Committee mulls user fee for Hudson’s Benson Park

The well-used Benson Park may have become a little too popular, as the park’s committee has recently discussed the possibility of instituting user fees due to the ballooning number of visitors.

Large groups are at times overwhelming the park’s facilities, according to committee members, which has led to talks about charging for usage.

Some residents have told committee chairman James Barnes that large groups, often busloads of youngsters from out of state, have been pulling in recently to use the space. Barnes said the park has a policy that groups of more than 15 people need to register with the town.

Barnes said the large groups can also mean parties and weddings and can happen year-round, though the issue has moved to the spotlight this summer.

"Part of it is the fact that large groups are coming in from out of state and are not registering. That’s number one. Number two is, because there is no fee for going into the park, when large groups of 50, 100 or more show up and use the portable toilets, quite often the facilities are overwhelmed," Barnes said.

The restroom facilities consist of four portable toilets near the park’s A-frame and one near the former elephant barn. Barnes said they are serviced twice a week and are removed during the winter months. Heavy use of the facilities, he said, means extra servicing off-cycle.

"It’s getting to the point town taxpayers are footing the bill for a lot of things," he said.

On Tuesday, Joy Sitnik of Dracut, Mass., sat on a bench outside of the restored gorilla cage with her two dogs, Holly and Kenzi, while her children, Owen and Annabell, played nearby. Sitnik has registered in the past to use the park for a large group for her son Owen’s birthday party.

"It was awesome," she said. "We had about 15 people and a scavenger hunt. Part of it was they had to pick up any trash they saw and throw it away."

Sitnik said she would pay a small user fee.

"I would. It’s great. I can bring the kids here. They just have a blast," she said. "It’s a beautiful park and nicely maintained. That’s what you want. In some other parks, you’re nervous about what’s around and they’re not as well maintained."

At this point, Barnes said, he is trying to gather information as to if people using the park are aware of the registration requirement and how the town may want to proceed. He said telling residents of the need to register is easier than informing out-of-towners. Committee volunteers who have seen groups descend on the park have been forward in informing the people of the town rules in the past.

Barnes said the conversations on-site had been "awkward" and noted that access cannot be restricted just to town residents.

"Access to the park has to be equal to all New Hampshire residents. That’s a requirement of the deed," he said. "So all New Hampshire residents have to be treated equally … It doesn’t say anything about out-of-state. It’s something we still have to work out."

The option exists, he said, to start charging a user fee and possibly adding staff to enforce the fee.

"We’re starting to discuss it," he said. "We’ve looked at what the state charges for state parks, which is typically $4 a day for adults."

The procedure would be for the committee to approach the town selectmen to make any official changes.

"I can’t say anything about targets for fees. There’s lots of issues. Lots of things need to be put together to make it happen," Barnes said.

Benson Park is the former wild animal attraction that can trace its beginnings to the early 1900s. It changed hands over the decades, becoming an amusement park and finally closing in the late 1980s. The facilities and land fell into disrepair, but through various efforts it began its transformation into a public park in 2009.

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590, or @Telegraph_DonH.