Tree fury at Field

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By BILL DWYER

More than 60 northwest Oak Park residents rallied Sunday at Field Center to protest park district renovation plans which call for the removal of 14 shade trees and the replanting of nine others to make way for a new soccer field.

Organizers of the rally said the park district had not been straightforward in presenting its plans while park officials said two public meetings had been held during the planning process.

As a result of the upset, however, the park board has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday evening to listen to concerns and to explain the process it followed. The meeting will take place at 7:30 p.m. and be held in the auditorium of Mann School, which is adjacent to the park at Woodbine and Division.

Senator Don Harmon said Tuesday afternoon that he has heard from officials at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) that they had contacted the park district and informed it that if it wanted to receive a $399,000 project reimbursement grant awarded last October for the Field renovation, "they should not engage in any construction or disturb any trees until (the IDNR) has reviewed the construction plans."

Park District Executive Director Gary Balling said Tuesday afternoon that he had been told by the IDNR's director that the district "should stop construction." Balling said he responded that he'd already committed to doing nothing with the trees until after Thursday's meeting. "I couldn't see any point why construction needed to stop," said Balling. He said he had not received further word from the IDNR on the issue Tuesday afternoon.

Harmon said he hoped to have a representative at that Thursday's meeting. "I also hope the IDNR has a representative at the meeting," he said. Unconfirmed reports are that the IDNR will in fact have an official at the meeting.

Park officials had placed an announcement of the coming renovations on the gate of the Division Street fence fronting the south end of the park last Friday afternoon. Within hours there was a flurry of e-mails to various environmental activists, park commissioners and staff, and the media. By Sunday, Harmon, who had helped obtain state funding for the project, had received over a dozen phone calls.

"We've gotten well over a hundred phone calls," he said Tuesday.

On Sunday, the hottest day of the year, an upset group of more than 60 park neighbors gathered under the shade of a sprawling 120 year old Honey Locust tree. They held up signs and listened to numerous speakers criticize what they called the park district's unannounced decision to cut down most of the trees currently running south to north through what will be the new center of the park.

"State of Illinois. $400,000 to kill trees?" read one sign. "Save the 120 year old Honey Locust tree," read another.

The main culprit, rally organizers alleged, was youth soccer, which would get a new 60 by 110 yard field for children ages 12 and older to use. More generally, members of the group criticized what they saw as a preference for more athletic fields over passive, shaded green space.

Balling was at the park along with park board President Mark Gartland and Commissioner Christine Graves. John McManus of the landscape design firm Altamanu, which worked on the master plan for the park, was also present.

Gartland said the park district had sought input from neighbors. "The process was a group process. We had two public meetings," he said. Taking down trees, he said, was not done cavalierly.

"We agonized over these trees and that we had to take them down."

Altamanu's McManus said that the park district was looking comprehensively at the long term use of Field Center. McManus said no single element should trump another in that planning, saying "We shouldn't base the future use of this park on this one tree."

He also seconded Gartland's contention that the public was properly notified on the park district's plans for Field.

But most in Sunday's audience said they were unaware of any plans to raze trees. Neither was Harmon, who facilitated a $399,000 renovation reimbursement grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for the project last October.

Harmon said that prior to Sunday he had been unaware that any trees would be removed.

"That was the first I heard of it," said Harmon, who is currently tied up in Springfield with an ongoing special legislative session.

Joy Michel of the 1000 block of Woodbine Avenue said she had attended every public session the park district held, and that she never heard any talk of cutting down trees.

"Never did they talk about taking down trees for athletic fields," she said. "That never came up. The community wanted no trees cut down."

Activist Les Golden, who was one of three rally organizers, urged the crowd to call or e-mail Harmon and their state reps, village officials, and the state of Illinois, including officials at the Department of Natural Resources.

Fellow organizer Kathryn Jonas, a member of the Oak Park Forestry Commission, bemoaned the fact that her commission had not yet discussed a proposed tree preservation ordinance.

"If we had (an ordinance) in place, the park district would have had to come to us," she said. Jonas added that she hoped to have the Forestry Commission issue a letter Tuesday stating its opposition to the park district plan.

Marty Romberg, who said his children participate in numerous organized sports activities, said he felt the park district was unbalanced in its approach to park renovations.

"We need the nature part of it too," he said. "It isn't all about sports and competition."

A few in the crowd disagreed, though.

"I think there's a lot of people in the neighborhood who are very much for the plan," said Marie Schoen, who lives at Forest and Division." Those people, Schoen said, avoided the rally, fearing their presence would be perceived as support of the protest.

Balling said Monday that part of any misunderstanding may have come with how the soccer field was originally presented to the state agency in drawings.

"The (I)DNR won't fund school property," said Balling. Thus the plan presented to the agency showed only park property, and a 40 by 60 yard soccer field, not a 60 by 110 yard field.

"All you see is the park (district) side, with Woodbine (Street) going west," he said. "You don't see Woodbine going east."

Asked if that might cause some confusion, Balling said, "I do. I can see that."

The IDNR press release announcing the $399,000 grant to redevelop Field Park did not mention the soccer field or any tree removal, saying only, "Facilities include a new playground, a splash pad, pathway, shelter, bocce ball courts and landscaping."

Balling said park district staff and board members were looking to explain the process they went through to design the park at Thursday's meeting.

Balling reiterated what he told protesters Sunday. "I said I'd have park planners take a look at it," he said. "And that we won't remove any trees until after Thursday's meeting." Balling also told the protesters Sunday that the park district intended to proceed with its plans, saying, "We're going to go forward. This project needs to go forward."

Harmon said the goal of Thursday's meeting should be to "work out a sensible compromise that includes a nicely redone park that still includes large trees."

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