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School urged to 'save the forest'
New Park Hill buildings planned at site of 'last forest'

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

The sprawling beauty of Line Creek and abundance of healthy trees in the surrounding forest have long drawn visitors to this quaint urban woodland.

Giant American sycamores, black locusts and Siberian elm trees dominate the landscape while ferns and moss coat the forest floor. Around every corner, enormous caterpillars, great horned owls and migratory birds can be seen.

Now, with a location just steps away from the Line Creek Trail, thousands of people take in the picturesque setting unavailable anywhere else.

But that's about to change.

Almost 272 acres of forest and meadow will be wiped out for two schools, parking lots and sports fields. The remaining 528-acres of the forest may also be eliminated and replaced with a four-lane parkway, retail shops and housing developments.

The destruction of the forest isn't sitting well with many southern Platte County residents. More than 7,530 residents have signed a petition to preserve the natural beauty surrounding the Line Creek Trail.

Julie Stutterheim, a resident of the Platte Brooke North subdivision, said she couldn't believe Park Hill School District’s Master Plan calls to eliminate what Mid-America Regional Council claims is one of the last original forests in Kansas City. It encompasses approximately 800-acres of forest, meadows, and wetlands in southern Platte County and Kansas City, North.

Historically, the property's natural constraints including steep slopes, rocky soil, wetlands and floodplain conditions prevented significant development and agriculture.

The forest is bordered by NW Barry Road on the north, 68th Street on the south, N. Platte Purchase Drive and NW 76th Street to the east, and Green Hills Road to the west.

From the native inhabitants to the early European settlers, the area has a rich and significant history. Artifacts and relics have been found relating to the Hopewell, who lived in the Line Creek area from 200 B.C. to 400 A.D.

In 1913, an Interurban rail line operated through the heart of the forest. Several stops along Line Creek contributed to early development. Passenger service from downtown Kansas City to St. Joseph was discontinued in 1932.

Since then, the rolling terrain and rocky creeks remained largely undisturbed. At least until now.

Park Hill School District purchased the land, on the eastern edge of the district, for $3 million in the spring of 2017. The property was slated for construction this year but after much opposition for deforestation, the school district will soon hold a vote to either hit the brakes or press on with their existing master plan.

If the plan moves forward, a $23.7 million elementary school—recently named Hopewell—will be constructed on the southern part of the property. Additionally, a LEAD Innovation Studio for high school students will be built to the north.

Currently, the LEAD Innovation Studio operates on the fifth and sixth floors of Tiffany Center located at 10150 N Ambassador, near KCI.

In the future as student enrollment increases, the district plans to build onto the high school facility and create a full-fledged high school at this location.

The district says building on later could be beneficial for taxpayers.

“We spent years planning to accommodate all the new students moving into our district, and we did this with a great deal of community participation. We plan to be good neighbors to the people around this property, and we plan to be good stewards of this beautiful land, just as we continue to try to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars that will build these schools for our community's children,” states the Park Hill website.

Hopewell Elementary is slated to open in 2019, and the LEAD Innovation Studio will open as early as 2020.

Stutterheim says she supports the proposed construction for Hopewell Elementary. What she opposes is the construction of the LEAD Innovation Studio, which calls for the destruction of an old, healthy part of the forest.

“That footprint is really large,” said Stutterheim. “What we are asking is for the district to reevaluate the plan and potentially reduce their footprint. There are about 191-acres that are not needed for their master plan—it is designated for future development or sale. We are asking the district to conserve it. That can be done through a conservation easement, through a donation to Missouri Department of Conservation or a land swap with Missouri Department of Conservation.”

Stutterheim added: “If we don't do something about it, there is no mulligan. There is no plan B.”

She talks about the uniqueness of the location.

“There are trees in that forest so wide that three people couldn't even wrap their hands around. There are so many huge, ancient tress out there. So, it is really a special place worth saving. If you're not living in Parkville or Weston, these places are few and far between,” said Sutterheim.

At a school board meeting last week, she asked school officials to view the forest as an asset to the community rather than an expendable element.

“As a Northlander, I am tired of seeing our green spaces demolished with little regard for the long-term impact on the community,” said Stutterheim. “Somehow it's okay to build a sports field to teach kids about health, recreation, teamwork, and themselves, but it's not okay to keep a forest to teach kids about health, recreation, teamwork, and themselves, as well as, agriculture, conservation, nature, and the environment.”

Despite signs of looming deforestation, petitioners say they are hopeful Park Hill will choose to act "responsibly and conscientiously."

But schools aren't the only buildings going up. Kansas City's long-term plan will replace the remaining woodland with a four-lane parkway, retail shops and housing developments.

Many Platte County residents have expressed a concern that the new development will change the community character and local feel. Air quality, noise pollution mitigation, natural aesthetics, and potential energy savings are among the many benefits citizens see for preserving the forest.

Hundreds of people have banded together and taken their cause to social media. So far, Park Hill and city officials have been working with residents, who are fighting to save the “last forest” from development.

“We made plans for our new schools to take advantage of the natural beauty of the land and leave as much of the wooded area as possible. We are also working with the city of Kansas City, encouraging the city leaders to consider scaling back their plans for a full parkway through the property to make it a smaller roadway. The section of the Line Creek Trail that runs along the edge of our property belongs to the city of Kansas City, Missouri, and we are excited to have this public amenity so close to our new schools,” states the Park Hill website.

Opposition to deforestation

On Thursday, half a dozen citizens urged Park Hill School Board members to stop human-induced deforestation of the “last forest.”

Petitioners said they would like to keep the forest as a retreat for exploration and wonder, especially for children.

“I am also an educator and some of my most valuable lessons come from being able to go on field trips and visit nature. As my students were first graders, we would go out and look through the forest to see some of the tracks. You have such a wonderful opportunity to preserve a forest instead of tearing it down,” said Amy Wheeler of Platte County.

Aaron Swavey encouraged the school board to approach its decision with both the near and far future in mind.

“Kansas City Council is currently pitching a $139 million project to reintroduce green space in the downtown area,” said Swavey. “The area impacted is four city blocks. The average city block is somewhere between 1.2 and 2.5 acres. That makes the cost about $13.9 million per acre to reintroduce green space,” said Swavey.

Using the aforementioned cost of $13.9 million per acre to reintroduce green space, “leaves Park Hill School District with arguably $1.4 billion of merely maintenance free forest and green space,” he added.

If Park Hill foregoes the request and moves forward with the school district’s plan, Swavey urged the board to at least make a binding pledge to conserve the 100 plus acres not needed for their plan.

Before stepping away from the podium, Swavey quoted his 11-year-old daughter, who on a walk along the Line Creek Trail said, “Just think, in the near future we might say to each other--remember when there was a forest here?”

Adam Herbig, a business owner and resident of Park Hill School District, told the board he moved to the area five years ago to be near this forest.

“This is an asset for this community,” said Herbig. “If it is destroyed you won't have people, like me, moving back here. You will not have the generations who are very much looking for this type of asset within this school district.”

He urged the school board to view the forest as an asset that attracts people to the area.

Katya Mason, a local Montessori teacher and youth leader, said her students frequently express feelings of stress and anxiety. She said kids that are integrated with the outdoors are kinder, more thoughtful, and have a stronger state of well-being.

“There is a concept going on around the world to reintroduce people to the outside in a way that is not as scripted, not as developed, not as planned,” said Mason.

"The thought is being that people learn how to integrate themselves into the world that is already here, instead of trying to form the world that we think it should be for us.”

The future and uniqueness of the forest and everything it offers now rests in the hands of seven Park Hill elected officials. The deciding vote to either approve or not approve the plan will take place on Thursday, May 10.