In the Arlington community of Maywood, there is a slightly overgrown park and a substantial neighborhood debate over how best to spend $15,000 on the park--or at this point, whether to spend the money at all.
"The real question here is not what to do with the money," says Maywood resident Gregory DePriest, "but why we have it in the first place when we don't really need it."
Maywood got its $15,000 from the Arlington Neighborhood Conservation Bond Fund, a program financed by county bonds and highly touted by county officials as a way to give residents a chance to decide for themselves what their neighborhoods need most.
But in Maywood, a group of about 40 homes off Lorcom Lane in North Arlington, residents seem unable to make any decision, and what began as a well-thought-out plan to create a small neighborhood park has developed into a major neighborhood dispute. DePriest, for one, is tired of the contrversy.
"If it were up to me," said DePriest, "I would just throw a hell of a block party, spend all the money and that would be the end of that."
To begin with, Maywood got $75,000. Part of the money was to be used to buy land for a community park and part to landscape and develop the park.
Those plans fell through when another parcel, known as Thrifton Hill Park, was donated to the county by the state as part of the I-66 construction through Arlington.
Then the community decided to buy a neighborhood house and convert it to a community center. But the community later decided to reject that plan after negotiations to buy a house fell through and after some residents questioned the need for a community center.
Last September, after nearly three years of discussion, Maywood neighors failed to agree on any major project and voluntarily returned $60,000 of the grant money to the county.
At the same time, the neighborhood voted to use the remaining $15,000 to build a basketball court at Thrifton Hill and to do additional landscaping.
But last week, after a public meeting on the plan, the basketball court was rejected too, sending the neighborhood back to square one: What to do with the money.
After the 53-to-29 vote to reject the basketball court, the chairman of a Maywood committee formed to look into uses for the money said the committee would circulate questionnaires among neighbors and possibly come up with plans to use the $15,000 by the end of the summer.
"This whole things is sort of crazy when you think we're racking our brains thinking up a use for this money when there have to be things in the county that really need funding," said DePriest, who opposed the basketball court. "It is crazy to give tax money to the people and say use it or lose it. That simply creates conflict among neighbors and leads to uses that may not be desirable, or even needed."
Officials in charge of the conservation program do not seem to be as dismayed as DePriest by the Maywood problems.
"Having controversy is part of the democratic process, a healthy part of the process," said Diane Meier, executive secretary of the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee. "This is the democratic way of doing things."
The Maywood money came from a $1.7 million bond issue approved by county voters in 1977. The purpose of the conservation program, Meier said, is for neighborhood organizations, with county approval, to determine their own conservation and recreation capital projects.
"The people live in the community; they know what is best for it," said Meier. "There was the feeling that this was the best way to define capital projects."
Since the program started, the County Board has approved 50 neighborhood projects, ranging from tennis courts and a playground, built for $68,600 in Ashton Heights' Maury Park, to street lights costing $30,000 in Aurora Heights.
Last year, voters approved another bond issue--of $700,000--for the program, and the advisory committee currently is considering proposals worth more than $3 million.
Of the 1977 bond money, $100,000 remains to be spent. And although other neighborhood projects from the 1977 fund have fallen through, Meier said only the $15,000 allocated to Maywood is not earmarked for a specific use.
Meier said the Maywood community has no time limit to decide what to do with the money and can return those funds to the advisory committee if it wants.
Despite the Maywood problems, Meier is convinced the conservation program works.
"Maywood is an isolated case," she said. "The money was to go to a specific use: a basketball court. They changed their minds. It is not as if money is being handed out for whatever."
But in Maywood there is still a slight problem: How to spend $15,000.
Part of the debate over the basketball court centered on whether the money should be used for adult recreation or for a project that would preserve Thrifton Hill Park as a quiet reserve for children and wildlife. Several residents are optimistic that the community will come up with a solution that will meet the needs of all neighborhood residents.
"This is a diverse community and there are lots of things we can do with the funds to benefit the adults as well as the children," said Scott Palmer, who supported the court and hopes neighbors will consider a smaller version. "The neighborhood should decide. That way it is a democratic, not authoritarian, solution."
Some neighbors have suggested using the money for more landscaping at the park, although they admit that $15,000 worth of plants would be only a drop in the bucket compared with the shrubs and trees costing $100,000 the state already has planted.
Richard Godfrey, a longtime Maywood resident, considered the problem on a recent tour of the park.
"I would put a bench there, and maybe a picnic table," he said, as he pointed to a stand of oak trees. "I've got $14,000 left? I can't think of anything else.
"Maybe," he said, with a glint of hope, "if we wait around long enough we won't have the $15,000 any more either, and we won't have to worry about it."