A Park That Needs Protection from People
Springfield’s Carpenter Park under threat
September 15, 1978
This piece was labeled a “background report” on threats to Sangamon County’s largest natural area. Sadly, the owner of the tract—the Springfield Park Board—was created to provide recreation for people who vote, not habitat for birds who don’t. I did a follow-up piece about this park; it appears here.
This is a story about local government, and like all local government stories in Illinois it is complicated. At stake is the future of Sangamon County's biggest remaining wild area; at issue is the ability of governments to settle contending claims on land, the public purse and their own fractured allegiances.
In 1921, the Springfield Park District took deed to Carpenter Park, 438 acres of oak forest on the north bank of the Sangamon River north of the capital. The park's unspoiled woodlands were left untouched except for the construction of a few hiking trails, which have proved popular with birders, hikers, cross-country skiers, school groups, and nature lovers. It is the last speck of land of appreciable size in the plowed, mowed, and paved stretches of Sangamon County to survive the last century and a half of human expansion.
Carpenter Park provides a haven for many wild animals, including at least one bird species—the brown creeper—on the Illinois endangered species list. It also provides a haven for people looking to purge the illness that afflicts their souls when they spend too much time in cities. Though it is owned and managed by the Springfield Park District, the park is classified as a regional recreational resource—one of too few available, to Sangamon County-ites; according to a 1974 planning study, the county was found to have barely 40 percent of the amount of such parklands thought adequate for a county its size.
Isolation has been the salvation of Carpenter Park. It is a long drive from the county's heavily populated areas, and that and the deliberately limited array of recreations allowed there keeps human traffic through the park low. But urbanization has been creeping toward Carpenter Park like the muddy brown water of a spring flood. A few months ago Leonard Sapp, the busy Springfield land developer who owns The Rail golf course north of the park, announced plans to build from 450 to 500 housing units on ninety acres of now-vacant land adjacent to The Rail. Another 200 acres will, if the developer's hopes are realized, be developed in the next ten to fifteen years. When the project is completed, engineers estimate that as many as four thousand people may live within walking distance of Carpenter Park.
The implications of progress landing on the banks of the Sangamon did not become a public issue, however, until August 15, when the question of annexing Carpenter Park to the Springfield Sanitary District was argued by the board of the Springfield park district. Partly at the request of other developers in the area, who wanted to get access to city sewer service, Sapp had struck a bargain with the park board. According to its terms, the board would agree to annex Carpenter Park to the Springfield Sanitary District; this would make Sapp and adjacent property owners contiguous to the SSD and thus eligible for hookups with the SSD's sewer system. In return, Sapp agreed to annex his land to the park district, thus expanding the tax base of the financially pinched district.
The former annexation proposal excited environmentalists who were worried that the whole project would do irreparable damage to the park and its wildlife. The unofficial delegation (not all of whom were present at that first meeting) included Vernon Kleen, who is an ornithologist for the state's Department of Conservation, David Bohlen, an ornithologist for the Illinois State Museum and zoologist Dr. Everett Cashatt. The protesters argued that the new homes would introduce to the neighborhood the pest species that follow man and thrive in his company, such as starlings, house sparrows, even rats. These species would crowd out native species in the park by appropriating their food supplies and nesting sites. Domestic dogs and cats would kill or disturb ground-nesting animals and birds, and even the streetlights, by artificially disrupting cycles of night and day, would contribute to the upsetting of the park's delicate ecosystem.
People, too , would cause problems, they warned. There would be a dramatic increase in casual traffic through the park with all the unhappy effects—litter, trampled underbrush, minibikes, vandalism—that such traffic entails. Carpenter Park, they reminded the park board, was not a neighborhood park. Without protection, it would never survive its new neighbors.
There were two problems facing the board, actually. The first seems solvable. The park board must grant an easement to the Springfield Sanitary District if it is to run a new sewer line north through the park's western flank. The brown creeper nests there, and Kleen, Bohlen, et al wanted assurances that no route would be allowed which would disturb it; they also worried lest trees be cut down. The park board has provided those assurances.
It was the second of the problems, the more general threats to the park ecosystem posed by contiguous development, which divided the protesters and the park board. They couldn't even agree that there was a threat at first. Board president Patrick Cadigan, for example, said recently that he was skeptical of the protesters' claims. "I wonder where they got their facts," he said. "You can't just come in here and make bold statements without anything to back them up."
Assuming the danger was real, however, there remained the thornier question of what to do about it. The protesters' position, outlined in a letter to the Springfield State Journal-Register on September 3, was a model of vagueness. Authors Cashatt and Bohlen urged the park board only to "make a positive stand" and to "move against the housing development."
The fact is, there is nothing the park board can do to stop such development on land it doesn't own, not directly at any rate. The board's helplessness in this regard was a cause of constant complaint by board members who felt they were being unfairly represented.
The protesters held in turn that the park board, by facilitating the extension of city sewers to the new developments, made urbanization of the area easier, and to that extent was a willing partner in, not the hapless victim of, expansion in the area.
Indeed, the protesters argued against the annexation of the park to the sanitary district on those grounds. To the park board, the claim is groundless. "Even if we hadn't let them annex," Cadigan has explained, "those houses would have gone in there anyway." Sapp's people stated that, were city sewers denied them, they would merely build their own sewer system to serve the development.
What seems beyond dispute is that the park district did not annex the park to the sanitary district to make life easier for Sapp (as some have alleged) but because that was the price it had to pay to annex Sapp's property to the park district. Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of most annexations. The park district is in bad financial shape. It is taxing to the limit now and voters are hardly likely to approve a tax increase referendum. Park services have already been cut and routine maintenance delayed.
The only way the district might swell its coffers is to annex (and thus tax) new land. Counting The Rail and its satellite developments, the Sapp annexation added 470 acres of potentially lucrative acres to the district. Cadigan: "It is the first real expansion of the district since it was formed in 1900, except for Westchester, which was annexed voluntarily by the developer." The question, then, was whether Sapp needed sewers more than the park board needed new territory. The park board apparently decided he did not.
Given their inability to stop the development, the only avenue open to the park board appears to be to erect some kind of mechanical or natural barrier along those parts of the park which border the development. Some board members are reportedly investigating the possibility. Such a barrier (either a chain link fence or a hedge, more likely the latter) would keep out marauding dogs and cats and at least control human access to the park. But questions remain—and it is typical of the debate so far that the two sides have different questions about the efficacy of a barrier.
Environmentalists worry that a barrier is only a partial solution, and that when it comes to the preservation of an ecology like that of Carpenter Park, partial solutions are no solutions at all. A barrier will not keep out pest birds such as starlings and house sparrows, nor will it block night lights. And though a barrier may reduce access to the park by people, it will hardly eliminate it.
It is this last point that troubles some park board members, including president Cadigan. "I don't know if we ought to try to keep the public out of parks," he said recently. Some 120,000 people pay taxes to the Springfield Park District, he pointed out in his own letter to the editor on September 10, and he took issue with what he took to be the protesters' "keep people out of the parks" attitude.
But the protesters have not argued that people per se be kept out of the park, only that people not be allowed to use the park for things it was not designed to provide. As Cashatt and Bohlen noted in their letter, it is heavy use "by people who may not appreciate the undeveloped trails and natural state of the park" who pose the biggest danger.
Cadigan has complained, "They don't want anybody to go in there at all except for the ones who go birdwatching or hiking or whatever else they do in there." But those are precisely the kinds of activities Carpenter Park was set aside to provide. Carpenter Park is not a multiple use park like Lincoln or Washington. People, it must be remembered, are what nature preserves are preserved against. People who go there to enjoy its wildness and who treat it with the care wildness requires pose no threat to it. It is not use of Carpenter Park that is the issue but its potential misuse and overuse.
In this connection, the protesters have also worried lest increased use by residents of The Rail would lead eventually to pressures to broaden the range of recreations possible within the park by building picnic areas, clearing timber to increase open space and spraying for mosquitoes. President Cadigan reacted publicly in his letter to the SJR. "I reject totally their conclusion," he wrote. But nothing is more ephemeral than a permanent policy by a public body. Cadigan holds a democratic view regarding park access implying that whatever the people want in their parks they are entitled to get. It is not far-fetched to posit a future case in which public pressure to change the park might prove decisive. The park board, after all, is a political body, subject to political pressures, and it is naive to not worry about the implications of that fact.
What has dismayed many people about the Carpenter Park episode so far is not what the park did or did not do, but the insensitivity and lack of foresight it displayed in doing or not doing it. It was reported, for example, that at the meeting of August 15, when the decision to annex the park to the sanitary district was to be made, "all of the Board members said they were surprised to hear that a subdivision so near to the park boundaries was planned." In 1974, the regional planning commission urged citizens to "act as watchdogs" to guarantee the preservation of wild areas in Sangamon County. The question some are asking is why citizens must act as watchdogs after they've elected the park board to do that job on their behalf.
Cadigan took issue with the protesters' facts concerning the ecological impact of such a development, but their contentions were at least supported by their professional training and experience in the biological sciences; men of the caliber of Bohlen, Cashatt and Kleen are as close to authorities on the subject as are available locally. The park board, on the other hand, went about its deliberations armed with no such expertise. At no time was it advised of any possible environmental effects, good or bad, to the park that might result from its actions. Indeed, there is no one to give such advice; though the park district maintains more than one natural area, it employs no ecologist to supply professional advice on their management. Not having been made aware of the problem, it was no surprise that the park board did not look for its solution.
The developer's role in the affair is clearly understood, at least. Sapp has done nothing illegal or improper. There is no law that prohibits him from building 5,000 housing units on his land if he wishes, assuming they comply with building and zoning codes, as the ones now planned do. Sapp's constituency is neither the brown creeper nor the park-using public but the Sangamon County home-buyer, and it could be said that he has served his constituency better than the park board has served its constituency. It is unfair, or at least insufficiently precise, to scorn Sapp because he does his job—even though, saying that, one may still reserve the right to scorn the result.
The park board cannot be the arbiter in disputes to which it is a party, clearly. But who decides in cases such as this, when one party with an unassailable claim to his rights of property, unintentionally poses threats to the property of a second party? James Dalluge, the chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter, observed in a letter to the Journal-Register, "This situation, which will bring two incompatible land uses back to back, illustrates the . . . lack of comprehensive planning in Sangamon County."
So the problem is laid at the feet of that familiar villain, planning. But the park district and developers are not the cause of this planning failure but its victims. The county, as the basic unit of government, is the logical choice to settle such disputes among the governments operating within its borders. For reasons too tedious to relate here, the county is unlikely to undertake such a role. And that brings us to the most vexing possibility of all, namely that we can't really control how our cities grow, that the confusions and complications of growth are too great for our political system to untangle, that we are doomed to destroy rare places like Carpenter Park not because anybody wants to but because nobody can figure out how not to. ●