Organized sports banned at Erlanger park: ‘I’m just baffled’

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Erlanger City Council recently voted to uphold an ordinance that would ostensibly ban organized sports at Flagship Park. The ordinance has those for and against it involved in an ongoing dispute over how exactly the park was intended to be used.

“I hate seeing residents who live so close to each other are being pitted against one another,” said Joe Niedlander, coach of the cross country program of Blessed Sacrament Athletic Boosters.

Niedlander made this statement sitting in the dining room of his house in Taylor Mill the weekend before March 21’s meeting of the Erlanger City Council. On March 7, the council surprised him, as well as several others in attendance at the meeting, when they voted down an ordinance to allow organized running groups at Flagship Park, a secluded city park nestled between the Deer Chase and Lakemont neighborhoods in Erlanger.

Coach Joe Niedlander speaks at the March 7 meeting. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

Since last summer, Niedlander has found himself in the unenviable position of trying to resolve a conflict among Erlanger residents surrounding the use of Flagship Park.

The park has become the flash point of a conflict between some residents of the Lakemont and Deer Chase neighborhoods and members of the Blessed Sacrament Cross-Country team, a conflict that has trudged along since at least August of 2022.

The dispute revolves around the question of organized sports in the park. A city ordinance from 2010 officially prohibits organized sports of any kind in Flagship Park. Yet, the Blessed Sacrament team has been using the park for cross-country practice for about five years without incident.

Several Erlanger residents want the ordinance to stay in effect. But others want to revise city ordinance to allow organized running groups, such as the Blessed Sacrament team, to use the park.

“It’s so crazy that we’re having this conversation,” said Mayor Jessica Fette at a council meeting in November. “It wasn’t even coming from a complaint.”

Although called the Blessed Sacrament Athletic Boosters, the group is not directly administered by the Blessed Sacrament School in Fort Mitchell or the Catholic Church. Instead, it’s run by community members who want to furnish athletic activities for local students whose schools don’t have dedicated sports programs.

Many of the students come from in and around Erlanger, including the two neighborhoods Flagship is sandwiched between.

The trophies earned by the Blessed Sacrament cross-country team in 2022. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

Niederlander began his involvement with the booster program about 10 years ago, when his daughter was a student at Blessed Sacrament.

The cross-country program started with only about 15 students but has since grown to nearly 100, although Niedlander said only about 40 to 50 students show up to each practice.

The team competes at meets throughout the region, but no meets have ever taken place at Flagship.

Originally, the team practiced at Freedom Park in Edgewood for about five years but started practicing at Flagship when the team’s numbers increased. Flagship’s wide, paved walkways provided an ideal training surface for the long-distance running the sport entails. Plus, its secluded location meant the team didn’t have to worry about car traffic during practice.

Flagship Park’s paved walking paths provide an ideal surface for cross-country practice. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“It was going to be no organized activities,” said Thomas Trimpe at the council meeting on March 7. Trimpe is a resident of Deer Chase and served on an early committee for planning the park before it was built.

“The park was designed specifically for that,” Trimpe said. “Smaller parking lots, no lines on the fields, no anything.”

Thomas Trimpe speaks at the meeting on March 7. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

The park’s initial design called for a larger area with facilities for several organized sports, including basketball and baseball. However, power lines prevented the construction of many of these features. The city eventually revised the designs to include two parking lots, each containing about 15 spots on either side of the park.

“We as neighbors, we didn’t report [the team] because for years it was just a few kids,” said Scott Meiners, Deer Chase resident, at the council meeting. But as the numbers increased, some of the residents in the two subdivisions feared that the presence of team could set a bad precedent, and that allowing one team could prompt other sports organizations to try and use the park for practices or games, which they argued would overwhelm the park and make it unsuitable for visitors not associated with organized sports.

“I’m just worried about it taking over the park,” Meiners said later in the meeting. “We have 50 kids there. That’s a lot of people.”

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He concluded by encouraging the council members to vote no on the proposed change in the ordinance before taking his seat.

Parks and Recreation

According to several sources who spoke with LINK nky in late summer of last year, one of the team’s Tuesday practice sessions overlapped with a city-administered yoga group that had reserved space in the park.

The two groups had not interacted in the past, but a last-minute weather-related rescheduling had caused the city’s activity to conflict with the team’s usual practice time. The city employee managing the group approached some of the team’s parents and informed them of the 2010 ordinance, adding that the team’s presence was getting in the way of the city’s activity.

Niedlander did not witness the exchange but got a phone call the next day from city staff, informing him that his team could no longer practice in the park. He then called a meeting with the parents to discuss what to do next. Both the parents and Niedlander began reaching out to city council members and the mayor.

Eventually, the team was granted the right to finish out the rest of the season at the park, so long as Niedlander obtained a field permit and kept it with him while the team practiced.

Council members brought the matter before the city council in October to discuss possibly amending the ordinance to allow Blessed Sacrament to practice. Early meetings heard public comments both for and against changing the ordinance.

In November, the council decided to table votes on the change until after the 2022 election, although a report from city administrator Bill Wulfeck stated that the city’s department of public works believed it could handle maintaining the park in the event Blessed Sacrament was granted an exception.

City ordinances require two public readings before a council vote, and City Attorney Jack Gatlin recommended refraining from reading an ordinance between two different councils.

Erlanger Council Member Jennifer Jasper-Lucas at the March 7 meeting. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“I personally, as a parent, would feel a lot better about my child running in a park versus on a sidewalk,” council member Jennifer Jasper-Lucas said at the meeting after Thomas Trimpe commented.

Other council members described the reasoning behind pitching the exception to the ordinance.

Council member Rebecca Reckers, who eventually voted in favor of the ordinance, said that the council had considered numerous factors in the revision.

“We looked at complaint data, we looked at historical complaint data, and there wasn’t anything at all with regard to these kids,” Reckers said.

Public records corroborate this. According to a public records request submitted by LINK nky, of the five complaints made to the city related to juveniles in the park since 2018, none of them pertained to the team.

“We took all of those factors into consideration when we crafted the ordinance changes,” Reckers added.

Other council members opposed the ordinance, although many expressed ambivalence about it.

“I see both sides,” Council Member Vicki Kyle said, adding that she had no personal animosity toward Blessed Sacrament and favored having a safe place for students to run, at least in the abstract.

In the end, though, she agreed with many neighborhood residents.

“I don’t want to open up Pandora’s door to other problems,” Kyle said.

Council member Tyson Hermes also opposed the ordinance amendment but for different reasons.

Pictured from left to right: Council Members Diana Niceley, Tyson Hermes and Vicki Kyle at the March 7 meeting. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“I feel like the amendment is far from perfect,” Hermes said. “I think it does deserve a little bit more discussion… The law is potentially forever and can outlive all of us. A running group in 20 years may not be as respectful and well-organized [as Blessed Sacrament].”

Council Member Diana Niceley, meanwhile, felt compelled to vote against the ordinance based on the conversations she’d had with constituents, even though she too expressed reluctance.

“I’m a mom and grandma, and I can appreciate keeping the children safe,” Niceley said.

But, she said, “I also need to respect the home-owners of Deer Chase… I’m very torn on this.”

“I proposed the changes back in November,” commented Council Member Reckers.

Council Member Rebecca Reckers at the March 7 meeting. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“I’m a Lakemont resident,” she went on to say. “I’ve talked extensively with the parents of the children… These are Erlanger kids. They live in Trails of Doe Run. They live in Lakemont. They live in Bright Leaf. They go to many schools within our community and home schools as well. It’s an opportunity for them to be off the street and in a safe environment.”

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Council Members Tom Cahill and Jennifer Jasper-Lucas also spoke in support of the ordinance amendment. Then the mayor called for a vote.

Three voted in favor. The rest voted against.

“Motion failed,” said Mayor Fette.

Still Running

“It’s definitely more scary,” said Maggie Durrett, an eighth grade runner on the Blessed Sacrament Team told LINK nky, when asked to compare running on a street against running in Flagship.

“I just feel like it’s more, like, pressure on me to always be aware of my surroundings and be more aware,” she added, “but when I’m at the park, you can just have fun.”

Maggie and her father, Joe Durrett, spoke at the Nov. 15 council meeting and were deeply involved with the efforts to keep the team at the park.

“They have a love of running and knowing how great it is for them regardless of time,” Joe Durrett said.

Joe Durrett is an advocate not only for the Blessed Sacrament group but also for the sport of running in general.

Pictured from left to right: Maggie Durrett and Joe Durrett. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“I’m an avid runner myself,” he said, “and probably run about 50 miles a week through Erlanger roads.”

“I look up to my dad a lot, and when he started running, I just kind of wanted to try it,” Maggie said. “It was when I was littler, so I kind of wanted to try everything to see what I liked. So I saw that my mom and dad were runners, and it looked fun to me.”

Maggie started running seriously in 2019. Coach Niedlander described her as a team “leader.”

“[I] can attest to how dangerous it is crossing intersections where drivers aren’t paying attention,” Joe added. “And then you multiply that with kids that are 8, 10, 12 years old. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The Durretts did not attend the meeting on March 7, but like many in the audience that night Joe was “shocked when I heard the council switch their minds and decided the kids weren’t allowed to run the park.”

Based on his interactions with the city council, both in and out of public view, he was confident they would vote in favor of amending the ordinance.

“I was led to believe the council was on board, and everybody was okay with it. We had a follow-up meeting where a couple of the other parents came and attested to that meeting about the need and value of why that park’s so safe to run in, and what I continued to hear from the Deer Chase residents that live next to the park is [their] concern was only about the parking,” said Joe Durrett.

Parking has been one of the repeated worries of the residents in favor of keeping the ordinance unchanged.

Teresa Conley, a Deer Chase resident who also spoke at the Nov. 15 council meeting, expressed this worry when she said, “I don’t want to be the person who calls when we have organized sports because they’re parking up and down the streets, and we can’t get in and out of the drive way.”

Scott Meiners speaks at the council meeting on March 7. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

Several other residents spoke at the meeting, expressing similar worries about parking and the possibility of organized sports pushing out normal parkgoers. Despite these worries, most people who expressed opposition did not direct displeasure or criticism at Blessed Sacrament itself.

“We’re concerned about just the removal of everything in the ordinance,” said Scott Meiners at the same meeting in November, “what that’s going to bring in the future.”

“It’s a city-owned park,” Joe Durrett asked rhetorically in March. “Why can’t our kids run in a city-owned park? Why do the residents have to approve kids running in a city-owned park?”

He went on to say that he felt “betrayed by the council because they led us all to believe it was a done issue and resolved and the kids would be allowed to continue to run.”

In Niedlander’s dining room, the coach reflected on how the dispute seemed to drag on.

“I wish I had some, you know, profound wording, but I don’t,” said Niedlander. “I’m just baffled.”

He said he can see both sides of the argument and has already begun researching alternatives to Flagship at parks in Taylor Mill and Edgewood in case the dispute doesn’t go the team’s way in the long run.

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He admitted that finding places to practice has become a challenge. The sport has grown in popularity over the last decade. At least ten novel elementary and middle school cross-country programs have sprung up in the last decade in the Northern Kentucky region alone.

Still, he said, “I’m not angry. I’m just taken aback by how this has all come about. I don’t like all the attention that it’s bringing. I don’t like the fact that parents are upset. I don’t like the fact that, you know, a city council has to deal with this. I mean, there’s so many more things that they should be really focused on.”

Niedlander emphasized that he has tried to act cordially and professionally throughout the whole experience, not only to resolve the issue quickly but also to set a good example for the students.

“We want strong independent, young people being able to make decisions,” he said. “If we’re able to help them along the way, by running or giving this booster group the means to learn Christian values, to learn how to handle yourself in public, you know, how to do it fairly, how to do it professionally; that’s all you can hope for.”

The Home Stretch

Council member Tyson Hermes gives a presentation at the March 21 meeting. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

The city council took up the issue again at the caucus meeting on March 21. Council member Hermes presented a PowerPoint slide show explaining why the group should be allowed to run in the park without changing city ordinance.

In his presentation, Hermes made the following arguments: The city ordinance prohibits organized team practices and games at Flagship Park, not exercise generally.

The language that dealt specifically with Flagship Park came about to curtail the potential for endemic noise, crowds and parking problems in the area, a decision that followed an incident in 2010 (he did not give specific details about the incident).

The previously voted-down ordinance amendment would have placed untenable pressure on the city clerk’s office, which would be responsible for enforcing the reservations in the park. Blessed Sacrament Cross-Country did not meet the definition of an athletic team under city ordinance because they did not hold competitions in the park. Therefore, Blessed Sacrament was allowed to use the park under current ordinance.

He concluded by saying that the “carve-out”–i.e., the exception that would have been created for running groups in the voted-down amendment–would have been an inadequate solution to resolving the issue of organized sports throughout all of the city parks. Instead, he recommended employing the city’s park task force to critically assess the ordinance as a whole and then propose a more well-thought-out revision that would address the issue city-wide.

Council member Niceley and Council member Kyle both complimented Hermes on his presentation and claimed that their minds had been changed since the previous council meeting. Council member Renee Wilson, who voted no at the previous meeting but had not spoken on the issue, also agreed.

“I just want you to know that our children–and I include our children–,” she said, indicating the council and audience members, “are more important than grass and concrete.”

Toward the end of the meeting, council member Renee Skidmore posed a question to the audience.

“I would like to know from the audience that’s attended the meeting tonight if they’re happy with this,” she asked.

Shouts of “yes” and “no” came from the back of the council chamber, where parents, residents and Coach Niedlander were all sitting.

“You’re splitting hairs!” said Thomas Trimpe in reference to Hermes’ arguments.

Chatter arose from the chamber seats. Mayor Fette attempted to speak over the noise of the crowd.

“The next…” she began to say, waiting for the talk to die down. “The next meeting will be at the Parks Task Force at 5:30 at the Public Works Facility.”

Erlanger Mayor Jessica Fette at the meeting on March 21. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

Someone asked to speak.

“We’re not doing public comment at this meeting,” Mayor Fette replied. “Do I have a motion that we adjourn?”

Two council members quickly made the motion and a uniform chorus of “aye” followed.

“Motion carries,” Mayor Fette said. “Have a good evening.”

In the back of the room, attendees, familiar faces of parents and residents, continued the exchange that began on the grass of Flagship in August.

Coach Niedlander stood to off to the side alone, observing quietly.

Flagship Park at sunset. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

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