When Playing Fields Collide 

Residents fight to keep park public

Residents fight to keep park public

When Parmer Elementary School closed in 1983—a victim of the white flight that accompanied the desegregation of Metro schools—local residents fought vigorously to keep out the developers and maintain the 8.25-acre school site as a community park.

For the past several weeks, area residents have been battling again. They’ve been struggling against an Oct. 6 decision made by the Metro park board that gave Harding Academy, a private school in the neighborhood, exclusive use of a portion of the park for its soccer and softball teams. Residents, however, want to keep the park open to the general public. It is, they argue, a ”public“ park, not a private playground.

The fight over the future use of the park has split the genteel neighborhood. It has raised fears, spawned rumors, and left Harding Academy with fewer friends than it had just a few months ago. Even a former member of the Harding board whose child graduated from the school in 1994 told the private school’s headmaster at a recent public meeting that she was ”embarrassed as an alumni parent“ at the actions taken by the school. The school’s actions, she added, have ”angered so many people.“

The furor has also provided work for attorneys and a public relations firm. Margaret Behm has been hired by Harding Academy, while Cyrus Booker is representing Friends of Parmer Park. The Ingram Group, a PR firm, is trying to work out a compromise.

It all began when Donald Schwartz, the Harding Academy headmaster, and Dewey Branstetter, a former Metro school board member and now a member of the Harding board, sought permission to reserve a portion of the park for soccer and softball practices and home games. The school, located near the intersection of Harding Road and Harding Place, is squeezed into a tiny parcel of land, which is problematic for its athletic teams.

The school faces other land-use challenges: the two-lane Harding Place that leads to the school is often jammed with HOV’s at opening and closing time, creating an underlying frustration in the neighborhood that has likely fueled the park controversy. School officials are also trying to get a special exception from zoning restrictions that would allow them to build a multi-purpose facility on the campus, another move that has heightened neighborhood fears about growing enrollment and worsened traffic congestion. Harding, however, also hopes to create a new perimeter road inside the campus that would add about 30 parking spaces and alleviate some of the current parking and traffic problems.

Branstetter says the idea of using Parmer Park for its play space is not new. In fact, he says, Harding once had a football team that played its games on the field. But attorney Carter Todd, who has orchestrated much of the opposition to the Harding plan, says his group wants to make sure Harding’s use of the park is on the same terms as everyone else.

”The neighbors want Harding to use the park whenever they want to for practices on an unreserved basis,“ Todd says. ”It’s just that they don’t want Harding to reserve it to the exclusion of others.“ Todd says he has received numerous calls from people in West Meade and Green Hills who use the park and are also concerned about Harding’s plan.

Harding has dealt with its limited athletic space in the past by carrying students to Warner Park, which is about 10 minutes away, for practices and games. But this past year, the school used Parmer Park for its practices. Everything seemed to go well, so Branstetter and Schwartz met with Metro Parks Director Jim Fyke to inquire about using the park on a reserved basis for both practices and games. Fyke says he had concerns about traffic and safety problems during games and was reluctant, although Branstetter remembers him being supportive. In any case, Fyke told Schwartz and Branstetter that their appeal would be strengthened if Belle Meade commissioners gave the proposal the green light.

So Schwartz and Branstetter approached then-Belle Meade Mayor Scott Fillebrown—a former Harding Academy board member and grandparent of a Harding student. The school stated its desire to make improvements to the park. In return, the school asked for exclusive, limited use of the field. (Specifically, they wanted two hours each afternoon from late September to mid-November, and again from early March to mid-May.) Within 10 days, the Belle Meade commissioners had approved the proposal, and the city manager had notified Fyke.

Fyke was surprised at the commissioners’ decision, but on the basis of their approval he gave Harding the go-ahead. He also asked for a specific plan that he could take to the park board. When the plan came forward, it included about $75,000 in improvements the academy would make to the park, and was approved by the park board on Oct. 6. Belle Meade commissioners now say they had no idea such an extensive plan was going to be presented.

On Oct. 28, Harding hosted a neighborhood meeting at a private home to which about 65 residents living around the park were invited. The school wanted to outline the proposed plans and give the neighbors a chance to critique them. Branstetter says he left the meeting knowing there were some concerns but not sensing any vigorous opposition. But before long the public outcry began. Leaflets were distributed, calling on neighbors to fight Harding’s proposal. Todd organized Friends of Parmer Park as a nonprofit corporation and public meetings were hosted to inform the neighborhood of Harding’s plan.

Branstetter says a lot of the fervor that has been generated was based on things that just weren’t true, and he believes ”some people have chosen to perpetrate those rumors in order to generate opposition to what we’re trying to do.“

”I’ve heard that we were buying the park, that we were going to tear up the jogging track, that we were going to tear down the playground equipment, that we would put in permanent stands and lights for night games,“ Branstetter says. ”If I heard all those things, I’d be opposed to it too.“

While the gossip circulated, residents worked to gain a re-hearing of the issue before the Metro park board. Faced with the community opposition, Harding began to scale back its plan considerably—no irrigation system, no new backstop, and no new baseball diamond. But when newly-elected Belle Meade Mayor Peggy Warner appeared at a Dec. 8 meeting of the park board to request a re-hearing of the issue, it appeared that Harding had dug in its heels. Warner was surprised to find that Harding had hired an outside attorney, who presented a detailed, legal brief. Warner had arrived without legal counsel and without prepared comments.

”You had a very effective attorney there, and I wasn’t prepared for that,“ Warner said to Donald Schwartz, the Harding Academy headmaster at a recent public meeting. ”At that point, I changed my tune about Harding Academy.“ Warner’s comment brought sustained applause from the 80 people in attendance.

Branstetter says that Harding was not the first side to dig in its heels. ”They drew the line, we didn’t,“ Branstetter says. ”And it was, åYou cannot use the park the way you want to use it and have games. We don’t want any improvements to the park, period.’ We made compromise after compromise to work this out, but finally we reached a point where we said we weren’t going to compromise with ourselves anymore.“

At this time, Harding plans to simply level the open space for a soccer field, an effort that is already under way. But their plan, which still has the approval of the park board, includes reserving the field for 12 soccer games and six softball games each year, and that remains a point of contention for many local residents.

After fielding numerous phone calls and holding a public meeting on the issue, the Belle Meade Board of Commissioners reversed its earlier endorsement of Harding Academy’s use of the park for games, while still approving the school’s unreserved use of the park for softball and soccer practices. Based on the commissioners’ reversal, Fyke recommended that the park board rescind its earlier decision, but the board rejected Fyke’s recommendation at its Dec. 8 meeting by a 3-2 vote. But sometimes reasonable people can find a middle path. And at this point, the two warring sides are trying to find some common ground to resolve the bitter conflict that has divided the neighborhood for weeks.

On Friday, the two sides met and agreed to work toward a joint resolution that can be presented to the park board as a final settlement. ”What we want to do is start a precedent for the park and a process for how to continue to keep Parmer Park a community park,“ says David Berndt, a recent unsuccessful candidate in the Belle Meade commissioners’ race who agreed to help find a solution to the conflict.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and the resolution has not yet been drafted. But Berndt says he’s ”optimistic“ following Friday’s hour-and-a-half-long meeting. For his part, Fyke wonders if a middle ground is out there.

”I hope they find one, but I can’t imagine what it possibly could be at this point,“ Fyke says. ”I think Harding thinks they have compromised, based on what Harding was originally granted.“

Meanwhile, for those with long memories, the whole controversy is not without irony. For them, Harding’s proposal to claim part of the site for its own is simply the full completion of a process that began when the private school opened its doors in 1971, the year court-ordered busing for racial balance began.

At that time, Parmer Elementary School stood on the site that is now the city park. Parmer School supporters watched their once proud and vibrant school die slowly as the nearby private school diligently recruited neighborhood children away from the neighborhood public school. For those folks who remember, Harding’s proposal is like the final nail in the coffin of a public school that was buried long ago.

”I just think it’s sad that Parmer School is not still sitting on that site,“ one resident commented during a recent public meeting on the issue. ”If it were, we wouldn’t even be having this controversy.“

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