Who Is Protecting Carpenter Park?
Against government, nature doesn't stand a chance
August 27, 1981
A follow-up to my 1978 piece summarizing early efforts to protect Springfield’s Carpenter Park from the effects of nearby development. Stories like it can be told about places all over Illinois as dedicated conservationists battle aggressive developers and clueless public officials. I would write about the park controversy a third time, in 1983.
The eventual outcome? A Korean War cease-fire, basically. Developer Leonard Sapp got his golf community and he agreed to set aside a 19.5-acre buffer but no barrier. Friends of Sangamon Valley, the Sierra Club, and other groups conduct work days at the park to plant native species and control invasive plants while the Springfield Park District does nothing, which is better than the SPD doing the right thing badly or the wrong thing well, like it usually does.
It is a measure of the ignorance among the public that so many people in Springfield refer to the 438-acre forest that sits on the Sangamon River north of the capital as "Carpenter's Park" instead of its proper name, "Carpenter Park." The park has been there since 1921, more appreciated than visited; most of what people know about it they know from headlines about "the Carpenter Park controversy."
The controversy started seven years ago. It involves at least eight government agencies, one of Springfield's most successful land developers, and environmentalists (both organized and freelance). Casual readers of newspapers will recall some mention of sewer pipe and brown creepers; casual readers of bumper stickers will recall one that reads, "Don't Sapp Carpenter Park."
The story of Carpenter Park has a simple plot, even if the working out of that plot has become very complicated indeed. Real estate developer Leonard Sapp has plans for an ambitious housing development on and near the eighteen-hole Rail golf course which immediately abuts the park's northern edge. Friends of the park don't want him to build that development—at least as it's now designed—because they think it will ruin the park. Mr. Sapp is winning, so far.
Nature next to a golf course
Carpenter Park consists of forested bluffs and floodplain, interrupted on its western fringes by farmland. The land was purchased by the Springfield Park District in 1921 and kept relatively untouched as a nature area ever since. Carpenter Park was expanded in 1970 when the SPD purchased an additional 250 acres to its west, Gurgens Park. When the state's Department of Conservation surveyed Illinois' remaining natural areas in 1975, it discovered that Carpenter Park harbored roughly half the high-quality forest left in an area stretching across all or part of twelve counties of central Illinois. In 1979, parts of the parks—327 acres, which excluded the farmland plus a few public access and service areas—were formally dedicated as a nature preserve under the Illinois Nature Preserve System.
There is an almost melodramatic irony in the fact that this tiny island of wildness should become neighbor to a golf course, perhaps the pluperfect engineered environment. Sapp's original plans for The Rail housing development were drafted in the mid-1970s, and called for 477 detached single-family houses, condos, and cluster houses on roughly 240 acres of land. The houses were to be built among and near the meandering fairways on streets bearing such names as "Cabin Smoke Drive." The sketches of the project bore the legend, "The dreams which accompany all human actions should be nurtured by the places in. which people live."
The Rail was expected to eventually house some 2,000 people. And "people" mean dogs, cats, kids (ecologically, all must be considered predator species), beer cans, stereos, motorbikes, paper plates, insecticides, street lights, starlings, exhaust fumes, weed killers, and carelessly tended campfires.
A meeting was held last November in Department of Conservation offices in Springfield. The meeting provided staff from the Department of Conservation and Illinois State Museum, plus Sierra Club members (what DOC naturalist John Schwegman later called "protection interests") a chance to "reach a consensus on the real threats" to the park. These informal discussions were to constitute the closest thing to a Carpenter Park environmental impact statement so far drawn up.
The consensus, when it came, comprised a list of nineteen "possible negative impacts" to the park from The Rail, a list ranging from domestic pets and vandalism to the spread of non-native plants and animals into the park. Sapp has given various officials private assurances that pets (to pick one example) will not be allowed to roam unattached, but has made no detailed public response. Some SPD board members have dismissed worries about degradation of the park as either unfounded or exaggerated.
There is no way to prove a case in advance for either side, of course. But a few clues may be found in the experience of other, similarly situated natural areas in other parts of the state. DOC staff members note that there is no other high-quality forest remnant situated with a high-density residential development so close to it. But one or two with fewer people living farther away have suffered for their proximity. Most are in the Chicago metropolitan area, but one, Spitler Woods, stands southeast of Decatur. The woods, which is owned and managed by DOC, has had instances of vandalism sufficiently worrisome that the staff is considering recommending fencing in the entire property.
As part of their deliberations, however, the DOC "protection interests" noted that certain management steps, plus some other minor modifications in The Rail's layout, would minimize threats to the park. They endorsed the wisdom of increasing security patrols (to keep down firewood thefts, for example), a chain link fence to stem unauthorized access by both people and animals, plant screenings (to reduce noise and light impacts), and a buffer zone of 100 feet between the park and The Rail.
Several of these steps would require Sapp's consent. The DOC group suggested removing the proposed high-density cluster housing to a more remote part of the project. It also suggested construction of a 100-foot buffer zone, and possibly relocating the access road that runs along the park border, or building a park on the housing site to provide residents with a recreational alternative to Carpenter Park. All have the disadvantage of costing money. Sapp reportedly has expressed polite interest in such modifications but has made no commitments.
The only alternative to relying on the charity of the developer is the Springfield Park District itself. Under the terms of the nature preserve dedication signed in 1979, management of the preserve remains in the hands of the SPD, subject to stipulations set forth by DOC in a master plan for the preserve. There is a sizable faction among local cross-country skiers, canoeists, birders, and hikers that the SPD is not ideally equipped for the role of babysitter. Most other preserves in Illinois are managed by the Department of Conservation, or by a local forest district or conservation district, rather than by an urban park district. An urban district's mandates, if not exactly incompatible with nature preservation, often are uncomfortable with it. As is the case in most cities, there are more golfers than bird watchers on the SPD board.
For instance in September of 1978 David Bohlen and Everett Cashatt, a state museum ornithologist and zoologist respectively, sent a letter to the State Journal-Register expressing their fears that increased pressure from The Rail population could eventually lead to political pressures to clear areas of the park for picnicking, to spray for mosquitoes, and so on, as well as the unintentional damages done by human and animal intruders. Patrick Cadigan, the president of the SPD, responded with a letter of his own in which he took issue with his critics while ignoring the larger point of their complaint. Cadigan chastised the pair for what he called their "keep people out of the parks" attitude. He noted that 120,000 people in the county pay taxes to the SPD (a figure which includes children, by the way) and concluded, "I believe that these taxpayers have every right to use the park space provided by the district."
However, it is precisely the point of nature preserve dedication that taxpayers do not have every right to use park space. The DOC guidelines state, in Section 5.01, "The principal visitor activity . . . . shall be walking and observing." Picnicking, camping, sports, plant gathering, and dog walking are specifically excluded. Some provision for such activities have been made inside the park but outside the actual preserve area, but it is unclear how scrupulously the public will abide this distinction.
The state guidelines say very clearly, "Use of preserves shall be allowed only to such extent and in such manner as will not impair natural conditions." To guarantee this, it empowers the SPD to limit the number of visitors, their access to the park, the hours they may enter, and where they may go when they are in it. Heretofore providing security has been relatively easy because of the park's remoteness from nearby urban areas. But The Rail may be expected to increase security problems enormously. The SPD no longer has a full-time custodian in the park, because of budget cuts, and park district police visit the place on patrol only two or three times a day.
According to Don Davis, the state worker from Springfield who helped organize the Coalition to Protect Carpenter Park, there have been increased instances of firewood thefts from along the park's exposed northern border. Worse, last winter five mature walnut trees were stolen from two remote parts of the parks. Tree theft is not a problem in most city parks. But walnut logs bring high prices, up to $600 for a sixteen-footer. Their theft from both public and private lands, although down in recent years because of DOC crackdowns, still is far from rare. This is not vandalism but business; as Schwegman notes, "They cut them right down to the ground, because the butt end of a good walnut log is worth a lot of money."
Thieves aren't the only visitors to a park. Section 405 of the DOC management guidelines states, "All fires shall be brought under control as quickly as possible." But that's easier said than done in a place as remote as Carpenter-Gurgens. In March a brush fire broke out in a far corner of the park and eventually burned two acres. The cause of the fire is officially undetermined, although Sherman fire chief Richard Coon says he saw no evidence of a campfire. Arson is a possibility, as is plain old-fashioned carelessness, or children playing with matches—all risks that are likely to increase with population in the area.
It has been repeatedly suggested by protection interests that a fence—preferably steel and preferably at least six feet tall—be built around the park to restrict access and thus make security easier. SPD president Cadigan has suggested the possibility of a plant barrier, but the issue has not surfaced officially at the SPD, in part because district officials do not yet acknowledge a need for one. Such a fence would be expensive, as would a full-time custodian. Besides, as SPD executive director Robert Lawson insists, "It is a public park." Yes—and no. It is also a state nature preserve, and, sadly, people are among the things nature must be preserved against.
Who protects the park?
The friends of Carpenter Park worry that, by acquiescing too eagerly to The Rail project, the current Springfield Park District board may be rewriting sixty years of enlightened district policy. When the SPD bought the Carpenter Park land in 1921 for $87,000, there was no condition that the land be held as a nature preserve. The relatively unspoiled nature of the park is owed to a succession of SPD boards who acted with the tacit understanding that a nature preserve was the best use of that particular piece of land.
It is worth noting that when questions were raised about the possible threats development might pose to the park's fragile ecology, they were raised not by the SPD, the body charged with responsibility for it, but by private citizens. That such questions were not asked by the SPD may be proof of its indifference. It may also be proof of its ignorance; the SPD does not have a naturalist on its staff to advise it on such matters, and although advice could be had for the asking from staff members of both DOC and the Illinois State Museum, the SPD, in the exasperated words of one of the former, "never asked for it."
The question arises then: Who is protecting Carpenter Park? Don Davis thinks that no one is. "All the agencies involved took the narrow look at it." Referring to the construction of the Springfield Sanitary District sewer line, which will traverse the park to The Rail, Davis says, "They looked just at the impact of the construction itself. They didn't consider the broader impacts of development. They all had their statutory blinders on."
For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which has a say because the Sangamon River is officially a navigable waterway) ruled that building the sewer line across the river was not "a significant action," even though in doing so the Corps ignored the impact of the line on adjacent wetlands, says Davis. Davis also says that during the Department of Conservation's review, the impact of the line on two nearby floodplain sloughs was ignored. "They're unimportant in themselves, but it shows sloppy work. They essentially rubber-stamped the permit application."
A residential development of the size of The Rail located so close to the county's last surviving forest remnant is in apparent violation of one of the tenets of the land use policy plan drawn up in the mid-1970s by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission. The land use policy plan is intended to be for local zoning, building, and planning officials what the Ten Commandments are to good Christians, but both, sadly, are merely advisory.
Besides, planning, like life, gets awfully complicated sometimes. "Obviously we don't want to damage any of the natural areas we have," explains planning commission director Harry Hopkins. "Our problem is that this development is out of our jurisdiction. That land is within the Village of Sherman." The planning commission is drafting a comprehensive development plan for the fast-growing village, but The Rail and a couple of smaller housing projects nearby, being already platted, are immune to the commission's advice. "It's a real wrinkler," says Hopkins. "Mr. Sapp submitted his plan before the park was officially designated a natural area. He was the first in the game, and as I understand the law, once he has approval, he has the right to go on.
"I suspect this will not be the last such conflict we'll see in Sangamon County. There really needs to be some coordination. You have the City of Springfield, the park district, the sanitary district, Sherman—all these units of government involved. The planning commission could serve as an intermediary." Hopkins pauses. "On the other hand, I don't know if I'd want to try to sort this one out. Isn't there an easy one we could try first?
The core of the problem is that planning tends to proceed piecemeal, and government has accommodated itself to that process so perfectly that there is virtually no useful organ by which the broader impacts of development may be assessed or controlled. (The planning commission is supposed to serve that function, but it lacks muscle.) For example, The Rail meets or exceeds current planning and zoning requirements, as far as they apply. Its overall density is quite low, its toilets will not overload its sewers, nor will its cars clog its streets. Whether those requirements go far enough is the point.
Despairing of bureaucratic protection, Davis and the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club have sought legal means to stop the sewer project, partly for fear of the effects of construction and partly as a means to impede development of land at the other end of that sewer. But the DOC's Schwegman, for example, says that Davis and the Sierra Clubbers have tried to "mix the issues" of The Rail and of attaining preserve status for the park. Schwegman says he pushed for dedication as a preserve in order to forestall some dire future fate, such as subdivision.
"The secondary impacts of nearby residential development are a problem," he explains, "but it's not as bad as the potential loss of the park. From the department's point of view, residential development is usually the best alternative. It's better than having a shopping center out there, or a factory."
Neither has the Sierra Club won much support from the local academic community. Sangamon State University's Sangamon River Basin Project began in 1980 as what SSU called a "grand debate" on the future of central Illinois. Yet to date the project staff has not taken a public position on Carpenter Park, in spite of private pressure to speak out, because, project staff members say, comment would be outside the purview of the study.
For the moment, then, the Sierra Club is the sole voice asking the kinds of questions that should have been asked a long time ago by the welter of public bodies whose decisions touch upon the fate of Carpenter Park. "The net effect" of the chain of decisions leading to The Rail, wrote Davis not long ago, "has been to allow some of the [park's] natural value, belonging to all citizens and living organisms, to be transferred to the market value of Sapp's housing." Trees are worth money to more people than walnut thieves. Davis expanded on that theme more recently, when he said, "In Sangamon County it's the last chance to preserve a natural ecosystem, to do the only archaeology that matters. The major value of Carpenter Park is a sacred non-economic value, and much of the government is too good at putting an economic value on everything, or holding that economic value is more important than other values." ●
Sidebar: "Drowned beneath suburbia"
Like most complicated issues, the Carpenter Park controversy was almost predestined to end up in court. Opponents of developments like Fancy Creek Settlement at The Rail on the park's northern edge have focused their legal and bureaucratic raids on the most vulnerable link connecting those distant developments to the civilized world. In February the Coalition to Protect Carpenter Park—the formal rubric of Don Davis and a loose gathering of local environmentalists—filed a complaint with the Illinois Pollution Control Board alleging (correctly, apparently) that Leonard Sapp was building sewers at The Rail site without appropriate Illinois EPA permits. The specific intent of the action was to force removal of the sewers; the broader intent was (in the words of a Sierra Club statement issued later) to "modify Sapp's land use plans."
A hearing on the complaint was set, but the Coalition abandoned the complaint. Instead opponents shifted tactics in search of a more substantial target. In July the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club filed suit in Sangamon County circuit court against the Springfield Park District and the Springfield Sanitary District, seeking a permanent injunction against construction of the 16-inch sewer line which eventually will cross the Sangamon River and connect The Rail and nearby developments to the sanitary district system. The immediate complaint focused on the possible damage done to the park by the sewer construction itself. The park district had granted the sanitary district a temporary construction corridor along a railroad track that bisects Carpenter Park and adjacent Gurgens Park. But the corridor is narrow, and the terrain in places very steep. Says Randle Schick, the Springfield lawyer arguing the case for the Sierra Club, "We are told by zoologists that the greatest diversity of life in such areas occurs along the edge. Construction crews have already taken some trees out and burned some trees. We think they're already encroaching on park land they haven't been given permission to use."
There may be other threats. "The groundwater there has Artesian qualities, so that it bubbles to the surface. Our worry is that the crews will have to do so much pumping that they may draw down water levels in the surrounding habitat."
But as was the case in the earlier abortive complaint to the Pollution Control Board, the larger goal is to stop or modify the development planned at the other end of that sewer pipe. It is the Sierra Club's contention that when the park district allowed the sanitary district access to the park to build the sewer line, the park district violated its public trust to protect the Carpenter Park nature preserve. The club's precedent? The Allerton Park case, during which the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that citizens had a right to sue to protect that natural area near Monticello from flooding which would have been caused by the proposed Oakley Dam on the Sangamon River. In a statement released when the suit was filed, Schick wrote, "The new subdivisions' residents . . . will flood Carpenter Park as surely as the Oakley Dant would have inundated Allerton Park. The ecology of Carpenter Park . . . will be drowned beneath this tide of suburbia."
To date, however, it is the Sierra Club suit that is in danger of sinking. Judge Simon Friedman dismissed the Sierra Club's original request for an injunction on the grounds that the local club was not registered as a not-for-profit organization with the State of Illinois. Paperwork delays in establishing that status led Don Davis (as head of the Coalition) and Paul Dorosheff (representing the Sangamon River All-Crafts Race, Inc.) to file a second, identical suit.
Then in August, Davis and Dorosheff's request for a temporary injunction halting sewer work was denied on grounds that there was no immediate threat to the park from the construction (although the suit itself continues). As a result, the plaintiffs may find themselves in the position of arguing in court against a sewer line that has already been built. "We may still have an opportunity to argue the case on its merits," explains Schick, "but unfortunately the sewer will have been laid."
The elements may do what the lawyers have so far failed to do, however. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency requires that the sewer be laid across the Sangamon during a period of low flow—ordinarily late summer. But there has been no low flow in this very wet year, and construction has been delayed for weeks because of wet ground. "This year there may not be low flow until January or February," says Schick, almost hopefully. ●
Sidebar: Leonard Sapp's "imagineering"
In June, the staff of Sangamon State University's Sangamon River Basin Project invited developer Leonard Sapp to submit a position statement on Carpenter Park. The statement, prepared by public relations consultants Steve and Carol Rodgers, was published in the SRBP's August newsletter. An abridged version follows.
"Imagineering" . . . a coined word which perhaps describes better than anything in Webster's annals the contribution made to our community by Leonard W. Sapp and his associates.
Since the firm's conception in 1955, Leonard W. Sapp has been visibly instrumental in changing the face of Springfield and Sangamon County with his foresight and imaginative developments. Undertaking his first project in 1956, Val-E-Vue Acres, Sapp introduced to mid-America the concept of recreational living to the prospective home buyer. As a promotional attraction, he gave away a pony with each lot sold. Val-E-Vue provided riding stables, a practice ring with monthly pony shows, fishing and swimming facilities. Sapp himself did much of the manual labor of clearing the land, cutting streets, laying water pipes and sewers, etc.
At that time, Sapp's site selection and conceptual progress were frowned upon . . . just as innovative thinking and planning is often frowned upon today by shortsighted persons who lack the ability to look ahead at the "big picture." Today Northwest Springfield, including Val-E-Vue Acres, has sprouted into a very desirable neighborhood for local homeowners....
To the north of town is the development that has put Springfield on the sportsman's map, The Rail Golf Club. The Rail is best known as the home of the annual $125,000 LPGA Rail Charity Classic. The challenging 18-hole golf course, designed by the world-renowned Robert Trent Jones, attracts golf enthusiasts and tourists from all over the country.
The Rail Golf Club was originally conceived by a group of local businessmen in 1965 and they contracted to purchase the land from Sapp and Jacob Bunn, Jr. When the group fell behind on payments and the project stalled, Sapp and Bunn reclaimed the land and completed the 18-hole golf course. At this time, as early as 1969, maps and designs were already on the drawing board to develop this 240-acre tract of land into a sportsman's paradise, with homesites surrounding the fairways.
Over 1,000 trees were planted, a new clubhouse was built, and townhouses and single-family dwellings were planned. Sapp envisioned an entire subdivision, the Fancy Creek Settlement. Low-density housing would be constructed adjacent to the golf course in this sparsely populated area north of town, and made available to families seeking privacy, recreation, and the beauty of nature.
And again the unimaginative, shortsighted people are frowning, complaining, and trying to impede a development which would pump much-needed money into a sagging construction industry.
Leonard W. Sapp has fought for years for the preservation of land in order to put it to its most productive use for the benefit of PEOPLE. There are certain species which he would hate to see become extinct: i.e. a productive labor force becoming extinct due to a lack of investment capital, or proud homeowners becoming extinct due to a lack of affordable housing at affordable interest rates. ●