The Park District of Oak Park, Monday, presented a pointed refutation to a number of critical and accusatory e-mails sent to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources recently by critics of the Field Park renovation.

Those critics, including park neighbor Les Golden, area resident Tom Steffens and arborist and Oak Park Forestry Commission member Kathryn Jonas, have accused the park district of a litany of mistakes during last fall’s Field renovation. In particular, they charge the park district with intentionally neglecting three trees in the center of the park, including a large, century-old honey locust, and two other locust trees near the park’s play lot.

Golden and the park district are currently in Cook County Circuit court over his alleged criminal trespass last fall in restricted areas of the park construction site during his frequent protests of the construction process.

The largest tree, a 40-foot locust, was at the center of a controversy last August after neighbors became alarmed by the possibility of the park district removing the broad shade trees to accommodate a planned full-size soccer field.

That situation was resolved last August after input from two additional public meetings, and renovation work proceeded. As part of a compromise plan, the three mature trees were spared destruction, and the planned soccer field downsized and re-graded.

However, Golden has contended repeatedly in phone calls, in person and via e-mail over the past two months that heavy topsoil cover over the trees, placed during the re-grading, is depriving the trees’ root systems of water and oxygen, gradually killing them.

In a June 16 e-mail announcing a press conference at Field, Golden wrote, “A professional arborist will show that the three large trees remaining in the park have been buried under 2-3 feet of clay and wrapped in gym mats which will cause the bark of the trees to rot, become infested with bugs, and die within 1-2 years. This deliberate act on the part of the park district is to allow them to claim that the trees died of old age after their being saved from the chainsaws. This will enable the park district to get the Olympic-sized soccer field they desire.”

On July 15, Golden wrote, “One or two years from now the park district will state, ‘Those trees were old and sick, and they died naturally.'” 

Josephine Bellalta of Altamanu, the landscape design firm that planned and oversaw the renovation of Field Center, bristled at Golden’s suggestion of ulterior motives by the park district.

“By saying that, I think he’s suggesting the park district is being unethical about what they say and what they promise,” Bellalta said by phone last week. She said they took a conservative approach with the Field re-grading in a re-drawn grading plan.

“In a typical re-grade we stay within a 6-inch limit in anything under the drop line (the circle formed by the canopy cover. “I required they keep it within a 3-inch limit,” said Bellalta. “The highest increase was .27 feet,” she said, just over 3 inches.

“I was there on site with the crews during the renovation, knowing what an issue it would be,” said Bellalta.

Tuesday, Golden backed away slightly from his earlier statements.

“I’m not going to say they want them dead,” he said. “I’m just going to say, in their current state, they’re going to die.”

Contention over clay

Jonas, an ISA-certified arborist and a member of the Oak Park Forestry Commission, e-mailed Illinois Department of Natural Resources Grant Program Director Mick Rosendahl Saturday, listing 14 specific complaints related to the park renovation.

“The three mature ‘compromise’ trees from the central grove were all buried under a foot of mostly clay when the hill was leveled for the [full]-sized soccer field,” wrote Jonas. “These trees will likely start declining as their roots will not be able to tolerate such a drastic grade change.”

Information from the International Society of Arborists states that most tree root systems draw the majority of water, oxygen and other nutrients from soil 6-12 inches from the surface. According to 1996 data compiled by Kim D. Coder of the University of Georgia, clay cover over root systems has damaging consequences starting at one inch of cover, with 3 inches causing “massive root damage.”

Rosendahl wrote Balling a brief letter, July 31, noting that his staff had received “communication from your community” alleging problems at Field Park.

“While the park district’s recent actions do not violate any agreement or plan, we wanted to remind your agency of your contractual responsibilities in regard to this project under the OSLAD grant program,” Rosendahl wrote.

“The IDNR is confident that the Park District of Oak Park will fully adhere to its responsibilities and continue to properly maintain the Field Park recreational facilities and park property.”

It’s unclear what any IDNR inspection will find. Late Friday morning, Aug. 1, the soil in the area immediately around the three trees’ trunks at the root level had been dug away to a depth of 6-12 inches. The exposed soil appeared, to a reporter’s non-expert eyes and hands, to look and feel like clay.

A visit to the site by the reporter, accompanied by a photographer, around 1 p.m., Friday afternoon, showed the excavated areas had been filled with soil and mulch.

Park District Executive Director Gary Balling expressed mild exasperation Monday afternoon.

“We’ve gone back and forth on this. I don’t know what further to tell you,” he said.

Balling sent a response to Jonas’ charges to the IDNR via e-mail Monday afternoon. Saying the park district “takes our roles very seriously as stewards of the environment,” Balling offered a point-by-point refutation of Jonas’ criticisms, mirroring Bellalta’s responses.

Balling said the park district is “making every effort to protect and preserve the trees,” and will have them reviewed by a certified arborist in the near future.

Both Bellalta and Balling also vehemently insisted there was no clay added to the site.

“If there was clay it’s because it was already there,’ Bellalta said, noting that arborist Harold Hoover of Kramer Tree Care had visited the Field site “numerous times,” and found nothing amiss. In a letter to the park district, Hoover indicated his assessment of the re-grade soil was that it was “industry standard” pulverized black soil.

“The environment for those trees is fine,” said Bellalta.

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