Tempers flared Thursday night as 36 people spoke at a special meeting called to discuss the park district’s plans to renovate Field Park, with the debate centering around the proposal to remove nine trees in the park.

In front of a packed house of nearly 200 at the Mann School auditorium, the park district and landscape architecture firm Altamanu explained the roughly year-and-a-half-long process of developing the park’s master plan and then opened the floor to public comment.

Speakers were relatively evenly divided between those supporting the current plan with all its features and those in favor of rejecting any plan that would destroy mature trees, with a few calling for a compromise between the sides.

After an initial speaker brought boos and hisses from the audience, Park Board President Mark Gartland declared that the audience should refrain from anything but applause.

Most speakers brought applause from that point on, from two distinctly separate portions of the audience. Tree supporters were focused in front, and those in favor of the current master plan toward the back of the auditorium.

Many of the supporters of the plan seemed to come from residents involved in baseball or soccer.

Kevin Toye, regional commissioner for AYSO soccer, said that his organization needed a regulation size field–what is being proposed for Field Park–badly.

“This is one of the few spaces where you can fit in a field,” he said, adding that many players currently must travel outside Oak Park to play or practice.

But Ashey Adler, who attended neighboring Mann, saw the park’s trees as a solace from the active nature of the rest of the park during recess in grade school.

Park District Executive Director Gary Balling said he was pleased with the turnout, but unsure where the park district would go from here.

“We’re going to talk to the [Illinois] Department of Natural Resources, but how quickly we can do that, we don’t know. We’re also going to talk to Senator Harmon’s office,” Gartland said. “They need to approve the plan. What that’s going to take, I don’t know.”

The IDNR has put its $399,000 grant for the project on hold until it can further review the plans. The grant was shepherded through the application process by state Sen. Don Harmon. Both have said they were unaware that trees would be removed in the course of the project.

Harmon’s Legislative Director Rob Baren was on hand for the meeting, as the senator was in a special legislative session in Springfield. Deborah Stone, deputy director of the IDNR, was also present.

Harmon, who grew up near the park, recalled fond memories of the park in a statement read by Baren.

“I supported and still support the renovation of Field Park. … That said, I was quite surprised to learn … the park district’s revised plans called for the clearing of so many mature trees,” Harmon’s statement read.

“It’s really the DNR that’s involved in this,” Harmon said Friday afternoon. “I will encourage the park district to come up with a solution that makes sense, but it’s up to the DNR to decide what’s right for their program.”

The DNR could not be reached for comment.

Altamanu’s John Mac Manus made a presentation attempting to explain to the audience how the park’s design came about.

“With all the rhetoric that’s been going on, I’m a little confused,” Mac Manus said. “People have different memories of the public planning process.”

In response to the claim that the park district had not placed any emphasis on the removal of the trees, Mac Manus brought up notes from a public planning meeting in March 2006.

“I want the trees to stay,” Mac Manus read, “but removing them might depend … on what we might gain?”

“We could take some trees out, but have to plant lots of new ones,” Mac Manus said was the meeting’s general conclusion.

But Joy Michel, a park neighbor who said she attended all the public meetings she was aware of, protested.

“[The process] didn’t work. We were never informed after the meetings of what the plan actually was,” Michel said. “I think it’s just terrible to take out trees.”

Mac Manus said that at the second public planning meeting, he presented an overlay that clearly showed that many trees would be removed, including the honey locust tree that has become the center of the debate. Opponents of the trees’ removal claim the honey locust is 120 years old, though the park district could not confirm this.

For all the controversy the tree has garnered, Balling says not much attention has been paid to the fact that the honey locust grows two-inch long thorns from its branches and trunk.

“When the park district used to have, on the parkways, different trees that had thorns on them, people would call and complain,” Balling said. “When you’ve got kids playing with balls, it’s definitely an issue.”

Mac Manus said honey locusts would not be planted today.

Gartland said that he feels that the current master plan is still the park district’s plan if the DNR doesn’t ask for any changes, though he added he couldn’t speak for the rest of the park board.

“That’s the plan we want to do. That’s the plan that went through the master planning process, that had all the input, this is our plan,” Gartland said. “In an ideal situation, that’s it.”

The park board will hold its regular meeting 7:30 on Tuesday at Mann School, and will likely further discuss Field’s fate.

Also, a master planning meeting for Maple Park will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Monday at Carroll Center.

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...