After a public outcry over Freedom Park's handicapped-accessible playground, supporters got what they wanted Tuesday night as the Hanford City Council voted 5-0 to put in new rubber matting.
Supporters of the rubber surfacing had overwhelmed the public comment period at the previous council meeting to say that the alternative being considered by the city — wood chips — was unacceptable for people with wheelchairs and walkers.
The playground was specifically designed and opened in 2007 to provide accessibility to all children, including ones with disabilities, and their families. The equipment, including the rubber matting, was paid for through private donations.
"When we looked at this, there were so many things we had taken into account," said Chris Soares, one of the playground's original creators, after Tuesday night's vote. "I'm really glad that they are going to put this in place."
Facing the issue two years ago of what to do with the worn-out rubber matting, city staff decided to go with the lower-cost option of wood chips.
Staff researched the issue and found that, technically, if they are smoothed out into an even surface, the wood chips meet legal handicapped-accessible requirements.
The proposal was quietly recommended by the parks and recreation commission, then passed by the City Council in 2014 as one item in a capital improvement plan.
Somehow, it escaped the notice of the playground's legion of supporters.
It wasn't until last month, when city workers started ripping up the rubber matting and jack hammering concrete in preparation for spreading the wood chips, that the uproar began.
"The way we looked at it two years ago was cost and maintenance," said Craig Miller, Hanford parks and recreation department director. "We meant no disrespect."
The cost difference isn't negligible.
City officials said the wood chips run $20,000 to $30,000, while new rubber matting is $120,000 to $125,000.
Supporters said that the goal of maintaining wheelchair and walker accessibility is important enough to justify the added expense. Speaker after speaker at the March 15 council meeting said the wood chips don't work.
They reiterated those concerns Tuesday.
"Why would you take [the rubber matting] out?" said Hanford resident Glenda Dwyer. "I can't imagine you voting against that."
When council members started commenting on the agenda item before the vote, it quickly became clear that Dwyer's assessment was correct. One by one, they voiced their unanimous support for the smooth surface.
They also supported a plan to ensure that, when the rubber matting needs to be replaced every seven-to-10 years, future councils won't rehash the cost issue all over again.
The vote included a stipulation that money be said aside annually in the equipment reserve account in the parks and recreation budget so that when it's time to replace the rubber again, the money is there.
"It was exactly what I wanted to hear," Soares said.
"They're looking out for all the citizens now," said Hanford resident Leonard Dias. "I was hoping this was going to happen."
For now, the playground remains fenced off and closed.
Parks Superintendent Alvin Dias said in an interview that bids for the project go out May 9. Once a bid is accepted and construction begins, he said it'll take about 30 days to get the new rubber matting in.
"Hopefully, sometime in June, we'll open up the playground again," Alvin Dias said. "We just have to adhere to the bidding process."