Person Field's future up for grabs

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Staff writer

COEUR d’ALENE — The offer is on the table, and it’s up to the school district to decide what to do with it.

The city of Coeur d’Alene has proposed to pay full appraised value to School District 271 for its half of the roughly 7-acre Person Field, but the $655,000 offer that has been months in the making and escalated tensions between the two commissions also comes with some conditions.

Those conditions: More access to school gyms for the city’s recreation department, and ownership of the dog park portion of Northshire Park.

While the school board could decide on the offer Monday, one board member said he’s frustrated the negotiations have dragged on as long as they have since the asking price has been the same since day one.

But the reason the city wants something more than just land for the deal is because it doesn’t think the 3.8-acre parcel is worth the price tag alone.

“Part of it is a fairness question,” City Attorney Mike Gridley said Wednesday night as he explained the terms of the offer, now three months in the making, to the Coeur d’Alene City Council. “We think we need to make up that gap in value.”

Gridley’s presentation this week was the first public presentation on the terms’ details since the city began negotiating with the school board. Discussions had been going on behind closed doors, and since August the school board has extended the deadline more than once so the city could make an offer.

Now the offer has been pitched, and it will be up to the school board Monday to decide what it wants to do with it.

“It is my sincerest hope that we’re able to put this together,” said Ann Seddon, school board member, on reaching a deal that would keep Person Field a public park on 15th Street, which is her top priority. “We need to be able to come together and keep this in perpetuity a park.”

So far, the council and school board haven’t quite seen eye to eye on the deal, and at the City Council meeting Wednesday night a spat between City Councilman Mike Kennedy and School Board Chairman Tom Hamilton, who attended the city meeting, broke out.

“There’s a long history there,” Hamilton said following the meeting. “On the other hand, I certainly could have been less sarcastic.”

But as far as the actual deal, the city doesn’t see the park’s assessed value of $655,000 as its true value the way the school district does.

One reason is that the city was about to own the school district’s piece of Person Field outright before it gave it to the school district in 1995. There’s “a reluctance” on the city’s part, Gridley said, to buy back a public space that it basically gave it away in the first place.

According to the city, the city gave 10 acres it owned near Lake City High School to the school district in exchange for the entire Person Field property. The school district was building the high school at the time and needed the city’s land. But the city ended up agreeing to take only half of Person Field because the school district realized during those negotiations it needed to hold on to part of the field to keep enough outdoor acreage near Lakes Middle School to maintain accreditation.

So the city ended up settling for half of the original proposal.

That was “a good faith” deal the city did for the district, said Councilman Ron Edinger, who was on the commission at the time. So the school board should return the favor.

“We shouldn’t have to pay for something we really still own,” he said. “I think the school district should turn around in good faith” and work with the city.

On Wednesday, the council touted its history of having a good working relationship with the school district. It has a joint power agreement with the district that allows the recreation department to share school gyms. Part of the city’s proposal calls for extending contracts at two of those gyms, Woodland Middle School and Fernan. It also asks for use of two new gyms and the right to continue running Skyhawks athletic camps on district property. The city’s proposal also requires the school district to turn over ownership of the dog park portion of Northshire Park to the city. The school district plans to sell that piece of land off Atlas Road.

The city believes those added terms would make up for the difference between the full appraisal price of $655,000, and the amount the city believes Person Field is actually worth — $327,660.

That figure is based on recently sold parcels of land, like Northshire and Cherry Hill parks that sold for $2 a square foot. Person has been appraised at $4 a square foot under Residential 12 zoning, which is the parcel’s highest and best use.

 But the city said it couldn’t develop the land like a developer could, so it didn’t see that as its true amount.

“It’s not as simple as writing a check,” Kennedy said.

Following the meeting, Hamilton said the negotiations have dragged too long for what the school board set out to do. All the board wants is the full appraised value for the property so it can generate financing for a new home for the school district’s central office. It could open the sale up to sealed bids, meaning anybody could make an offer on the park. But the board has said from the beginning it wants the space to remain a public park, and the city should have first dibs, so it has extended the timeline for the city’s sake more than once.

The city of Coeur d’Alene suggested scheduling a public meeting between the board and council to discuss the matter in public, which would mean holding off on a decision even longer.

“Personally, that’s frustrating,” Hamilton said, adding that the request should have come sooner.

He said he couldn’t comment on terms of the offer until the board takes it up Monday, but said the board is following the intent of the law by seeking the full appraised value at the “highest and best use” to help fund capital obligations.

“That’s not anything the school district made up,” he said.

City records show that the city didn’t own the school district’s half of Person Field outright, despite the intent of the original agreement. The two entities agreed to joint use.

While the city touted its good history with the school district, tensions have been tight lately.

When Kennedy questioned Hamilton Wednesday night at the City Council meeting about a Facebook post the school board chairman made mocking the city of Coeur d’Alene’s decision-making on its McEuen Field project, and specifically Councilman Woody McEvers, the two argued until Councilman Ron Edinger broke it up.

“Do you think that comment ... was helpful?” Kennedy asked.

The post called McEvers a “perennial 70s burnout,” to which Hamilton responded he was writing sarcastically and that Kennedy has written unflattering posts about him.

The two agreed later to sit down and talk, but the city also suggested a public meeting between the board and council so the two sides can “air it out” in public, as Councilman Dan Gookin later put it.

“If there is any sniping, if there is any pent up personality things, we can get that out in the open,” he said. “We don’t want to undermine (a possible deal) because of personal reasons.”

But it could be too late for a public meeting from the school district’s perspective. On Monday it wants to decide whether to follow through with the city or send the property out to a sealed bid.

Part of the good working relationship the city has had with the school district includes reimbursing the school district nearly $1 million since 1993 for gym expansions, according to city records. Around four years ago, the city’s urban renewal agency extended the reach of one of its boundaries so it could pay for around $400,000 in Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades to Sorensen Magnet School.

Regardless of what has happened before, a deal needs to get done, Seddon said.

“This is a different board than years ago; it is what it is right now,” she said. “The school district owns the land, that’s just the reality of it, and money is tight.”

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