School Dazed 

Harding Academy battles angry neighbors for park space

Harding Academy battles angry neighbors for park space

It is, at first glance, an ordinary public park—a few basketball courts, a playground, some grassy fields, and a paved track that lazily meanders around the perimeter. But the seven-acre Parmer Park, located on the fringes of Belle Meade, is once again the site of a bitter brawl between nearby Harding Academy and neighborhood residents. For the second straight year the elite K-8 private school is asking the Parks Board for a permit to reserve part of the field for its athletic programs, a request that has turned this otherwise placid community into the Haight Ashbury of West Nashville.

“We welcome Harding to use this park on the same terms as everyone else,” says resident and attorney Carter Todd, who has crusaded avidly to preserve the park. “They should not, though, be able to kick everyone else out.”

Harding officials say, however, that at least some residents are being unreasonable. “We have been misrepresented and vilified by a small minority of neighbors,” says Dewey Branstetter, a former member of the school’s Board of Trust, father of two sons at Harding, and interestingly, a former law school buddy of Todd. “For whatever reason, they want the park to be their own backyard and personal green space and are unwilling to share it with their community.”

Stating that they wanted to retain the peaceful, easy feeling of Parmer Park, nearly 150 residents last year signed a petition in favor of maintaining the park as a non-reservable recreational area. For a while at least, they had the powers-that-be on their side. After initially granting the school permission to use the field—half of which resides in their city limits—Belle Meade’s three commissioners reversed course and voted to keep Parmer a non-reservable park. Charles Fentress, the area Council member at the time, lent his considerable support to the neighbors as well.

Finally, Jim Fyke, the director of the Parks Department, delivered a staff recommendation to the Parks Board that they not allow Harding Academy to reserve the park on an exclusive basis. Earlier the board had initially sided with Harding.

“The general public is overwhelmingly against Harding’s original request,” stated the report. “We feel the board has no other choice but to rescind its previous action thereby allowing the park to continue being utilized on a ‘first come-first serve basis.’ ”

But despite the opinions of the City of Belle Meade, the area Council member, and the Parks Board’s staff, the Parks Board, perhaps swayed by some behind-the-scenes lobbying, surprisingly voted 4-1 to allow Harding to reserve the park for its practices and games. The board stipulated that this arrangement last for only one year and that the academy pay for nearly $50,000 in improvements to the upper-field part of the park where the games and practices would be held.

And so here we are today. The parties remain angrily polarized, both taking nearly the same exact stand as they did one year ago. The school wants its boys and girls soccer and girls softball teams to have exclusive right to the park during fall and spring afternoons while the neighbors say nobody should be able to reserve a public park for private use.

“I have looked at this for two years,” says Fyke, “and I don’t see how there is any middle ground here.”

Officials at Harding Academy point out that they’re only asking to reserve the park for just a little over two hours a day, nearly 14 weeks a year. They contend that during the time they use the park (typically from 3 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. or so), nobody is using the recreational area anyway. Finally, the school points out that they paid good money to flatten the rocky three-acre upper-field portion of the park, a move that benefited not just their athletic teams, but the entire community.

Still, many of the neighbors contend that the sloping field, while imperfect for athletic contests, was ideal for a neighborhood park. “We didn’t want the field leveled,” says resident Beth Sulkowski. “You had kids flying their kites, riding their bikes, it was just fine the way it was.”

Harding headmaster Donald Schwartz laughed when a reporter told him that some of the neighbors didn’t think the field is upgraded. “The park has been improved as we see it,” he says. “If you have a leveled surface as opposed to one with holes in it—which do you think is better?”

Regardless of whether the school did, in fact, make the field better for everyone, Harding rankled the area’s already irritated residents when the academy took nearly nine months to complete the improvements to the upper field. All during that time, the field remained covered in mounds of dirt and was essentially out of use.

Last summer, Belle Meade’s three city commissioners fired off a letter to the Parks Board decrying the dusty state of the park. “The failure of Parmer Park to meet its proposed schedule is of grave concern to us as commissioners of the City of Belle Meade,” noted the letter, “as well as a matter of disappointment and frustration to all who enjoy the park.”

The neighbors also say the small streets around the park can’t absorb the traffic that comes when one of Harding’s teams hosts a home game. One resident has game-day pictures showing tight lines of cars parked on the both sides of the road, heavy traffic in between, and one oblivious kid biking alongside. “The number one problem is the danger factor,” says resident Macalister Anderson. “Once a child is hurt, there is no undoing that.”

Branstetter says that even on game days, the school’s use of the park didn’t hurt the neighborhood. “Sure there was more traffic,” he says, “but did I think it was dangerous? No. Was anybody inconvenienced? No. This is all simply an excuse they give for the park not to be used (by us.)”

The seven-member Parks Board is to vote on Harding’s request for the park permit on Dec. 7. Once again, the board will face considerable political pressure to reject it. Newly elected Council member Lynn Williams says she wants the park to go back to being a non-reservable recreation area. She says that calls from her district run a whopping 12-1 in favor of denying the school a permit. In addition, Belle Meade Mayor Peggy Warner says the city is also opposed to letting Harding or anyone else use the park on a reservable basis.

But the neighbors also worry about whether the school will use its political connections to lobby the board on its behalf. Fentress says Branstetter especially, who served on the Metro school board for nearly 10 years, may have more than a subtle influence on the process. “Dewey Branstetter knows his way around the politics of boards and commissions,” says Fentress.

Branstetter, whose father Cecil helped draft the Metro Charter, does have some interesting ties to the board. One member, Ed Kindall, rents office space from the Branstetter family while former board chair Eddie Bryan, who did not vote in last year’s debate, is close to the family as well. “Did I talk to Eddie Bryan? Yes I did, but he did not vote,” Branstetter says. “To say that we lobbied him is humorous.”

Branstetter, however, does acknowledge that last year he talked to several members of the board because he felt that Harding’s side of the story was “not being represented.” Considering how vocal the neighbors remain, he might want to keep those lines of communication open.

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