I just spoke with Willis Winters, assistant director of Park and Rec, about the potential sale of Samuell Farm and how it landed on the board's agenda this Thursday in the first place. Says Winters, it actually came up when the City Attorney's Office was asked to prepare docs regarding City Manager Mary Suhn's proposal to sell Elgin B. Robertson -- a plan two years in the making, per a proposal put before the council's Economic Development Committee in the summer of '08.
City officials figured, well, if Robertson (on Lake Ray Hubbard) was going to be sold, maybe it was time to look into parting with two of W.W. Samuell's donations to the city, including both the farm and Samuell New Hope Park.
Says Winters, city officials looked at all of the city's parks outside the city limits proper to find land "we might potentially consider for sale in the near to distant future." And the Samuell properties, used by Sunnyvale and Mesquite, were at the top of the list -- despite the fact that when Samuell bequeathed them to Dallas upon his death in '37, he did so with the stipulation that the city never sell 'em.
"We've had to close down Samuell Farm because of budget woes," Winters tells Unfair Park. "We actually took over the farm at one point, but we had to withdraw our staff and maintenance from the farm. The gate is open for people to go on there and fish and picnic -- I don't know if anyone is locking or unlocking it every day -- but there is no park presence at the farm, unfortunately."
As I mentioned this morning, selling the Samuell properties won't be an easy sell: The city not only has to put it before the voters on November 2, but there will also be a public hearing on the subject on October 13. Meanwhile, the Texas Attorney General's Office has to sign off on the deal, and a court has to OK the city altering Samuell's trust to even let the city move ahead with sale if and when the city decides to put a price tag on the mammoth piece of land.
"And if it doesn't work out, obviously it won't be on the ballot," says Winters. "But we thought it was right timing-wise. This isn't something we do often, if ever -- go to the voters to sell park land. We've gone thorugh all the parks in the system and determined if there's any potentiality for any sale in the future., we wanted to get that approval now. And that doesn't mean we'll sell any of Samuell Farm even if we get the approval, but it will give us the opportunity if it does arise."
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Winters says no one has ever offered to buy the land. But with Park and Rec about to have its budget cut even more and with park maintenance about to get trimmed way back -- even City Manager Mary Suhm acknowledged in an interview with Unfair Park late last week that they could get "pretty ratty looking" -- everything's on the table. Especially those parks being used by other cities.
"This is the worst budget situation we've ever been in, including the early 1980s," says Winters. "I'd like to see Samuell Farm stay a partk, whether it's ours or another city's. It's truly beautiful land -- rolling hills, ponds, a good forest canopy. I would hate for that not to be used for a park in the future, but whether it's feasible for the city to do that, it's not looking that way right now."
The city will also have to consider this one small problem: Selling Elgin B. Robertson and a piece of Joey Georgusis Park to a developer near Pinnacle Park probably wouldn't have been much of an issue with voters if just those two parks land on a November 2 referendum. But the addition of the Samuell properties to the ballot could muck things up for the city: The farm has its fans (and Friends), and they're a vocal bunch likely to raise holy hell if the city tries to part with it. Which means Robertson and Georgusis could find themselves in the city's inventory if voters reject the Samuell sales, even if they are, in the word of First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers, "conceptual" at this point.
"That's something we need to take a close look at," Winters says. "We don't want to jeopardize the two that make sense. There's a lot of value to Elgin B. Robertson, but it's mostly used by Rowlett and Rockwall residents. But it's also a potential development site with a lot of tax revenue and property value to somebody in the future. That makes sense. And linking those two with Samuell is something we're got to take a close look at. We're not making any commitments. We will take input and listen closely to any discussion and make the right decision, I hope, at some point before a November referendum."