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Efforts to save urban forest continue
Park Hill to vote Thursday on master plan for building site

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

Platte County residents will have one final chance Thursday night to urge Park Hill school officials to stop the proposed development of two schools, parking lots and sports fields where an urban forest has thrived for generations.

Julie Stutterheim, who has spearheaded a six-month long effort to preserve the woodland surrounding Line Creek, contends the forest is not an antiquated element to destroy but to preserve.

On behalf of nearly 8,000 people who have signed a petition to protect the natural beauty surrounding the Line Creek Trail, Stutterheim this week submitted a 22-page document to members of the school board outlining the history of what is being called the “last KC forest” and why it deserves to be saved.

“Our initiative could be summed up in one word: possibility,” wrote Stutterheim. “Perhaps no one had yet explored the possibility of conserving this contiguous forest land for future generations, creating a ‘central park’ of the Kansas City Northland.”

Her plea comes ahead of Thursday’s highly anticipated school board meeting to either approve or hit the brakes on Park Hill’s Master Plan to construct a $23.7 million elementary school and a LEAD Innovation Studio at the property at 68th Street and Waukomis.

Park Hill School District purchased 272-acres adjacent to the Line Creek Trail for $3 million in the spring of 2017. School officials point out the existing master plan does not call for the deforestation of all 272-acres.

“The size of this land and the designs for the high-school facility will allow us to build onto it to make a full high school at this location if we have enough enrollment growth in the future,” states Park Hill’s website.

Stutterheim and countless forest advocates contend when it’s developed into a full-fledged high school the footprint will be really large. They are urging school board members to reconsider the location for the LEAD Innovation Studio and pending high school.

“The new third high school would be in the eastern-most part of the district, clustering all three high schools in the east,” wrote Stutterheim. “What happens if population growth primarily occurs in the west? It seems premature to preemptively decide its location when the population needs could change in the next 5-10 years.”

Stutterheim said since the proposed location is being so widely disputed, taxpayers may fail to approve additional funding for the proposed high school.

“Based on the feedback from the community about building in the forest, the new high school funding could be jeopardized because of the potential location of the new school,” wrote Stutterheim.

The forest advocacy group’s second request calls upon the district to preserve the 100-plus acres of woodland not currently necessary for the school district’s master plan. One way the district could conserve the forest is by establishing a conservation easement and dedicating a section of the woodland as a learning forest. Another way the woodland can be preserved is through a donation or land swap with the Missouri Department of Conservation, she said.

“There are a number of other solutions that don’t require eradicating several hundred acres of old and healthy forest,” wrote Stutterheim.

Forest advocates say they understand a key to ensuring that those who live in Platte County are healthy and able to achieve a high level of well-being is to preserve the forest. The forest advocates say it mitigates air and noise pollution while potentially alleviating high energy costs. Many people also appreciate the aesthetics or natural beauty of the forest.

“Throughout this process, we’ve worked in the boundaries of the existing systems and decision-makers,” said Stutterheim. “Ultimately, it’s up to the school district to decide how to respond. At the very least, even if they move forward with their plan, this initiative might give them an idea of how valued the forest is and may affect future decisions related to development.”

Nicole Kirby, director of communications for Park Hill, said the current master plan “leaves a great deal of the wooded area untouched.”

“We have no current plans to bulldoze these woods or to sell to a developer. Because we do not yet know what our future enrollment growth will require, we do not know how we will need to use the land in the future or whether we will need all of it,” she stated.

The district points out the woodland encompasses an 800-acre area, which multiple private developers also own.

“Our master plan covers the 272 acres we own, not the entire wooded area, which is owned by several private owners,” Kirby said.

But some residents believe Park Hill will set a dangerous precedent for the development of this woodland.

“As we all know, in the Northland one development starts a domino effect,” wrote Stutterheim. “So you have a real opportunity here to set the tone for how to develop on this land. The school is a leader in our community. By pledging permanent conservation and not building the road that will eventually become a four-lane parkway you are taking the lead on conserving this important resource.”

Park Hill defends its position by stating: “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.”

The district added: “We will continue to use environmentally friendly building practices, just as we did with the construction of our last school, Tiffany Ridge Elementary. Our guide for these practices comes from the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. These LEED standards include sustainability and regional impacts.”

But residents fear verbal promises may disappear down the road.

“There is no indication or commitment by the school that any of the land will be preserved for future generations. And unfortunately, boards and administrations change. In spite of verbal promises to respect the land, there is nothing in the master plan that promises the entire forest won’t one day be developed,” wrote Stutterheim.

The deluge of support and feedback Stutterheim has received from the community makes her hopeful all efforts to preserve the forest have at least “broadened” the school district board members consideration.

The fact the board is voting to either approve or disapprove the master plan is seen as a positive sign.

“To me, this means that the board members will really own this decision as part of their legacy and service to our community,” said Stutterheim. “I’ve also heard from people in our district that previous board members were ‘rubber stampers,’ meaning that they just approve whatever the administration recommends. It will be interesting to see if this board is open to using their influence to affect the master plan, if they believe that is the right thing to do.”