Saturday, October 1, 2022

Vandalism rampant at Wade Park: Residents complain of fires, drug use as city works on plan to address concerns

Residents gather with city staff at Wade Park to discuss recurring issues of vandalism, boisterous activity and offer suggestions for improvement. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

WILMINGTON — A tranquil, family-friendly neighborhood park is being threatened with repeat vandalism and problematic activity raising concerns from nearby residents who use it daily. In response, the City of Wilmington hosted a community input session Tuesday afternoon to gather feedback.

City staff and police fielded concerns from residents that frequent Wade Park — one of nearly 40 city-owned parks, located within Woodberry Forest in the Pine Valley area off South College Road. The green space includes a playground, picnic shelter, restrooms, bike racks and parking.

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Many neighbors have reported graffiti, destruction of public restrooms, fires, boisterous parties, and even torturing of animals — from native turtles to neighborhood cats. No one has been identified or charged with any offenses.

“We can’t be out there all the time, but the public always is, so maybe they have some ideas on what we can do to make it a better experience for everyone who’s using the park,” city Assistant Director of Community Services Sally Thigpen said about hosting the event.

Roughly 40 people filtered through the two-hour open house to share their ideas on how the park can be improved, with Wilmington Police Department officers and city staff from various departments, as well as New Hanover County Soil and Water Conservation District in attendance.

Activity at the park heightened during the pandemic, when public green spaces became refuge for people locked away in their homes during shut down. While the city is “not pointing fingers,” kids being home and out of school likely played a role, Thigpen said.

A resident and mother, who attended the meeting, said her two sons ride their bikes through the park almost daily. She doesn’t let her 8-year-old go alone, mostly due to anecdotes of bullying by older children “wreaking havoc on the park.” 

Wilmington Police Department reported an increased volume of calls for service at Wade Park over the last year. Since the beginning of 2021, officers have responded to the park 151 times.

WPD Lt. J.P. Musacchio told Port City Daily at Tuesday’s event many of those calls are officers assigned to the district for random patrol. He explained in between the department’s high volume of immediate-action or emergency calls, officers in the vicinity will stop in for a quick check.

“Whenever they have down time, they come out here,” he said. “They’re probably not walking all the way around the park, but with increased problems here we can probably step that up.”

He added the department welcomes community feedback so officers can address activities, though not many reports that have come through are criminal. Still, Musacchio said he has heard from neighbors vandalism is rampant, and kids have been cutting through the backyards, causing disturbances and smoking weed.

Since 2021, there have been 12 reports of property damage and vandalism, nine reports of suspicious persons or vehicles, five counts of drug-use or possession and a handful of verbal disturbances, nuisance calls and noise complaints.

There’s been at least one report each of traffic violations, parking issues, abandoned vehicles, shots fired, theft, physical disturbance, mischief and an assist to EMS.

The city-owned park is home to more than 100 homes in its vicinity and is used for walking, biking and enjoying nature. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

However, as is evident from resident Kristie Falcioni, not all criminal activity or disturbances get reported. After two years of dealing with teenagers partying in her backyard and calling 911, she said she has run out of ideas as problems persist. By the time officers respond, Falcioni said the kids have long moved on; now she simply reports instances to the non-emergency line so “they have a record.”

Falcioni and her husband bought their home on Bougainvillea Avenue, abutting the city’s easement to Wade Park. She said kids gather on the property between the park and her backyard — the most wooded, “sheltered” area. She and her husband constantly clean up broken glass, beer bottles and cans.

“We’ve had five fires set back there by teenagers that we’ve had to jump over the fence to put out,” she explained. She has contacted the fire department about possible mitigation, to which the department recommended to post “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs. She said they just get torn down or burned.

“Twenty or 30 occurrences of drug use, smoking back there — so much so that it’s wafting into my backyard,” Falcioni noted. “I can sit on my back deck and smell it, weekly.”

She said her two 7-year-old children have also picked up on the behaviors. 

“[They] now know when someone’s doing drugs in the backyard to come tell mommy when it smells funny,” she said.

Falcioni said she and her husband have frequently run off many of the same teenagers — ages 14 to 17, she guessed — usually present after school, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. on weeknights. As of Tuesday, she said they have gathered four days in a row.

“When we first moved in, it was only certain times of the year it would flare up, like spring break,” she said. “Now it’s become daily, with the accessibility and unprotected park, it feels like it’s really accessible.”

The park has multiple entrances, one from a parking lot off Bethel Road and another from the neighborhood off Bougainvillea Avenue. Considered the “neighborhood park” for hundreds of homes in the area, Wade Park is bordered by at least two dozen houses, making yard cut-throughs an easy option. 

While Falcioni’s backyard is fenced in, she asked the city to fence in the wooded easement area to deter access.

“I’m not saying that will stop it completely but make it harder to get out so when I do call police, it’s not them cutting bait and running,” she said.

Thigpen said she would be “open to the discussion” of Falcioni’s request.

Diane Smith who lives on Amber Drive, abutting Wade Park, strolls around the paved loop regularly. Her main gripe was the ongoing destruction of public restrooms, particularly toilets being smashed beyond use.

“I like having a bathroom,” Smith said. “I really appreciate that, but half the time it’s not open because someone’s destroyed it.”

Thigpen mentioned the city was looking into swapping out the porcelain fixtures for metal ones, “a little more robust,” in the hopes of deterring wreckage.

Other residents in attendance at the meeting said they value the serene nature and utilize the 17 acres to exercise, walk dogs and host parties in the shelter area. 

Bob Richmond praised the quietude of Wade Park, as compared to Halyburton, located 2 miles away on 17th Street Extension, where he said trafficky noise pollution sets in. 

“Here you hear the birds,” he said. “The city should put up a webpage to show pictures of the snowy egrets, blue heron. If you’re lucky, you can catch the family of ducks.”

Richmond’s only complaint was wishing the benches faced the wetlands as opposed to the trees so he could better enjoy the view. The park, he said, was a hidden secret he hoped would retain its beauty and peaceful nature.

“I like that it’s simple; not real complex,” 20-year resident Mark Steelman concurred. “I have no desire to see basketball courts or soccer fields because it increases the noise level and runs counter to the real purpose of this.”

Main requests from Tuesday’s meeting included increasing the presence of parks staff and police, and adding security cameras and lighting; the park currently doesn’t have either. 

“We’ll wait to see what comes from it,” Thigpen said. “We have a parks budget and this is certainly a top priority for us, so we’ll have to evaluate.”

Thigpen said the city will gather feedback received, along with the results from an online survey launched Aug. 11, which closes Friday, to synthesize a plan of action.

“We’ll have some short-term things we can do right away, maybe around signage and education,” she said. “And then some long-term things we’ll have to budget for.”

Over 40 neighbors offered suggestions to improve Wade Park. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

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