Youth football organizer calls foul after being told to stop cutting municipal grass
Chatham-Kent council is set to discuss a dispute between a local man that runs a youth flag football league and the municipality.
At the end of April, Jason Reynolds received a letter from the Municipality of Chatham-Kent’s legal department, informing him that it recently became aware that he had brought lawnmowers onto municipal property and has been cutting the grass at Lark Park.
The letter noted that his actions are a form of trespassing and in violation of the municipality’s by-law, adding that he was not permitted to cut the grass at the park unless he gets written permission from the municipality beforehand.
Reynolds operates The Chatham-Kent Kids Flag Football League and has been running it out of Lark Park, located on Baldoon Road, for the past five years.
Throughout that time he said he has taken care of maintaining the field’s grass so that it is suitable for kids to play on. According to Reynolds, that includes spending up to five hours, once a week, mowing the grass on the field.
He was he beyond shocked to open up his mail and see the letter.
“With all the things going on in the city I was just blown away that this is where they want to put their focus,” he said.
After receiving the letter from the municipality, Reynolds posted a photo of it on his social media accounts.
It quickly drew attention, including from Mayor Darrin Canniff who asked for the matter to be brought to council during its May 10 meeting for discussion.
Municipal staff have since prepared a report on the matter, which will come to council on Monday night.
Although the letter states that the municipality recently became aware of Reynolds bringing lawnmowers into the park, the report details a long history of communication between both sides.
“Mr. Reynolds has been ignoring repeated requests to refrain from cutting the grass at Lark Park since 2019,” the report stated. “Mr. Reynolds is welcome and encouraged to utilize the park for sporting activities provided he complies with the same council-approved policies and procedures as all other groups using municipal parks.”
According to the report, Lark Park grass cutting has been competitively sourced to a local contractor and receives an average of 22 cuts per year.
The municipality said it reached out to Reynolds again in August 2020 to advise him that grass cutting by private citizens is not permitted in municipal parks. However, it claims he continued to ignore communication from the municipality.
Reynolds is disputing some of the details of the report, claiming it contains “half-truths” and is only telling one side of the story.
According to Reynolds, without his maintenance, the field would otherwise be unfit for physical activity.
“Last year, I cut it on May 28, which was the first time it had been cut for the season. It was almost knee-high. The [municipality] had said they had scaled back on cutting because of COVID-19 but the grass had gotten so high that mosquitoes, bugs and ticks — it was a haven for them,” said Reynolds. “So, I tried to keep it up to par for as much as I could for the rest of the year.”
Reynolds said that he had been in communication with municipal officials in the past regarding the grass cutting, adding that municipal staff had expressed concerns surrounding liability.
After some back and forth with the municipality, Reynolds said he was under the impression he would be able to sign a waiver and work with municipal officials to allow him to continue cutting the field. However, he said the next time he heard from the municipality was through the letter.
“Last year they had suggested for me that they would like me to sign a waiver because it would release them of liability. I told them I had no problem signing a waiver…That was the last that I heard from them about anything about me cutting the grass until I received the letter from them this year,” he said.
The staff report cites several concerns surrounding the liability and the possible legal ramifications of a private citizen cutting grass on municipal property.
“Unlike a residential lawn, parks and sports fields are used by many members of the public and the probability of unseen foreign material being left in the grass is very high,” stated the report. “Consequently, the risk of projectiles from lawnmowers on municipal land is much higher than when cutting a residential lawn. This additional risk needs to be considered when cutting the grass in public parks. ”
According to the report, contractors that are outsourced for municipal grass cutting services must provide proof of liability insurance, along with an on-going commitment to protective clothing, protective equipment and the skills necessary to ensure the green space can be managed in a safe manner.
“As the property owner, the municipality can be brought into a lawsuit for an injury or property damage, even though the involvement of the municipality may be very limited… Due to the significant insurance deductibles the municipality has, the first $250,000 of any liability claim is borne by the financial resources of the citizens of Chatham-Kent,” stated the report. “If a claim were to arise from this type of activity, the municipality will almost certainly be added to the lawsuit as the owner of the park”
The report also states that despite Reynolds being willing to sign a waiver, the document would only protect the municipality from being sued by Reynolds and would not protect it against a lawsuit from a third party.
“While some social media commenters may believe that these risks are remote or do not need to be addressed, municipal administration maintains that we must diligently apply proactive risk management practices to all municipal operations,” stated the report.
This is not the first time there has been tension between the league and the Municipality of Chatham-Kent.
The municipality said it first learned of the league in 2018 after getting complaints from neighbours.
According to the report, in 2019 the municipality was made aware of $2,000 in damage that was caused by a flag football tournament in Reynold’s adult league that was held with no prior notification to the municipality.
Reynolds admits the damage happened but said he was the one who contacted the municipality to let them know about the damage and to see what he could do to fix it.
“This wasn’t them contacting me or chasing me around,” he said. “I was very proactive about it. I have a landscaper who is one of my sponsors for the league, I brought him into the sitdown meeting with me and the municipality. He offered to fix that field to the municipality’s specifications at no charge, but the municipality would not let it happen.”
In March of 2019, administration met with Reynolds to discuss the damage and to mutually develop a solution.
According to the report, Reynolds committed to several terms including booking the park through the formal municipal process, providing evidence of liability insurance for players, following all policies and procedures and paying the fees associated with sports field use.
Meanwhile, the municipality committed to increasing grass cutting from 12 cuts a year to 22 cuts a year and providing a portable washroom and garbage containers.
The Chatham-Kent Kids Flag Football League is open to boys and girls aged 5 to 17 and is a partner with Under Armour for its Under the Lights youth flag football program.
Reynolds said the league is meant to target underprivileged youth who may otherwise not have access to organized sports.
“I’m trying to give these kids something to do that’s positive. I’m trying to keep them out of trouble and off the streets,” he explained. “I come from neighbourhoods where drug abuse is high… So, this is important to me. We have to show these kids that there are better things out there.”
In 2020, he pushed for the municipality to reduce the fees associated with using the Lark Park field, in an effort to be able to offer lower costs to families who want to sign up.
Reynolds created the ‘Free Lark Park’ initiative to bring awareness to the issue and created a petition, which garnered over 1,300 signatures.
“I don’t want any child to not be able to play because of cost… I don’t do any of this for money, I do it because I want to do something good in the community, help our kids and do something good here,” said Reynolds. “I spend countless hours out on that field… I don’t think the [municipality] or anybody else could pay me enough to do this if it wasn’t for the love of these kids.”
According to the report, the letter sent to Reynolds was not meant to restrict him from operating the flag football league.
“The flag football league youth program provides Chatham-Kent young people with the opportunity to exercise and learn new skills in a team environment,” the report stated. “The program is strongly supported by parents who have children participating in the league. The efforts of the league organizer to start this program are sincerely appreciated.”
Regardless of who is mowing the grass, Reynolds said he just wants to see both sides come to a resolution so that the field is cut on an as-needed basis to allow for safer play.
“I’m just telling them that for us, we just need a little bit more… We just want, when our kids are going to play, maybe just come out and cut the grass, that’s all,” he said.