Columbia City Council members, residents voice concerns on child play zone ordinance

The city of Columbia’s new ordinance to designate child play zones within city parks got mixed views from City Council members and residents at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Jeff Caton, director of Parks and Recreation, told Columbia City Council that the process to establish a child safe zone would have to be initiated by a neighborhood association or organization before a request would be sent to city staff and council for discussion and review.

The request also would come up for public input before it is sent to City Council for approval, Caton said.

Caton explained that a consequence of the ordinance is that some parks were acquired by the city through federal land conservation grants that have stipulations that must be met to receive the funds.

If a child safe zone interferes with requirements — primarily that a park does not exclude the public — to maintain the grant funding, City Council would have to build a new park based on the appraised value of the affected park.

Roy Lynch Park, which is the center of much of the conversation surrounding the ordinance, is one such park that receives federal grant money.

“It would be wise for us to make sure many people will be involved in the process but recognize that not all neighborhoods are the same,” Caton said.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said she was not aware of the land grant stipulation — known as conversion — until recently and argued it would put responsibility on the city to acquire land to build a new park

“It’s not as clear and cut and dry as some people would like to make it,” she said.

There were also concerns from residents in the Elmwood neighborhood that Roy Lynch Park would be designated completely as a child play zone, which would eliminate the ability of people older than 12 from using the park.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said he had not heard that discussed and was not in support of it and that he thought the conversion process did not significantly affect the goal of the ordinance.

City Manager Teresa Wilson said her staff could look at the language of the ordinance to ensure parks like Roy Lynch would not lose federal funding. She also said that it should not be up to city staff to come to consensus about designating a zone.

Several residents spoke against the ordinance, citing concerns about their ability to enjoy the park as well as the notion that only neighborhood associations could petition for a child play zone.

“I understand and appreciate child safety,” said resident Clayton King. “But these are public places maintained with public funds.”

Cheryl Meyer, a 34-year Elmwood resident, said the resources used to enact the ordinance could be better used to prevent what caused it to be established in the first place.

Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, agreed.

“Let’s address the thing that could make a difference right now,” Randolph said.

Councilman Sam Davis said the point of the ordinance was to ensure the safety of the children. He reiterated that if there was no consensus for a child safe zone, then it would not be established.

“I don’t think that we would totally bar people who normally walk, sit and recreate to the point that they can’t come to the park,” said Davis. “It’s a designated area for the children.”

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