Dotson Park

Park History


By the end of the Twentieth Century, the need for a community center in Danby had been recognized and discussed for at least forty years. The closing of the Danby Elementary School on Gunderman Road eliminated the last focal point for Danby youth. In the 1990s, the last of a series of community-supported childcare centers had to be closed. MORE...

Surveys carried out by the County Youth Bureau and by the Town of Danby Planning Board confirmed the wish for an adequate meeting place and a building dedicated to community activities. The Danby Community Council, then in a period of controversy over issues of organization and program, agreed about the desirability of a community center.

The Planning Board, speaking for the Town, ruled against the location of a site that was proposed as a donation, on the grounds that it was isolated from the Town centers and too limited in area for the purposes desired by the community.

A committee charged with finding an existing building to serve these purposes was unsuccessful.

The Committee Locates A Suitable Property

A new committee, constituted in 1999 by the Danby Community Council, undertook to find land on which a suitable building might be located. MORE...

Mary Oltz, who chaired this committee, drew up a comprehensive list of available properties in or near central Danby. She discovered early on that the choice was between limited house-lot size and properties of considerable acreage--45 acres or more, and the committee agreed to evaluate the larger properties. The goal was to supplement the community center with a park accommodating sports facilities--lacking in Danby since the school closing--as well as playgrounds and picnic areas.

At just this time, a 90-acre property of open meadows and woods in the very center of the hamlet of Danby, previously owned by "Duke" Johanson, was listed for sale for the first time. Its characteristics seemed to make it more adaptable than some of the properties already considered, and the committee agreed to submit it for the serious consideration of the Community Council.

The Council's officers, however, felt that land acquisition was beyond the scope of the organization.

Danby's Town Board was asked to consider public ownership of the property. It felt the need for more time to consider all the dimensions of a possible plan. Meanwhile, private offers for the land were forthcoming and it appeared that any delay would forfeit the opportunity of acquisition for public use.

The members of the committee decided to make a joint offer, with the idea of acquiring the land temporarily and eventually selling it to the Town. Somewhat to their surprise, their fairly modest offer was accepted.

In September 2001, three members of the original DCC committee became joint owners of a property intended for the use as Park containing a Community Center.

Obstacles Appear

This decisive action has been followed by an almost unbelievable series of hurdles that the members of the DCC committee had to overcome. MORE...

The parcel of land on which they had made an offer was owned by nine siblings, joint heirs of "Duke" Johanson. All had apparently agreed to put it up for sale but, at this point, one of them refused to sell. The other heirs were forced to take the matter to court. After almost a year, the court ruled that the sale could proceed…,but not privately. It had to be at public auction.

The DCC committee members, feeling threatened because a private bidder might acquire the land, attended the auction. They bid against the family members who were sympathetic to their purpose. Fortunately, there were no other bidders. The gavel price was just below the original offer.

Since the purchased land was "landlocked" behind residential and Federated Church properties, Mary Oltz's committee at the same time negotiated with one of the family members, Tom Johanson, for the purchase of a vacant house lot of just under an acre, that would give access to Route 96B.

With its possible importance for the local extraction of natural gas in mind, the family kept possession of the mineral rights under the property, with the assurance that no above-ground disturbance would be allowed.

One other possible disadvantage also remained: the eastern edge of the property was crossed by a gas pipeline. This, too, seemed to present no real problems, since the line was on the farthest edge of the woods.

The Danby Community Park Association Is Formed

The committee proposed a contract with the Town of Danby: the Town would take ownership of the land and the committee would set up an organization to develop it as a park and community center and would take responsibility for financing the project. The Town's attorney approved the contract. Danby Supervisor, Ed Inman, opened a bank account to hold donated funds for the community center and park. He used the name Danby Community Park Association. MORE...

Unfortunately, a staff member of the State Comptroller's office, one of the consultants to whom the contract was submitted, advised strongly against the Town taking ownership. The legal interpretation of fundraising, even by private citizens, for a Town-owned park conflicted with a prohibition against the Town government soliciting funds from its citizens. In other words, the proposed arrangement could only legally be supported by grants and Town taxes. Increasing property taxes to support of the Park and Community Center was not a viable option.

The Comptroller's Office proposed an alternative: a not-for-profit corporation. This corporation, using the name Danby Community Park Association was approved as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation by the Internal Revenue Service in 2002. Subsequently, New York Department of State approved it as a charitable organization.

The owners of the 90-acre property worked out a combination of donation and loan to transfer the land to the DCPA.

Funding Is Found; Volunteers Volunteer

Meanwhile, a proposal for funding was made to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.  MORE...

The proposal included

Students enrolled in a graduate landscape architecture class drew up a series of plans for developing the area. 

After a year passed without response from the NYS Parks Office, a slightly changed plan and application for funding was submitted by the new not-for-profit, the Danby Community Park Association.

In the summer of 2002, NYS Governor Pataki unexpectedly announced funding of the original request by Town of Danby. New York would provide $109,000, to be matched by the same amount locally. The Danby Community Park Association explained that the Town's application had been supplanted by its own request and asked that the funding be transferred to the new body.

The request was granted with only a minor delay. It seemed that the Park was on its way.

Volunteers cleared the entrance roadway through the Johanson property and cleared meadows of miscellaneous brush, accumulated trash, and abandoned equipment. They located routes of possible woodland trails, held public meetings to determine priorities in developing the community center/park project, and began the process of securing permits from public agencies. They visited the regional offices of the Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation who, in turn, visited the site and gave advice. Plans were submitted to the Town of Danby Planning Board.

The DCPA Board had meetings with staff from the local office of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who laid out the requirements for receiving the grant money.

New Problems Arise; the Park Changes Shape

Danby residents—and Danby's Planning Board—pointed out that the proposed entrance/exit was at a very dangerous location on NYS Rt.96B. MORE...

A curve in the highway limited visibility of the entrance and northbound traffic would approach at the full State speed limit. To receive a permit for creating the park, the entrance would have to be from the straight portion of the highway, north of the curve. 

The committee's efforts shifted from fund raising to solving the Park Entrance problem. In the end, the solution was not as simple as the purchase of more land. Instead, the park moved.

With the cooperation of a group that was assembling land for hunting, the committee proposed a land swap. The hunters purchased a 50-acre property across the highway from Danby's Town Hall that included a 200-foot frontage on NYS Rt.96B. This property was swapped for 50 forested acres at the eastern end of the park. Separately, an anonymous Danby resident donated funds to buy the 10 acres that separated the new property from the remaining part of the park.

The Community Center faced its own share of problems.

The NYS Parks Office funding could only be applied to "recreational facilities." As envisioned by Danby residents, a community center would have included space for the Danby Community Library and a childcare program. If these or other "non-recreational" components were included, the DCPA Board was told, the community center would have to be outside the park. NYS funding could not be applied to any aspect of the community center.

In response, a 5-acre area in the new addition to the park area, facing Danby's Town Hall, was set aside from the Park to accommodate a community center.

As Yet Unedited Text • Written Around the Turn Of The Century

Much of the DCPA Board effort since the completion of the land acquisition and the separation of the five-acre property for the community center has been devoted to fulfilling (and financing) the New York State pre-conditions for receiving the grant from the Office of Parks. These included, apart from maps and narratives explaining all the land transactions and the submission of all the legal documents for each transaction, agreement to a conservation easement protecting the park property in perpetuity, appraisals of the property in its first stage and again after the new additions, the financing of an archeological survey to ensure that required land disturbances would not destroy valuable historical evidence, a new wetlands delineation and storm-water disposal plan. Of the last items, only a preliminary wetlands survey was completed in 2006, and a new survey and plan are now in process.

The boundaries of the park and of the separate area for the community center seem to be firmly established after the complex process outlined above (see the attached map). A positive result is that the resulting property has a closer relation than the original plot to the other central sites of the Danby hamlet: the Town Hall, the Danby Federated Church, and the Danby Fire Station. A downside has been the need for the access road from the highway to the recreational areas of the park to be much longer (and much more costly) than the original property would have required. A further problem arising from the complex process of land-acquisition and disposition has been an unexpected delay in the actual payment of the state grant money. The state agencies must of course be absolutely assured of the DCPA title to the park property. But the very complexity of the process, and perhaps an oversight by our lawyer, has had the result that the state Office of Parks and the Office of the Attorney General have sensed a puzzling incompleteness in the legal records submitted, and occasional confusions as to which stage of the land acquisition was represented by some of the records. All these had to be clarified before we could receive any funds, a situation especially damaging because we were paying interest on a loan (as recommended by the state representatives) to finance the access road being built last year. Finally, after a frustrating exchange of telephone calls, e-mails, and indirect personal communications over 2 years, the state office is assured of having the complete documentation of the park land. We hope soon to have the funds granted in 2002.

The next phase of the Danby Park and Community Center project is the planning of the community center building, which is being undertaken pro bono by the architect serving on the board, Deborah Adams. The DCPA board has adopted a resolution to make the building as "green" as possible, using alternative energy sources and environmentally sensitive materials. The physical dimensions and design of the building will depend on the results of current analysis of the soil and the location of wetlands in the five-acre site set aside for it. The program and the construction phases will be determined in consultation with Danby residents and Danby organizations.

The expenses incurred by the Danby Community Park Association since its formation in 2001 comprise the acquisition of all the different parcels of land now united in the park and the separate 5-acre plot for the community center, legal, surveying, and appraisal expenses (with generous pro bono services donated by a lawyer who took over after the formation of the not-for-profit association), the cost of the archeological survey, and finally, the considerable expense of the access road completed last Spring, on which a balance is due which will require some of the money from the state grant. Various stages of land clearing and some plantings have been generous donations of volunteers. Apart from donations, mostly anonymous, of over $200,000 from members of the Danby community, donations of professional services, and several thousand dollars from local fundraising activities and the value of volunteer work onthe property, the DCPA has received grants ranging from $500 to $25,000 from the Rotary Club, Tompkins Trust Company Smith Fund, the Howland Foundation, Tompkins County's Office of Planning, and Senator James Seward, and has applications pending from various other grant agencies, legislators, and government bodies, directed for the most part to site analysis and preparation for the community center. A major grant for the building of the community center is currently being sought, and a local fundraising effort to accumulate the matching funds required for major grants is projected for 2009 and beyond.

An annual meeting of the DCPA on June 14, 2009 presented the proposals and needs the project to the Danby residents, who are collectively the members of the not-for-profit corporation. At that meeting the board of the DCPA solicited feedback on proposed programs, and elected a new revitalized board. The efforts of the past leadership were recognized, new Board members were elected and a sense of community was built. We are grateful for the Triad Foundation for making a community-wide invitation/solicitation possible and to the American Legion for hosting the gathering. We seek volunteers to help in all aspects of Park and Community Center development. If you are interested in participating at any level, contact any member of the Board of Directors.

Adapted from a narrative written by park founder, Esther Dotson.