Council Agrees To Pull Back Berlin Park Ordinance; Staff Comments Annoy Councilman

BERLIN — A new ordinance for park rules and regulations in Berlin is headed back to the drawing board for some tweaks after a lively discussion, including one elected official reminding staff members their job is to carry out policy dictated by the council.
During the public hearing on a new ordinance, which creates new guidelines for the town’s parks, local personal trainer Pamela Green asked whether she would be able to continue to conduct group exercise programs in Stephen Decatur Park. Green does not hold all of her sessions in the park, but told the council that the people she trains specifically enjoy working out there.
“I think that’s what is so great about our park is that we’re promoting fitness,” said Green. “We have these wonderful fitness stations and we’d just like to be able to use them.”
Working out with usually less than a half dozen people, Green said she causes a minor impact on the park and does her best to stay out of the way of other patrons.
“If I see someone walking over to the tennis courts, I move as far away as I can, I move over to the grass, I go over to the wooded area,” she said. “I do everything I can to not cause problems because obviously we love it there.”
Green has been working out with clients at Decatur Park for several years and had received permission from former Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward to do so as long as she was not advertising it and posting signs. She even inquired about the need for a business license and was told it was unnecessary.
But with the town looking to implement a new ordinance that would restrict use of the parks for business-related activity without the “express written permission of the Mayor and Council,” Green decided to make an official request Monday.
The council initially seemed to only want Green to make her request in writing. But Councilman Dean Burrell revealed that he was opposed to Green using the parks to train others. As a personal trainer with paying clients, he didn’t feel that Green should be allowed to conduct any of her sessions at Decatur Park.
“I’m on record as being opposed to for-profit making individuals utilizing public facilities for their personal gain,” said Burrell. “I’m going to have a problem with this and when you bring that request here you can expect me to vote no. I don’t think that it’s right.”
The rest of the council was less hardline. There is a big difference between a business selling goods or services in the middle of the park and a trainer helping people exercise, said Mayor Gee Williams. The parks are there for people to be active, he added.
“The parks, of course, we want to be very safe and also conducive to activity, the more the merrier,” Williams said.
Perhaps more important than personal opinion on business in a public space is the question of enforcement of any rule forbidding a trainer to hold sessions in a park, according to Dave Engelhart, planning director for Berlin.
“This is an extremely hard thing for enforcement … I have a feeling, people would think, ‘here’s that stalker again,’” he said.
Attempting to keep trainers out of the parks would basically fall back to the honor system, Engelhart continued, with officials stuck asking people who are exercising together if money is changing hands or if it’s just a group workout.
“I don’t believe there’s any provision in the zoning ordinance to prohibit that activity. Parks are for the public use. People pay taxes and reside in the town,” he said. “As far as the license as a vendor, I could see that if someone wanted to sell ice cream sandwiches or balloons in the park while the kids were there.”
Resident Laura Powell, who trains with Green, took much the same line.
“My tax dollars pay for me to go to that park,” she asserted, adding that if she hires Green on occasion to help her train while at the park that’s not something the town should be involved in.
Dave Gaskill, the town’s attorney, agreed that the town should be cautious in how it approaches the situation and that if Green is forbidden from training in the park it would be an enforcement nightmare.
“I think we’re searching for problems that we don’t have. And, as Dave [Engelhart] said, there’s no way to figure out whether the ordinance on the table is being adhered to or being violated,” said Gaskill.
Burrell responded in a hard tone after hearing from Gaskill and Engelhart, warning them that if they can’t find a way to enforce the council’s decisions they shouldn’t be working for the town.
“Another point I’d like to make to Dave and staff that are in this room: this is a policy making body and it is your responsibility and staff’s to enforce the policies that are made here,” Burrell said. “And if you feel yourself a stalker or you feel you don’t have the ability to enforce the policies made by this group you need to move along because this is the group that decides on what you will enforce and what you will not enforce, and I think that’s clear.”
The mayor, however, was more open to the town staff’s concerns over enforcement.
“I don’t even know if it’s even practical to try to control activities versus the exchange of goods and services … Does that mean that everybody else can exercise in the park except for personal trainers?” the mayor asked.
In a bit of a bizarre juggle, the ordinance was passed by a 4 to 1 vote with Councilwoman Paula Lynch opposed and then repealed within five minutes, also by a 4-1 vote, with Burrell opposed. Councilman Troy Purnell made the motion to repeal after learning that, even if Green was granted permission to continue training at the park she would be required to get a $25 per month vendor’s permit, which he found overly expensive given the circumstances.
By the end of the meeting and with the original ordinance both passed then immediately repealed, the council has decided to work with Gaskill and staff in better defining the language before re-introducing the bill at a later date.
Green also asked that some consideration be given to another specific rule in the ordinance that would prohibit bikes from the parks except in designated areas. She said earlier on Monday evening there were parents working with their children on riding bikes along the path.
Berlin Police Department (BPD) Chief Arnold Downing, however, advised against tampering with that language, as it is actually an older rule and BPD officers will make judgment calls when they see people biking and are not likely to cite a parent with a toddler ridding a tricycle in the park. The rule is mainly just to prevent large scale or aggressive biking that could damage the park, said Downing.