Commissioners back park plan
The Derrick, 1/31/02 By LISA THOMPSON
 
A special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted

In an action that reflected the community's own painful lack of consensus, Venango County commissioners in a rare split vote Wednesday authorized Parks Unlimited Inc.'s development plan for Two Mile Run County Park.

Commissioners Bob Murray, a Republican, and Deb Lutz, the lone Democrat on the panel, endorsed the plan.

Larry Horn said no.

With the vote, the commissioners inked into record a planning document that envisions modest development at the park in the next five to eight years, including 15 to 20 cabins, Swiss Family Robinson-like treehouses, a small equestrian stable and environmental education center.

Once those improvements are made, the plan leaves open the possibility of developing a lodge, conference center and restaurant, but only if market conditions and funding allow.

The plan, which also contains policies governing the management of natural resources at the park, is designed to take the place of the last master plan drawn up in 1982. It will serve as a guide to shape future development of the park, as past plans have. Each project discussed in the plan would require additional approval from the commissioners before it is executed.

Reading from a prepared statement prior to casting her vote, Lutz said she feels residents do not want to support the park with tax dollars. The solution lies in being "creative and yet prudent in what we offer," she said.

"(The Rudegeairs of Parks Unlimited Inc.) have my trust, my gratitude and my very strong belief that our park, Two Mile Run County Park, will under their continued leadership and guidance continue to evolve into a thriving, fun-filled family recreational spot that can be enjoyed by anyone who visits."

Murray said he had listened to the opinions, pro and con, in meetings two years ago and throughout the process. In the end, he said he sided with a 15-year-old high school student who wrote him a letter telling him "to go for it."

"What is so far-fetched about the notion that people would want to come here for a vacation?" he asked.

Addressing opposition to aspects of the plan, Murray noted that his job was to exercise judgment and adhere to the "two core beliefs of his candidacy" - tax restraint and job creation.

Quoting philosopher Edmund Burke, he said:

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

But public opinion was what Horn said he based his vote upon, and he said his vote was a matter of respect.

"I've heard from a lot of people from small to medium to elderly," Horn said. Most who contacted him were not from the so-called ad hoc group who organized in opposition to the plan, he added.

"It was your ordinary people going to Wal-Mart," he said.

Some wanted the plan in total, some wanted none of it, he said. Some were worried about the introduction of alcohol at the park. But a majority fell in the middle, advocating some improvements but opposing the lodge, conference center and restaurant. With those elements still in the plan, Horn voted no.

"My hats are off to everybody whether you agree or disagree," he said. "It's just a part of American life."

The vote brought to a close a more than two-year effort to craft a new vision of the park's future so that it may be mostly self-sustaining.

And it followed an emotional hours-long standing room only session in which residents made their last pitches for and against.

The park now operates under a public-private partnership. Ironically, Wednesday's crowd divided almost uniformly and about evenly along that line.

A handful of private residents including a real estate agent, attorney and businessman spoke out in favor of the plan and in support of Parks Unlimited and the Rudegeairs. One childhood friend of Ann Rudegeair said she was speaking as "the girl next door."

With cabins, treehouses, education and recreation, the plan sounded like a healthy plan for the preservation of the family, she said.

Another woman speaking in favor of park development said she owns property in Venango County and "over the border" in New York. Apparently referring to Chautauqua, she said she knows of a place in New York where a conference center is booked two years in advance.

Many others who endorsed the plan work in the public realm for economic development and tourism promotion agencies.

From the Oil Heritage Region to the Venango Economic Development Corp. and the Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, all said development envisioned in the plan could help the local economy and draw visitors to the area. They applauded Parks Unlimited for its imagination and effort.

Prominent local real estate agent Dale Wilson noted there have been hundreds of master plans adopted but few realized in Venango County. "It's a vision," he said. Citing the Bible, he said, "Without a vision the people will perish."

"We need to have a vision and be progressive and save this county," he said.

Opposing aspects of the plan were a group of businessmen who organized against it two years ago.

They reiterated that they support developments such as the cabins but said they still object to the prospect of a lodge, conference center and restaurant that would compete with private business owners.

"Take that out and we're done (with the debate)," Clinton Hepler said.

Titusville area lumberman Rodney Bedow suggested the commissioner lease park land to Parks Unlimited and allow them to privately develop the resort complex. That way the county would be shielded should the venture fail.

In addition to these men were others who had not appeared at other meetings. One of them, Mary Emanuele, told the commissioners she practically raised her five children at the park, using it for camping, cross-country skiing, and fishing. She said she opposed the idea of a conference center because she felt it would ruin the family atmosphere.

"My opinion is scale it down," she said.

A young man told the commissioners he and his friends use the park a great deal. He asked them not to change it.

The comments were mostly genial and some on both sides made an attempt to recognize the efforts of the other side.

Franklin city employee Bill Beith said he supports the plan.

"But I also support the people who are against it. It makes everybody keep their pencils sharp," he said.

Oil City Mayor Malachy McMahon issued a call for unity.

"I think we desperately need for all of us to pull together," he said.

But tensions remained evident. Former county planner Ed Adams and Franklin Community Development Director Tracy Jamieson took the so-called ad hoc committee to task for a recent opinion piece they published in the newspaper. The pair said the ad hoc group misrepresented their positions.

Members of the opposition chided those in the public sector who came out to support the plan.

"If I had my paychecks coming in from the backs of the taxpayers, I'd support it also," Herb Crawford said.

And in an emotional address, Ann Rudegeair told the crowd she does not oppose disagreement but has been deeply upset by what she felt to be personal attacks leveled by the opposition.

Her daughter, she noted, felt those people needed to take the anti-bullying class she was taking in school.

She defended Parks Unlimited's record.

"I believe we did a good job," she said, noting the plan represented the work of a "whole lot of people."

"I am excited about the possibilities and ask you to act for the future of the county with or without the Rudegeairs," she said.