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Eugene Weekly : News : 10.12.06

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Compelled to Action

How Golden Gardens' notorious 'drowning pits' got bucks in parks bond measure.

BY BEN MYERS

Golden Gardens Park, a 46.8-acre parcel on Eugene's northwestern tip, did not look much like a park in June. The land was mixture of prairie brush, unkempt paths, blackberry brambles and a crumbling road. Plastic bottles and cigarette butts littered the overgrown trails, and a storm drainage channel separated three large, debris-filled ponds. The only fresh sign of park-hood was an unfinished, quarter-mile bark jogging trail. Still, the sun glimmered on the calm pond water while birds and crickets out-chirped distant city sounds. It was easy to imagine that the park could be a gem someday.

A visit in early September reveals a new place: the grass is mowed, the brush is cleared, there are picnic tables and trash cans, and an emergency-access bridge straddles the drainage channel. These changes were driven by Friends of Golden Gardens Park, a citizen group that emerged last March in response to the drownings of two teenage cousins on Father's Day 2005.

 

The deaths of Nick Davis and Brittan Shephard-Davis were not the first at Golden Gardens. Although there are two other confirmed drownings, in 1994 and 2000, a long-time Bethel resident insists the number is much higher.

Dave Kleger moved into his house on Golden Garden Street in 1971 — three years before Lane County donated a nearby parcel to the City of Eugene on the condition that it become parkland. Kleger remembers when the ponds were gravel pits, operated by the county for road construction, which filled naturally with ground water once the county stopped mining. Kleger now thinks of them as "drowning pits."

"I don't like to call them ponds because that implies they're safer than they are," he says. He believes that drownings have occurred in the park every three to five years since 1974. "My best guesstimate is 14 to 17 drownings. My neighbor thinks it's 22."

There is no official count of drownings at the park. But parents have long warned their kids about the hazards at "the pits," which is how local teens refer to the park. The ponds are 12 to 16 feet deep and have steep edges, which make it difficult to climb in and out. The park is a notorious haven for transients and drug addicts. And there is a pattern of barriers to emergency access. According to a Register-Guard account of the drowning of 17-year-old Johnny Emory in 1994, police had to use a 12-gauge shotgun to open a gate for the ambulance. And the absence of an access bridge may have played a major role in the drownings of the Davis cousins.

Larry Shock, a Santa Clara fire medic who has worked for the city for 27 years, was among the responders who attempted to rescue the Davis cousins. Although the rescue operation would have been extremely difficult in any case, Shock believes it's "a safe assumption" that an access bridge would have cut the response time in half.

"Keep in mind we're carrying lots of resuscitation equipment, lots of search equipment. You've got to go down the bank, across the water, and back up the bank," he says. He notes that a bridge would have also helped the only witness, another young boy who suddenly found himself in an emergency. Instead, the boy was forced to exit indirectly through blackberry brush and overgrown paths.

"If the kid had been able to come back down the road, cross an existing bridge and get to the nearest phone, the information would have been fresher in his head," Shock says. "As it was, this kid is out of breath, he's tired, he's scared." Shock and his partner recovered Davis and Shephard-Davis' bodies approximately eight hours after the initial call.

There is no easy answer to the question of why nothing substantial has been done to improve the park's safety since 1974. Pat Farr, who represented Bethel on the City Council in 1994, brought the issue before the council after Johnny Emory's death. He says he was greeted mostly with "smiles," but that a "comprehensive response was missing."

"I think gross negligence has to be considered if it is known there is a very overt, obvious hazard. Just like any homeowner, the city should be responsible for the property it owns," Farr says. But he adds: "A city, county or state will never make its parks fully accident-proof. Where accidents can happen, accidents will happen. We've had drownings in wading pools."

A proposal for a privately developed golf course has been considered on two occasions, in 1992 and 2001. But that idea faded amid some community opposition and waning interest from developers. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to action is the fact that the City Council's institutional memory can't match that of a long-time resident like Dave Kleger, who says the issue has been brought before "many generations" of the council.

So it may be that the only solution for a hazard such as Golden Gardens Park is for a community to take the issue into its own hands. This is exactly what Bethel did after the deaths of the Davis cousins.

 

The Davis family spent the next year raising awareness through the media. Their efforts culminated in the creation of Friends of Golden Gardens Park (FGGP), an informal group of Bethel citizens determined to make the park safer.

Co-chair Mary Monette, a self-employed woodworker with spiky gray hair, was on her way to WinCo last March when, on a whim, she turned around to attend a meeting of Active Bethel Citizens. She had never before considered civic engagement, but she wasn't the only one who felt compelled to attend. By all accounts, that community meeting was emotional and chaotic. Monette rose above the fray to ask the right questions and insist that something be done, despite others' skepticism. And FGGP was born.

FGGP members attended City Council and budget meetings to make sure councilors were aware of the problem. "Consistently we had a dozen people show up for every meeting — with their kids sometimes, because they can't always get baby-sitters," Monette says. "Those suckers are tedious. I was in agony for many of them. But I would say there wasn't a slacker in the bunch. It was one of those rare times where everybody pulled their weight."

Nick Davis's eighth-grade classmates were an instrumental part of these efforts. Not only did they attend the meetings with their teacher, Jenny Sink; they raised money and built the bark jogging trail in order to attract more people to the park. "Every single one of the city councilors said 'I didn't even know,'" Sink says.

Jennifer Solomon, Bethel's current representative on the council, concedes that "it was never on anyone's agenda to do anything about Golden Gardens." She tears up briefly in recalling how the citizens made it impossible to ignore the problem. "This group was so well-organized and they came to every meeting. It was almost as if they were saying, 'We dare you to say no to us.'"

Determination paid off. Parks, Rec-reation and Open Spaces Director Johnny Medlin dedicated $50,000 from the parks budget for the new emergency-access bridge, and the council allocated $600,000 in emergency funds to re-slope the ponds' banks. But the biggest accomplishment was getting $1.4 million for Golden Gardens on the November ballot via the parks bond measure.

The parks department is now conducting a series of workshops with the Bethel community to flesh out a new look for Golden Gardens. At the most recent workshop on Sept. 20, a hypothetical proposal was put forth to add approximately 100 acres of ball fields, bike paths and perhaps a wildlife refuge to the park. The crowd was impressed. Mary Monette closed the meeting by thanking the parks department staff for their work.

 

Which is not to say the future is certain. Even if the bond measure passes, the kind of development envisioned by the parks department would be far costlier than the allotted sum. The $1.4 million in the bond measure would be mainly used for additional land acquisition; beyond that, Medlin says, a single restroom could cost about $200,000 and a playground, $100,000. But Medlin hopes that partnership funding and land grants could help close the financial gaps.

Everyone seems to accept that the park may not change much in the short term. But, with the likes of Mary Monette and others working in the wings, it's unlikely that Golden Gardens Park will be forgotten again.

 

 





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