As the New Bedford Board of Park Commissioners has unanimously approved a new pay-to-park program for the lot that serves Noah’s Place, the city’s handicapped-accessible playground, the man behind the effort to build the playground has taken exception to the idea that families utilizing that playground should have to pay for any kind of parking there.

“These families, I don’t think it’s fair to them,” said Victor Fernandes, founder of Team Noah. “We built this park so it doesn’t cost them anything, where the whole family, especially special needs families, can all go together, spend some time together. It’s somewhere that they can all go.”

The park board's decision was initially brought into the spotlight by freshman Ward 6 City Councilor Ryan Pereira, who noticed it on the park board agenda.

"I’m disgusted that there was even an attempt to put parking meters at this facility," Pereira told his fellow councilors in last Thursday's city council meeting. "I do not believe it to be appropriate to charge anyone, anytime to go to a playground here in the city of New Bedford, let alone a playground designed for children with disabilities."

“I don’t know whose bright idea it was to put parking meters at a handicapped-accessible playground, (but) if your budget is jacked up or you’re trying to look for money, that is not the way to go get money,” said City Councilor Derek Baptiste, the councilor for Ward 4 in which the park is located, during the council meeting. “That’s totally disrespectful to the families and for the people that have disabilities.”

What Is Noah's Place Playground?

The playground was built in honor of Fernandes’ son Noah, who in 2006 was diagnosed with M.E.L.A.S., a progressive and degenerative mitochondrial disease. The vision of Noah’s Place was to create a playground where children with physical and developmental challenges could still have a place to play, and it has become the premiere ADA-accessible playground on the East Coast.

What Did the New Bedford Board of Park Commissioners Decide?

The park board took up an agenda item on March 16 to implement a new pay-to-park program at the site – despite a letter sent to them from Ward 6 City Councilor Ryan Pereira urging them not to take any action until further study could be done and the council had a chance to examine the situation. Read Councilor Pereira's letter to the park board here.

The park board, which is composed of appointed volunteers, voted unanimously to put the program into effect.

Fernandes, too, thinks Team Noah should have been part of the discussion.

“I am the father, I’m Noahs’ dad, but we have a committee, we have a board,” Fernandes said. “I talked to Mary (Rapoza, head of the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Beaches) and said, ‘If you guys have to do this, there should have been more discussion with Team Noah.’”

“They just don’t have the insight,” Fernandes said.

Board of Park Commissioners Chairman Peter Boswell has not yet responded to multiple requests from WBSM seeking comment.

Why Did the Park Board Come Up With This Plan?

Fernandes said the pay-to-park program was originally presented to him as a way to raise the funds needed to maintain the park, which will become the City of New Bedford’s responsibility this coming September, when the contract for Team Noah to maintain the playground runs out. According to Fernandes, that’s how it was presented to him by Rapoza.

“Mary called me, and she said, ‘The contract is coming up in September, and we need to raise money to keep the playground like you do right now,’” Fernandes said. “So they’d get some money and hopefully resolve that issue.”

The Team Noah Foundation raised $2 million in private funds and donations to build the playground, and have been paying to maintain it since it opened in November of 2017, to the tune of about $20,000 per year – and that’s not including when Fernandes himself would go down on the weekends to clean up any garbage around the playground.

In his weekly Friday appearance on WBSM, however, City Council President Ian Abreu said the issue came up because marina members were upset that they didn’t have enough parking.

“The New Bedford Port Authority reached out to our Traffic Commissioner Laurie Alfonso earlier this year to discuss parking problems at Marine Park. The marina members there, I guess they were having trouble finding parking on the site last year, and apparently that problem was compounded with added pressure last summer from Fleet Marina, who is also using that lot,” Abreu said. “I guess the constituents who were renting slips there went before the port director and said look, we’re paying to be here and we have to park across the street, and we can’t get appropriate parking. That’s how this comes into play.”

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Does Fernandes Think the Plan Is Reasonable for Families Using Noah's Place?

The plan approved by the park board would call for those using the lot to download an app and enter in credit card information to pay for parking; those utilizing the Noah’s Place playground would get the first two hours for free, and then a charge of $3 per hour would kick in beginning in the third hour, with a daily maximum rate of $15 per day. Marina members would be given one season parking pass for their vehicle.

“Two hours maybe okay for a regular citizen, but for special needs families, absolutely not,” Fernandes said. “I thought they were going to do three to four hours for free.”

“These people don’t come and go right away,” Fernandes said of the families that utilize Noah’s Place. “There are families from Boston, Providence, and Hyannis that I've seen there. It’s a whole-day trip, they go there at least four to five hours, and worrying about paying the meter should be the last thing on their mind when they’re parked at a fully accessible playground. Two hours (of free parking) is nothing.”

Fernandes said the pay-to-park program is not just a slap in the face for the families that use the park, but also to those who donated money, time and physical labor to ensure children with physical and developmental challenges would have a safe – and free – place to play.

“I feel bad for the families for sure, but also especially for those who did the work and the people who donated a lot of money to make this happen. I speak for them as well,” Fernandes said. “A lot of sponsors donated to make this playground happen, and then all of a sudden, (the city) wants to charge you for parking. (The sponsors) aren’t going to be happy as well.”

Is There Another Way to Raise the Funds?

Fernandes said he wishes the City of New Bedford could just put in something in the budget for “about $40,000 to $50,000 every year” in order to maintain the playground, rather than having to take it from the parking money.

“Maybe what we can do is put all handicapped parking around the playground, and only those families can park in that area without having to pay. Maybe we can do it that way,” he said.

Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media
Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

In the end, though, Fernandes knows there isn’t much he can do to change the park board’s decision.

“You have to do what you’ve got to do. I don’t own the property. If that’s what they’ve got to do to raise money, I can’t stop the City,” he said. “All I can do is tell you how much energy and sweat we put into that playground. All I can do is just voice my opinion. What can I do?”

What Can Be Done?

Councilor Pereira, however, thinks there is something the New Bedford City Council can do.

“Maybe it’s time a city councilor sits on the parks board, if items like this are going to keep getting through and then not adhering to the advice of a city councilor,” Pereira told WBSM’s Marcus Ferro on his Saturday show. “And maybe it’s time for a leadership change on the parks board. Maybe a new chairman is in order.”

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