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Park Hill pushes forward
Opposition from forest preservationists doesn't change school's plan

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

On a recent field trip to Weston Bend State Park, fourth graders at Southeast Elementary School in the Park Hill School District were shown how development along floodplains impacts communities.

Students gasped as they watched a small-scale model landscape flood from rainwater runoff in a developed area. With fewer trees to absorb the water, urban creeks rose more quickly. At times of peak precipitation, roads, schools and houses in flood-prone areas quickly became inundated.

It was there, where the Missouri River is surrounded by 1,133 acres of forest, that students learned the realities of flooding when natural vegetation and soil are removed for urban development. Students observed structures that encroach on the floodplain cause upstream flooding due to a narrowing of the creek waterway.
In forests and meadows, precipitation was largely stored on vegetation, in the bedrock or in surface depressions. These areas washed out nearby structures less frequently.

New development
On Thursday, the Park Hill Board of Education approved the proposed development of an elementary school, LEAD Innovation Studio, sports fields and parking lots on land heavily marked with natural constraints.

Floodplain conditions, steep slopes, rocky soil and wetlands have largely prevented construction and agriculture near 68th Street and Waukomis Drive. As a result, the undisturbed land, adjacent to the Line Creek Trail, flourished as a woodland, wetland and meadow for generations.

A section—spanning 272 acres of the 800-acre area—will eventually be developed by the Park Hill School District.

Although the current master plan doesn’t call for the complete deforestation of all 272 acres the district owns, school officials made it clear they can’t rule out the possibility that the land won’t be cleared out to construct a full blown high school.
The portion of the forest purchased by the school district was previously owned by the Erickson family for about 50 years.

Up to this point, Julie Stutterheim, a resident of Platte Brooke North, and countless others urged Park Hill to reconsider their master plan to develop on this picturesque urban woodland. In particular, Stutterheim asked the school district to conserve or donate the 100 or so acres of forest not currently needed for the district’s master plan.

But a unanimous vote by the school board to move forward with its master plan closed the door to active discussions to relocate the proposed LEAD Innovation Studio and pending high school.

“We're disappointed with this decision but most of all we're disappointed this important community issue didn't warrant an open dialogue with the board and concerned citizens,” said Stutterheim.

The board’s decision made it clear the district was not in the business of conserving land.

Susan Newburger, vice president of the school board, stated the district was not permitted to buy land without the intention of building a structure on the land.

“During our 2011 bond issue--among other details--we promised the taxpayers we would purchase land for future schools,” said Newburger. “The board is obligated by that bond language to only use the land for facilities. The bond language defined exactly what that money could be used for,” she added.

The Challenges
The Park Hill School District has had 32 consecutive years of growth at a rate of one or two percent each year. To prevent overcrowding at existing schools, officials have used demographics studies as a tool for planning ahead. These studies and the fact the district has six mobile units suggest to school officials it is the appropriate time to build schools.

Nobody is arguing that new school facilities won’t be needed. Alternatively, some folks question why a forest on the eastern edge of the district was selected rather than another piece of property.

Superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd said: “One of the challenges we have in Park Hill is our space is getting more limited.”

For several years, Park Hill hired a real estate agent to locate available land. Once various locations were identified, the district examined multiple properties using 19 different criteria points. Proximity to the airport, housing development permits, floodplains and existing infrastructure were among the many factors officials considered when selecting the site location.

“They talk about building schools, for instance, in Johnson County. It is not a hard thing. You can push down a corn field and build. But we have much more beautiful land here. It also comes with some very interesting challenges, too,” said Cowherd.
In response to questions concerning available property on the western edge of Platte County, school officials revealed the infrastructure was inadequate. Cowherd pointed out Union Chapel Elementary was just recently connected to a sewer line. The project took 10 years.

“Waiting another 10 years to build infrastructure would be a challenge for us,” said Cowherd.

But the property at 68th Street and Waukomis Drive has its own unique challenges. Concerns of being too close to a floodplain, landlocked and too close to the road required experts to create three separate drawings for the new elementary school. Eventually, the design team settled on placing it on higher ground near an old farmhouse.

Construction on the elementary school, called Hopewell, will begin immediately. School officials say it will open in 2019. Construction on the LEAD Innovation Studio will soon follow.

Moving forward, Stutterheim said: “We hope the board understands how valuable and unique this forest is, as some of the last remaining original woodland forest within Kansas City in Platte County and they can count on us to continue to advocate on behalf of forest preservation.”

But when construction begins, it could turn out the forest isn’t the only obstacle for the district, as the site has numerous natural topographical constraints which may eventually even have fourth graders gasping.