Person of interest

City council looks for way to acquire school portion of popular field

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SHAWN GUST/Press Cameron Chun, left, collides with Brody Lundblad, both eight graders in the Coeur d'Alene Jr. Tackle football program, during a tackling drill Wednesday at Persons Field. The city is hoping to acquire the property from the school district, the current owner.

COEUR d'ALENE - The Coeur d'Alene City Council wants to keep Person Field green.

Council members agreed unanimously Tuesday to direct city staffers to find a way to acquire the portion of Person Field now owned by the Coeur d'Alene School District.

The Person Field issue was a last-minute addition to the regular council meeting agenda, placed there in response to the Coeur d'Alene school board's decision Monday to move forward with a plan to sell the school district's portion of the 7-acre field.

Councilman Dan Gookin told The Press on Wednesday that he asked for Person Field to be added to the agenda for discussion and possible action after learning of the school district's decision to sell the property on the open market. "People in that neighborhood love having that park there. They've been nervous about what might happen with it," Gookin said.

Ownership of Person Field is split between the two governmental agencies, with the school district owning the 3.8-acre eastern section and the city holding the title to the 3 acres to the west.

It's not the first time residents in the Person Field neighborhood have been faced with the possible loss of the park property.

In 2005, the school district petitioned the city for the opportunity to use the entire 7 acres to build a new Lakes Middle School. Because of public opposition to the loss of the open space, school officials at the time, including a different superintendent and entirely different school board, backed away from the idea.

Several neighborhood residents attended Tuesday's city council meeting, urging the council to find a way to keep the property.

Councilman Mike Kennedy made the motion to direct the city's staff to find a way to make that happen.

"Since I've been on the council, it's something we've wanted to do, but the time has never been ripe," Kennedy told The Press on Wednesday.

Through the years, there have been many discussions about acquiring the land, he said.

"There are a lot of generations of people who have played sports there, who've done family things there," Kennedy said.

Person Field has long been the home of Coeur d'Alene Jr. Tackle, a youth football league independent of the city and the school district. The organization rents the space from the city and the school district. League President Bob Fitzgerald said the loss of Person Field as a sports venue would be "devastating."

"Almost all our games are played at Person Field. It would be just a huge loss to us," Fitzgerald said. "There are only two youth football fields in all of Coeur d'Alene."

There are 650-700 children living within the Coeur d'Alene School District boundaries, from Coeur d'Alene, Dalton Gardens and Hayden, involved in the league, playing games on Saturdays every mid-August through Halloween.

"People don't realize how many kids would be affected by this," Fitzgerald said.

Not everyone has such strong feelings about the fate of the field.

Jenny Booth, the mother of three young children, whose property abuts an alley on the western edge of the field, said that while she likes having the park behind her home, she wouldn't be too upset if homes were built on it.

"It's kind of nice to not have neighbors back there, but changes happen," Booth said.

School officials say they need to dispose of Person Field and the Northshire property, another piece of real estate the district owns along Atlas Avenue, in order to raise cash to pay for a new location for the district's administrative offices. The school district's central office building on 10th Street is slated for demolition as part of the upcoming renovation of Sorensen Elementary, which sits adjacent to the central offices. Many central office employees working in the building have long been affected by allergy-like symptoms and upper respiratory problems, and efforts to identify the cause and remediate it have been unsuccessful.

School officials plan to begin the Sorensen project in March.

The school board moved forward with the land sale plan after city staff members turned down the school district's offer to trade the land with the city.

The matter never went before the city council.

Idaho code requires that land owned by governmental agencies must be sold through a sealed bid process for an amount not less than the property's appraised value, or it can be traded with another governmental agency.

Person Field has been appraised at $655,000.

At Monday's school board meeting, Coeur d'Alene City Administrator Wendy Gabriel testified that the city did not have the money to purchase the property and was unable to coordinate a surplus property trade within the 30-day timeline agreed to by both parties.

Regarding the city's finances, Troy Tymeson, the city's finance director, and other city staff members said during the council meeting that the city has several pending possible liabilities to consider, including the McEuen Field project and a $3.7 million judgment awarded last year to Daniel C. Dixon, a former city police officer who filed a wrongful termination suit against the city. The decision is being appealed, but city officials had to sign an agreement that they have the cash available to pay the settlement if the decision isn't overturned.

Councilman Gookin told The Press the city should have had a plan in place to acquire Person Field.

"Everyone's known about this for years, that they were talking about selling it. That wasn't a surprise," Gookin said. "I dropped the ball."

In 2009, school officials announced they were considering the sale of several properties, including Person Field, as a way to reduce budget shortfalls when the economy failed. A 2008 financial advisory committee recommended the property be disposed of.

Gookin said opportunities have come up at the city level, budget planning and workshops, where they could have considered ways to purchase the school district's portion of the field.

"A big apology to the citizens. I'm just glad we're able to move forward," he said.

City council members said during Tuesday's meeting that they hoped the school trustees would agree to give the city more time to find an option that would allow them to maintain the entire field as park space.

School board chair Tom Hamilton testified at the city council meeting that he would recommend to his fellow board members that it would be wise for them to consider giving the city another 60 days to come up with a plan to acquire the district's Person Field land.

A special school board meeting has been scheduled to take place at the district's central office, 311 N. 10th St., at 3:30 this afternoon for trustees to discuss possibly amending the decision they made Monday.

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