By Erin Cameron
In the interest of providing a quality park within a 10-minute walk from all, the Center for City Park Excellence conducted research in joint-use agreements. To do this, the Center gathered 33 agreements from 20 of the largest US cities and analyzed the best practices within those agreements. A joint-use agreement (JUA) binds school districts or independent schools with their local government for the maintenance and usage of parkland. Communities benefit because they often lack funding and land for new parks, limiting opportunities for growth of public spaces in dense and low-income neighborhoods. JUAs allow the community to capitalize on existing schools with playgrounds and fields without further development and spending. While The Center primarily focuses on the practices of cities, in rural areas where funding is limited JUAs offer the same benefits as they do in dense urban regions. The Center encourages cities and school districts interested in adopting a JUA to use the below practices in their agreements, as well as mimicking the most adaptable and useful agreement from the City of Durham. The Center published its findings in this post, as well as further research and notable cases.
Of the JUAs on file, 12 did not mention an expiration date, meaning the document remains in effect until either party requests termination or elects to amend the contract. Another commonly observed practice is a longer term of 25 or 30 years and automatic renewal unless one of the parties requests termination. A 50-year term appeared in one JUA, meaning the agreement only requires renewal twice every 100 years. Only five agreements expire in less than 10 years, without automatic renewal. In agreements with long terms, the contract binds all successors of school and city officials to the terms of the agreement. Additionally, the property owner cannot sell the land discussed in the agreement for the duration of the agreement. The city and its parks department may not sell its land during the duration of the agreement, as it is jointly used land, until the expiration or termination of the agreement. If the school owns the land, it must remain a park and accessible to the public. Special circumstances in few agreements distinguish a school’s right to expand the school building for academic purposes. Protocols for addressing cases as such remain up for discussion among parties. In case of an extenuating circumstance that requires a party to sell the agreed upon land before the termination of the agreement, the second party has the right to purchase the land before the owner can put the land up for public sale.
Agreements encourage parties to split the cost of any mediation for termination or amending of the agreement. Request of termination typically requires between 90 and 180 days advance notice.
Hours of Operation
A few agreements provide concrete hours during which the secondary party has access the parkland, fields, and facilities. The most commonly observed practice is limiting hours of open-access to school property to non-school hours. Additionally, a majority of agreements require school rules to apply on school property at all times. This remains the case if no children are present.
While no practices are common across agreements, parties are encouraged to discuss the responsibility of locking and unlocking facilities.
Every formal agreement includes an indemnification clause, stating neither party can enter a lawsuit with the opposing party. In some cases, this extends to the users of the land. For instance, if the school district was using city land and an injury occurred, the city is not liable for the injury. This clause is important to note because a study completed by Active Living Research reported 61% of schools who did not allow public use of playgrounds, basketball courts, fields, and facilities expressed concerns over liability.
Both parties should provide proof of insurance.
Joint-use agreements commonly do not require payment for the usage of facilities. Few JUAs authorize the city to charge a usage fee to non-school groups on school land. In these cases, the city should report their accounting documents annually to school officials. In cases where the property owner incurs additional costs due to the secondary party’s usage of the space, the parties may enter into an additional agreement to discuss the financial responsibilities of each party. Additional costs include utilities, custodial staff, and maintenance costs. Generally, the property-owning partner covers regular wear and tear, but in the case of damage, the parties may agree on an alternative course of action.
Scheduling of the land and facilities is where cities’ agreements varied the most. Some practices observed are:
- City officials hold primary responsibility of scheduling for city facilities, while principals hold primary responsibility of scheduling for schools;
- Establishing a minimum number of hours per week (150+ is recommended) the parkland is open for public access. The property-owner determines the schedule;
- And, mutually determined schedules which are submitted to and approved by the property owner.
All agreements prioritize school use during school hours and for school related activities in the evenings. Some agreements outline the priorities for usage to include school activities, city activities, non-profit activities, other groups with youth, and other groups. School districts and cities determine priorities through mutual agreement in discussion. In case of a schedule change, the agreements require parties to provide written request of the calendar alteration.
Agreements include the use of maps to mark the property for joint-use.
The joint-use agreements discuss how parties should handle improvements and additions to the property in a couple ways. Improvements added by the property owner do not need approval, except in the case where the property owner requests funding from the secondary party. Any improvement initiated by the secondary party requires approval from the property owner and all improvements become property of the landowner.
In a few agreements, the school enters into the agreement under the condition that the city will install and maintain amenities such as swimming pools, sprinkling systems, landscaping, parking lots, or playgrounds.
Durham, North Carolina
The “Interlocal Agreement for Use of Recreation Facilities between the City of Durham and the Durham Public Schools Board of Education” stands out for its practicality and adaptability. The agreement includes the practices above, but in a non-specific manner allowing for interpretation when needed. Schools’ needs and facilities vary and the parties wrote the agreement to apply to all schools rather than a more specific agreement for each institution. An additional amendment, updated annually, lists the properties eligible for and the hours of shared-use. This practice allows frequent changes without the need to redraw a new contract. Representatives from both parties meet quarterly to discuss the agreement and determine if changes must be included in the renewal. The adaptable nature of the agreement makes the changes simple to execute. Additionally, the agreement states property owners will provide access keys, security code, and additional training to opposing party.
In an article published in Preventative Medicine, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University expresses concern that despite the establishment of JUAs in cities, the public does not know to use school land for recreation. Cities and schools can encourage the use of joint-use parks and facilities through advertisement and signage in communities and around joint-use areas. Additionally, signage encourages cities and school districts to enter into formal agreements, rather than informal usage of parks and fields.
The Center for City Park Excellence continues to explore the research surrounding the agreements in urban areas of the nation. For more information, feel free to contact the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.