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The Arlington Park and Recreation Commission is gathering data that could be used eventually to determine a potential fee for public park use by private entities -- and some residents and business owners have expressed alarm at what this could mean.

 It may seem to be a new controversy, but it actually relates closely to a two-decade-old Arlington policy; the town established in 2004 that the town had the right to regulate group use of park space.

Moreover, any future fee assessed likely would be “nominal,” officials say.

It’s been a hot topic of local conversation over the past week or so, including on the Facebook page of the Arlington List, at more than 18,000 participants the biggest and busiest Arlington-oriented social-media site.

 “I’m concerned that the permitting costs of this will trickle down and inflate childcare costs for parents in Arlington. Maybe even worse, it could discourage cost-sensitive preschool programs to use the town’s outdoor spaces,” local parent Brian Dowling told YourArlington earlier this month. “There could be some sad calculus where preschools would have to decide whether it was financially worth it to bring kids outside to public playgrounds in any given month. A lot of preschools don’t have their own outside space.”

 Dowling mentioned the financial reality that many young families face. He said that according to an article from Jan. 21, 2023, in The Boston Globe titled “Eastern Mass. has some of the highest childcare costs in the US,” families are already facing a substantial amount of financial burden and that “parents in Middlesex and Norfolk counties pay the third-highest child care prices in the nation.” Arlington is in Middlesex County.

Town’s longstanding basis for regulation

Per the 2004 Selectmen’s Report to Town Meeting, “A permit is required for all organized groups to utilize a playing field. The Parks and Recreation Department may issue such permits as it deems appropriate with reasonable regulations.” (Select Board members, until relatively recently, were referered to as Selectmen regardless of their sex or gender identity.)

Under section 4, the report also mentioned that “The Board supports a refashioning of the Town’s Bylaws relating to the use of Park and Recreation Commission property. It is not the intention of the Park Commission or the Recreation Department to unduly restrict the use of Town fields, but rather, it is only intended to permit the department and commission to use this permit process in order to assert more control over inappropriate use.”

Joseph Connelly, director of the town’s Parks and Recreation Department, said: “Having private preschools or any private school that uses town facilities pay for use is nothing new. This recent effort is an attempt to formalize this permitting for private school use of our parks and playgrounds.”

He emphasized that the policy “is not for occasional use. If an organization is using a town recreation facility (park, playground or playing field) on a regular basis as part of their normal activities/curriculum, we are asking that they obtain a permit.”

Number of schools, amount of hours

The Park Commission is collecting data to make a decision on future fees. Specifically, as of now, the commission simply is gathering information on the numbers of preschools and the amount of hours each preschool uses public parks.

“This assessment will allow the commission to make decisions on whether or not to try to space users over the course of the day and whether to charge a nominal fee for park use, which would be earmarked for park maintenance,” said Joan Roman, spokeswoman for the Town of Arlington. “Upon gathering of all necessary data, the Park Commission will hold additional conversations at a future commission meeting,” she said.

For his part, Connelly further explained that “The thought process is that these are private organizations using public facilities as part of their daily or regular curriculum in a manner which could exclude public use. Some local preschools even advertise town playgrounds on their websites as part of their facility offerings. If the Park and Recreation Commission does assess a fee, fees collected could be used to support playground maintenance.”

He continued, “I do want to emphasize that the intent of this policy is not to put a financial burden on any of the private schools/preschools/businesses in Arlington. The reason the commission is not setting a fee at this time is to gain more information. If they choose to set a fee, this information will help them set a reasonable fee for all.”

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This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Crystal Lin, based on input from local residents and town officials, was published Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.