised the facility as “unique, precious and at capacity.” 


Willets has “dire concerns” about Rec Dept staff taking over, rather than allowing stakeholders to continue to maintain the Tree Farm. He presented  an example of a parallel partnership in which volunteers provide extraordinary care for the Foster Road ballfields because the Rec Department, despite ownership, has “pretty much ignored” that municipal baseball facility.


Village resident Andy Champagne pointed to parks that are not properly cared for, such as Stevens, Cascade and Maple Street Parks. His concern is that with EJRP not maintaining its current park inventory, the Rec Departments are not reliable enough to co-maintain a 100-acre sports and trails facility. 


Rec department disenfranchisement of seniors was cited by another member of the public. 


First and former TFMG President Eric Senn cautioned Luck and Essex Parks & Rec (EPR) Director Ally Vile that current volunteers and TFMG staff work very hard — at night and on weekends, outside of the scheduled workday for municipal employees. 


“I’m not sure that you [Brad and Ally] understand the amount of work that really goes into managing that property.” During a large tournament, he explained, they start at 6 am and work until dark day-after-day. People must be hired to park hundreds of cars at a time.

Maintaining “the best grass in the state” takes water, seed, money, and effort. Senn urged Luck and Vile to do more research to understand what goes into maintaining a facility that “takes a mountainous amount of work.” 


Jill Lampron, Tree Farm Scheduler for 10 years, revealed that the TFMG had not heard until tonight about issues raised by some attendees: trail maintenance, dog restrictions and conversion of soccer fields to other uses.  She answered questions and welcomed hearing directly from folks in the future.


Veteran members from various soccer clubs cautioned against making changes to a well-oiled machine.


Soccer coach Ed DeMulder said he was in the room when the Tree Farm’s designation as a sports facility was granted by the State. He stated that some aspects of Luck’s proposal would not be permissible according to the terms of the initial agreement signed with the state. Adding other sports would affect this current, robust soccer community. 


DeMulder runs a special needs soccer program each fall. The TFMG has “bent over backwards” to help him run this program that serves the entire county. Given the relatively small size of his program, he said he is afraid of “being squeezed out”. 


One self-identified “soccer crazy” player implored the boards to consider the number of new American children and adults that enjoy these fields. Coming to the US from all over the world, they have settled into American life but hold soccer dear to their hearts. Luck’s proposal to open fields to other sports would limit soccer access.


Willetts, the long-time player and coach, addressed the affordability of community soccer leagues, a key element of the soccer world. Participation in private leagues can be cost-prohibitive to many families. Not every town has a resource like the Tree Farm that enables everyone to access soccer at low-cost. Willetts added, “And we can’t afford to screw it up!”


Willetts asked the boards not to approve the staff’s recommendation to transfer management responsibility to the municipality.


“We’re taking something special, … a world-class facility,” he said, but the Rec Departments have no detailed plan for running the facility. Parents and players need assurance that their “hundreds of thousands of dollars” of investment in this asset are safe. 


Willetts suggested a 5-year renewal with the TFMG to allow them to assess and address the concerns raised tonight for the first time.


SB Chair Andy Watts expressed concern about losing a season or two if the municipalities don’t come to an agreement over how to manage this property. “Would it be more appropriate to wait 5 or 6 years … to let the dust settle on Separation?” he asked.


Watts also noted that the contract was supposed to have been reopened three years ago, not at the eleventh hour, to discuss an extension.

Scheduler Lampron mentioned that scheduling is done three years in advance.


Neither governing board made a motion to transfer the management to the municipality. Luck vowed to come back to a future meeting with more data to support his proposal.

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