When foxes run the chicken coop
March 31, 1983
I first wrote about Carpenter Park in 1978 and again in 1981. This riverside tract of 688 acres (roughly half the Springfield Park District’s total park acreage) is the only sizable natural area left in Sangamon County. It was left in the hands of lay elected trustees who had trouble distinguishing between a park and a nature preserve.
People don't pay much attention to the Springfield Park District, which suits the SPD just fine. Although its annual operating budget runs into the millions of dollars, most locals tend to lump their parks system into the same category of enterprise as church teas and chilli suppers. It's not hard to understand why; among the three questions put to candidates in the upcoming board elections by the local League of Women Voters was this one: "Should the district take a more active role in scheduling events?"
Back to you, Robin.
This is not to say that the SPD does not face real problems. For example, it is still possible to hear the turn-of-the-century boast that Springfield is "a city of parks." But while the local planning commission insists that, according to accepted standards, the city will need at least another 170 acres of park space in the next fifteen years or so, expansion has hardly been mentioned in the current campaign. As usual in a democracy, the controversies which matter the most are the ones which interest voters the least.
The silence merely confirms what locals already know, namely that if one were obliged for some reason to find a forward-looking man in a hurry, the park board would not be the first place one would look. Although some members, past and present, run for board seats out of a wayward civic-mindedness, historically most have done so to gain access to patronage, or to advance some recreational special interest. (The SPD board has a golf seat and a softball seat just like the U.S. Supreme Court has its black seat and its Jewish seat.) Like most special service districts, the operating style is fraternal, casual, cautious, with the hard thinking left to the professional staff and one or two key board members.
One such member is Patrick Cadigan, the current president of the SPD board. Cadigan is a lawyer, one of that species of Springfield attorney which swims in the rich littoral zone where politics and the law merge. His pivotal role on the board is suggested by the fact that he apparently is one of the few members who bothers to show up for meetings most of the time. His influence on the board is considerable, which is why what he says about park matters matters.
Cadigan's opponents in the April 12 board president race include Don Davis. Davis works for the State of Illinois. More pertinent is the fact that Davis is one of the most vocal critics of the SPD in the continuing controversy of Carpenter Park. Briefly, Carpenter Park on the Sangamon River (whose 688 acres comprise roughly half the SPD's total park acreage) is the only sizable natural area left in Sangamon County. An ambitious residential development has been planned immediately adjacent to the property, on the site of The Rail golf course. The SPD in 1978 agreed to annex the park to the Springfield Sanitary District, which by making The Rail site contiguous to the SSD made possible the construction of a sewer main to serve the proposed project. In exchange for this consideration, the developer—a local go-getter of the type who plants tract houses in a cornfield and calls it "Tivoli Gardens"—agreed to annex his property and all its lovely taxable houses to the SPD.
Said Davis in a recent conversation, "I question whether they have to work so closely with developers." The park board, for instance, failed to demand concessions from the developer (such as a buffer zone along the park boundary or revisions in his plat) as a condition of their approval of the sewer deal. The board argued at the time that making such demands risked nixing The Rail's annexation. In effect, the then-board sold Carpenter Park to the developer—not for cash but the promise of future revenue, and not the land, of course, but its park-ness, those attributes which make it worth saving in the first place.
The board has repeatedly dismissed fears about the future well-being of Carpenter Park as exaggerated (Cadigan most vehemently). On what grounds they base their optimism is not clear. The board did not and does not have available any in-house expertise on matters ecological. (Davis's election would mark the first time a board member brought any such independent expertise to the job; the typical board member's forte is softball, not songbirds.)
In the past its isolation from population centers protected Carpenter Park as much as enlightened management by the SPD. If The Rail proves popular, as many as 4,000 people may eventually settle next door. To date the SPD seems not to realize that little boys and dogs, if given free rein, are as efficient as bulldozers at changing a nature preserve into something that is neither natural or a preserve.
Suggestions that a barrier of some sort be erected along the park's exposed northern border have been rejected by the SPD on grounds of cost. Yet a couple of years ago the board agreed to spend more than fifty grand to put up landscape and cable barriers to deny vandals access by automobile to one of their golf courses. That "fence" was a sensible investment to protect valuable park property. Why not a fence for Carpenter Park?
Is it because the board members simply do not—or cannot—regard the preserve as an asset on a par with a golf course? (Were any of the board members poets, they might have written, "I think that I shall never see a tree as lovely as a tee.")
Without such defenses, The Rail development will transform Carpenter Park from a regional natural area into a neighborhood park. Protest over this fate led the board in 1979 to dedicate most of the park as a state nature preserve. This decision, significantly, was made at the initiative of the state, not the SPD, a fact which belies a recent SPD news release which boasts, "It was through the foresight of the Park Board that this park is being preserved for future generations."
No matter whose idea it was, the dedication was astute politics. Was it only politics? There is room for doubt. Cadigan's published replies to a League of Women Voters' candidate questionnaire show him to be unregenerate. Consider this sentence: "I strongly disagree with the elitist proposal that taxpayers be barred from this park and its use reserved to self-appointed 'conservationists' who would be its only users." Citizens who have followed the Carpenter Park story will recall that no one has actually proposed that taxpayers be barred from Carpenter Park. Further, Cadigan's implication that conservationists, self-appointed or otherwise, are not also taxpayers is equally mistaken. More subtle (but just as misleading) is his use of the term "park" to describe a property most of which is now officially a nature preserve. The two terms mean different things, a nature preserve being to a park what a statute is to a bill.
In that same statement, Cadigan avers, "I believe . . . that any taxpayer in the district should be free to use the parks he or she supports." But the issue—at least as it pertains to Carpenter Park—is not the use of the park but its misuse. The management master plan which Cadigan himself helped draft in conjunction with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission sets forth some very specific restrictions on the kinds of activities permissible inside the preserve.
Cadigan here is clearly trying to take credit both for protecting Carpenter Park and keeping it open at the same time. He can't, although local politics being what it is, it is often worth one's while to try. As for Cadigan's further assertion that the nature preserve "will remain in its present condition for posterity," well, we shall have to wait and see. As any attorney knows, one must draw careful distinctions between intention and the deed. ●