Houlton council ponders playground dilemma

HOULTON, Maine — Should the town of Houlton open up its playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts for public use?

That was the question once again on the minds of Houlton town councilors on Tuesday. The group originally broached the subject during a May 11 meeting.

The Just for Kids playground and physical fitness gear in Community Park, the swings and seesaw at Riverfront Park as well as the basketball and tennis courts at the Houlton Recreation Department are officially closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting Tuesday, the playgrounds at Houlton Elementary and Southside schools were both marked with “caution tape,” with a sign stating they were closed for public use. Tape was placed on the equipment upon recommendation by the Maine School Management Association, RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday said. 

A sign was placed at Houlton Elementary School May 26 stating the playground is officially closed to the public. (Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times)

The playground at Mill Pond School in neighboring Hodgdon has also been closed for numerous weeks. In contrast, playground equipment at Mantle Lake Park and Bicentennial Park in Presque Isle has no such tape closing the gear to public use.

Caution tape and temporary fencing has been placed on all of the town-owned sites in the Shiretown for several weeks, but that has not stopped some individuals from still using them, Marie Carmichael, director of Parks and Recreation for Houlton, said.

“The Pleasant Street [basketball and tennis] courts are posted with a sign that they are closed, but people continue to rip down the caution tape daily/nightly,” she said.

Each morning the town’s public works department replaces the tape and fencing at the Pleasant Street courts, Carmichael said.

Carmichael added there has been no communication from the state regarding the use of playgrounds. Instead she has been relying on the federal CDC guidelines, which recommend that type of equipment not be used at this time.

Carmichael suggested signs could be placed on the town’s equipment and courts, stating those that use the facilities do so at their own risk. Houlton Town Manager Marian Anderson said she was unsure if placing a sign spared the town from any liability.

Councilors Ed Lake, Chris Robinson and chairman Jane Torres all expressed support for the idea of lifting the playground restrictions, while Councilors Eileen McLaughlin and Sue Tortello expressed reservations.

“Unfortunately people don’t read signs,” McLaughlin said. “If these are at a playground, there will be little kids who are very unlikely to read these. I do know that a lot of kids go on their own without parental supervision. I don’t think that is enough. For me, this is a big red flag. Who are we putting at risk?”

“It’s summer,” Lake said. “We can do whatever, but the kids are still going to go play. My own personal opinion is to open things up and see what happens. You have to do something, sometime. We can’t stay closed up all summer.”

As the council chairman, Torres does not get to vote on agenda items, except to break a tie. But she still offered some strong opinions on the subject. 

“At some point people have to be accountable for themselves and their families,” she said.

The council did not vote on the playground decision, nor could they come up with a consensus on what course of action the town should take on the matter. The subject will be addressed a third time at the group’s next meeting on Monday, June 8.

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