Allegheny County Comprehensive Parks Master Plan

Draft Policy Framework

INTRODUCTION

This report presents a policy framework designed to set the overall direction for the future development of the Allegheny County parks system. Consisting of a mission statement and goals and objectives, the policy framework is intended as a draft for review and discussion at the June 22 Parks 2000 Committee meeting. It will be revised based upon the input received at that meeting. A number of sources were taken into consideration in developing the framework. These sources include interviews with persons with an interest or stake in the county parks system; input received at a series of public meetings and a Parks 2000 Committee meeting held in April 2000; and a review of previous policy documents pertaining to the parks system. It is expected that the policy framework will be further fleshed out and refined based upon the mail survey, inventory, and needs assessment to be completed by the consultant team during the next several months.

Based upon the above sources, several major issues have been identified that need to be addressed in the plan. These issues can be grouped into four general categories as described below:

  • Recreation
  • Natural and Cultural Resources
  • County-wide Open Space
  • Management and Financing

Recreation
The common bond that unites all park users is their enjoyment of recreational and leisure activities. These activities are incredibly diverse, ranging from active sports such as soccer and tennis to specialized pastimes such as BMX racing and model airplane flying, from concerts and other special events to informal pursuits such as picnicking, walking, and nature enjoyment. Recreational activities and facilities in the parks have proliferated over the years, often in response to requests from particular interests. This trend is likely to continue in the foreseeable future as new leisure activities become fashionable and local municipalities experience increasing pressures to provide recreational opportunities for their constituents. It is evident that a clear policy statement is needed to define the role of the county parks in providing recreational facilities and programs for county residents. Moreover, given current budgetary constraints and deferred maintenance issues associated with existing park facilities and infrastructure (see Management and Financing below), choices will be need to be made regarding the County's ability and willingness to fund development of new facilities.

Natural and Cultural Resources
The primary distinguishing feature of a regional park system such as Allegheny County's is its size and the predominance of natural areas that provide the setting for recreational and leisure activities. The county parks contain diverse natural features such as woodlands, steep slopes, streams, and lakes, and are also rich in cultural and historic resources. The input received to date indicates that residents place a high value on the natural and cultural environment of the park. At the same time, current uses and demands for additional recreational facilities are impacting or have the potential to impact sensitive environmental resources.

County-wide Open Space
Dating back to the initial establishment of North and South Parks in the 1920's, planning for the county parks system historically embraced a county-wide perspective with respect to the provision of parkland and open space. This perspective is reflected in the expansion of the parks system in the 1960's to encompass the regional parks and in the 1977 Comprehensive Parks, Recreation & Conservation Plan, which emphasized the need to preserve natural resources and open space throughout Allegheny County. In contrast to the "expansionist" policies of the 1977 Plan, current county management is directed towards operation and maintenance of the nine individual parks, with little or no provision for further expansion of the system. The current perspective is understandable given fiscal constraints and the development that has occurred throughout Allegheny County in recent decades, which has resulted in high land values and a scarcity of available large parcels.

Mirroring current county policy, citizens' comments at the April public meetings were focused primarily on their experiences as users of the individual county parks. Nevertheless, some citizens raised broader questions regarding the preservation of open space and natural resources throughout Allegheny County. The idea of linking the county parks to a county-wide system of greenways and open space was also prominently mentioned at the April meeting of the Parks 2000 Committee. Addressing this concept will require examining the relationship of the county parks to regional open space initiatives such as the Greenways Plan, Conservation Corridors Plan, Riverfront Policy Plan, and Regional Trail System Plan.

Management and Financing
The analysis to date reveals that issues related to management and financing are key to the future of the county parks system. Based upon the input received at the April public meetings, park users are particularly concerned about the level of maintenance of aging physical facilities, infrastructure, and grounds. Raising maintenance standards and addressing deferred maintenance needs will require the investment of additional resources by Allegheny County, as will any new initiatives that may come out of the Comprehensive Parks Master Plan,such as development of recreational facilities or establishment of connections to a regional greenway network. Given current budgetary constraints, securing adequate funding to support the future operation, maintenance, and development of the parks system will be a critical factor in successful implementation of the plan. A related question is whether the existing organizational structure and day-to-day management system will be adequate to guide the county parks system in the future, or whether a modified or new structure and system should be created.

A number of other issues will need to be addressed in the Comprehensive Parks Master Plan.Additional issues identified at the April public meetings include, among others, vehicular circulation and separation from bicyclists and walkers; education; publicity and communication of information regarding the parks system; the involvement of volunteers in park activities; and safety and security. Nevertheless, the above four categories can be used to establish a broad conceptual framework for organizing and addressing the complex issues that will determine the future of the parks system.

The remainder of this report presents a draft policy framework that has been designed to respond to the above issues. It begins with an historical overview of the policy statements that have guided development of the county parks system since its inception. This overview is followed by a proposed new mission statement that defines the role of the parks system in the lives of Allegheny County residents. Finally, a series of goals and objectives proposed to guide county actions in fulfilling the mission statement is presented.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The Allegheny County parks system was founded in the 1920's when a county commissioner, Edward V. Babcock, advocated the preservation of rural lands in their natural state to counter the rapid urbanization that was occurring at the time in Allegheny County. In Babcock's words, the Department of Parks was established in 1927:

(for) the purpose of establishing, making, enlarging, extending, operating, and maintaining public parks within the county and for enforcing rules and regulations established by the county for patrons.

This statement set the philosophical direction for the County to acquire, develop, and manage a system of parks for the enjoyment of county residents, beginning with North and South Parks.

The largest parks in the system, North and South Parks, were established and largely developed in the 1920's and 1930's. The next phase of expansion of the parks system came with the acquisition and development of the seven regional parks. From 1958 to 1974, 7,586 acres were acquired, increasing the size of the park system from approximately 4,000 acres originally included in North and South Parks to nearly 12,000 acres. The first master plan for the parks system, the Allegheny County Comprehensive Parks Recreation and Conservation Plan, was completed in 1977 following this era of major expansion. This plan assumed as a basic premise that the park system would continue to expand:

The Parks Department has been operating on a "rule of thumb" standard of 10 acres per 1,000 population. Applied to the 1970 population of 1,600,000 people, approximately 4,000 acres of additional park land has been targeted as a goal. Thus, land acquisition continues to be an important part of the Department's capital program.

The 1977 plan set forth a comprehensive policy framework for the provision of parks and recreation and the conservation of open space and natural resources in Allegheny County. The goal of the plan was stated as follows:

To identify and protect land and waters within the County for establishing a system of open space preservation, to provide a balanced system of outdoor recreational opportunities for all segments of the County's population, and to portray environmental quality as an integral component to guide County development.

The role of the County in the provision of parks, recreation, and conservation services was defined as a major issue of the plan. The plan stated that Allegheny County should:

Provide facilities, services, and programs that are Countywide in scope, serving needs greater than one municipality but less than the State; that are compatible with the needs of all segments of County citizens and within the fiscal capability of the County; and recognizing changing needs and opportunities as well as current and past County policy programs.

The plan stated that Allegheny County should provide "regional parks, programs, and services that are beyond the capabilities of local government and which serve all or large segments of the County's population." The park system should focus on "the conservation of outstanding natural areas and the provision of recreation opportunities related to the natural environment and which are of a size or scale beyond the capabilities of municipalities to provide." While it is "appropriate for County government to provide region-serving sports complex and other activity centers,"the County should not "build, own, maintain or pay for recreation facilities which serve the day-to-day needs of neighborhoods or municipalities or to provide facilities in County parks primarily to meet those needs."

The 1977 Plan included three major elements. All three of these elements transcended the boundaries of the nine parks that make up the parks system. The first element, "Conservation," addressed the identification and protection of natural resources throughout Allegheny County. The second element, "Expanding the Recreation Environment," identified rivers, trail systems, and historical, cultural, and architectural preservation as important to recreation and open space in Allegheny County. The third element, "Parks & Recreation," involved the acquisition of land and waters and provision of facilities and programs for recreational purposes.

The Allegheny County parks system has not increased appreciably in size since adoption of the 1977 Plan, indicating a shift away from parkland acquisition and other broader policy issues towards a focus on operating the nine individual parks. This shift is reflected in the "Operating Philosophy" of the Allegheny County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Conservation, the predecessor to the Department of Public Works in managing the county parks:

Parks
The Department acts as the manager of County owned properties designated for use as park sites. The Department is charged by the Commissioners to guarantee the integrity of the parks property through thoughtful planning and management of resources and promoting programs, activities, services and facilities.

Recreation
The Department develops, manages and brokers recreational and cultural programming.

ConservationThe Department promotes conservation by providing educational programming and opportunities for hands on experience.

MISSION STATEMENT

The following mission statement for the Allegheny County parks system was first presented at the April meeting of the Parks 2000 Committee. It has been revised to respond to the comments made at that meeting and to be consistent with the conceptual framework established in this report. The statement maintains the emphasis of the 1995 Operating Philosophy on management of the nine parks while introducing the concept of a county-wide open space system.

The mission of the Allegheny County Parks is to enhance the quality of life and well being of Allegheny County residents through a regional parks system that:

  • Provides quality landscapes, facilities, programs, and special events that meet county-wide needs for leisure and recreation on behalf of the diverse segments of the community;
  • Conserves natural and cultural resources while offering educational programs and opportunities for hands on experience;
  • Forms an integral part of a county-wide system of open spaces, greenways, and trails; and
  • Contributes to the economic vitality of the County.

The County will accomplish its mission through a responsive and efficient operational structure that:

  • Fosters a parks staff that is qualified, motivated, and customer oriented, whose skills are competitively compensated, and whose achievements are recognized;
  • Maintains facilities and landscapes in a safe and attractive condition;
  • Builds partnerships with public agencies and private businesses, non-profit organizations, and citizen volunteers; and
  • Optimizes financial self-sufficiency within the context of the parks service mission.

GOALS AND OBJECTIVES

The following goals and objectives are designed as a policy guide for Allegheny County decision-makers in fulfilling the mission statement presented above. They are structured around the four general issue categories defined in the introduction:

Goal 1 (Recreation) follows the policy lead of the 1977 Plan in its emphasis on serving county-wide needs as opposed to the local needs of neighborhoods and municipalities.

Goal 2 (Natural and Cultural Resources) addresses natural and cultural resources from a park system (rather than county-wide) perspective and introduces the idea of formally designating natural areas within the parks for preservation.

Goal 3 (County-wide Open Space) addresses the potential role of the county parks in a larger, county-wide network of open spaces and greenways. This goal raises questions regarding the County's role in implementing regional open space initiatives such as the Greenways Plan and Regional Trail System Plan and the extent to which it wishes to commit resources to such initiatives given current fiscal constraints.

Goal 4 (Management and Financing) covers a number of complex issues associated with managing, operating, and funding the parks system, including organizational structure; staffing; maintenance; public and private sector partners and volunteers; public outreach and communications; safety and security; and financing. Included is a policy (Objective 4.5) that again highlights the issue as to whether the County should pursue acquisition of new parkland and development of new facilities, or whether the focus should be on maintaining existing facilities and infrastructure. Objective 4.10 calls attention to another issue: to what extent should the County attempt to recover the cost of operating facilities through user fees as opposed to emphasizing the provision of affordable recreational opportunities for residents? To address this issue, the 1977 Plan stated that:

Fees and charges should be used to offset a portion of the costs of special facilities which incur specific operating costs not common to the operation of the entire park Fees should be low enough or so structured that they do not inhibit facility use by low-income people.

GOAL 1: RECREATION
A regional parks system providing Allegheny County residents with recreational opportunities that are related to the natural environment and/or are of a size or scale beyond the capabilities of municipalities to provide.

Objective 1.1
Provide diverse recreational facilities, programs, and special events appropriate to a regional parks system, including:

  • passive/unstructured facilities and activities, such as trails, picnic groves, and informal open spaces, that allow residents to enjoy the outdoor environment and natural setting of the parks; and
  • active/structured facilities and programs, such as sports complexes, activity centers, and special events, that serve county-wide needs. These should not include facilities designed primarily to serve the local recreational needs of neighborhoods or municipalities.

Objective 1.2
Provide well-designed, well-maintained physical facilities and infrastructure to support the recreational functions of the parks system, including:

  • Facilities located and designed in accordance with consistent guidelines that respect the character and resources of individual parks while establishing a unifying identity for the parks system;
  • Circulation systems that provide safe and convenient access to/through the parks (including public transportation) while separating different modes of travel (e.g., vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians);
  • Efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sound utilities (water, sewer, restrooms, etc.) as required to support park activities; and
  • Facilities that comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

GOAL 2: NATURAL AND CULTURAL RESOURCES
A regional parks system that preserves natural, historic, and cultural resources.

Objective 2.1
Designate, preserve, and restore significant natural resource areas within the parks system.

Objective 2.2
Identify, preserve, and restore significant historic sites and buildings and other cultural resources within the parks system.

Objective 2.3
Ensure that construction, maintenance, and other activities protect natural and cultural resources within the parks by integrating resource preservation into project planning and programming and training parks personnel in these issues.

Objective 2.4
Increase public awareness of natural and cultural resources in the county parks through public educational and interpretive programs (see also Objective 4.7).

GOAL 3: COUNTY-WIDE OPEN SPACE
A county-wide system of open spaces interconnected by greenway corridors and trails.

Objective 3.1Working with public and private sector partners, connect county parks to a county-wide system of greenways, trails, and conservation corridors.

Objective 3.2
As part of the county-wide open space system, preserve stream corridors, wetlands, unique habitat areas, and other areas identified as priorities for conservation.

GOAL 4: MANAGEMENT AND FINANCINGA regional parks system with a management and financing structure that supports its mission.

Objective 4.1
Establish an organizational structure for managing the county parks system that is designed to maximize effectiveness in achieving the Goals and Objectives of the Comprehensive Parks Master Plan.

Objective 4.2
Provide a qualified, motivated, and customer-oriented staff sufficient to manage, operate, and maintain the county parks system.

Objective 4.3
Adopt a strategic plan with adequate funding to address the results of years of deferred maintenance of county parks and recreation facilities.

Objective 4.4
Adopt a maintenance management plan defining procedures for the upkeep of parks and recreation facilities. This plan should be designed to lower maintenance costs while sustaining natural processes, conserving energy, and reducing waste.

Objective 4.5
Adopt a policy governing the acquisition, disposition, and development of county parkland, based upon the following principles:

  • Acquisition of new parkland should be considered where appropriate to conserve important resources adjacent to existing county parks, connect county parks to the county-wide open space system, and/or preserve resources of county-wide significance;
  • Existing county parkland should not be disposed of for non-park related uses unless new parkland of equal or greater value to the county parks mission is acquired; and
  • New facility development should be considered where appropriate to fulfill the county parks mission, provided that it is financially viable and is sensitive to the character and natural setting of the park.

Objective 4.6
Maintain regular coordination and pursue cooperative partnerships with governmental agencies and private organizations with an interest in the county parks and county-wide open space and recreational issues.

Objective 4.7
Implement an active public outreach and marketing program consisting of the following components:

  • Dissemination of information on county parks and activities through a variety of media, including maps and signage to direct persons to the parks and enhanced materials and signage at the parks;
  • Educational and interpretive programs and opportunities for hands on experience of natural and cultural resources in the parks; and
  • Involvement of citizen volunteers, schools, and other groups in park activities such as maintenance and improvement projects.

Objective 4.8
Integrate measures to promote safety and security into the design, management, and operation of county parks and park facilities.

Objective 4.9
Secure adequate funding for the development, operation, and maintenance of the county parks system, including existing facilities and facilities to be developed in the future, as required to achieve the Goals and Objectives of the Comprehensive Parks Master Plan.

Objective 4.10
Manage and operate programs and facilities to improve the cost recovery performance of the county parks system. Cost recovery performance should be a factor in considering development of new facilities and programs.