The college says it will be a low-impact cut-through to be used as an escape route in the event of a catastrophe.
But to the residents near Johnson County Community College, the short gravel path the college wants invokes visions of the eventual ruin of their beloved Thomas S. Stoll Memorial Park. They said so in a meeting Tuesday night, in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t trust you. I’m sorry. I don’t,” said Pam Palmer, a neighbor of the park. Like about 65 others who turned out for a meeting with JCCC and county parks officials, Palmer remembers 2004, when the college tried to acquire the park land for expansion.
“Leave the park alone. This is becoming like David and Goliath. I mean, let us have our park,” Palmer said.
At issue is a proposal by JCCC to create a small unpaved path connecting the south part of campus to the blacktopped walking path at the north end of Stoll. Except in emergencies, the connection would be blocked with posts and cables.
The idea is to provide the school with a safe exit in case of a major emergency like a gas explosion, tornado or active shooter, said Greg Russell, chief of the campus police. The school went into lockdown four years ago because of reports of a shooter, and officials were concerned about getting people off campus safely. Johnson County Park and Recreation director Jill Geller added that it could also become a safety exit out of Stoll Park.
But speaker after speaker took those arguments apart during the meeting. Some argued that situations like a tornado or shooter more often call for people to shelter in place. Others said the park exit at 119th Street would be dangerous because it is already too busy and has no traffic signal. Exiting through the park would be perilous at night because of the lack of lights, they added.
Memories of 2004 dispute linger
Many speakers Tuesday harkened back to the last time the college got involved in the park. In 2004, JCCC officials tried to engineer a land swap. The county would give them Stoll Park and in return, they’d find another comparable piece of land for a new county park.
The neighborhood responded with a protest march, and that plan eventually fell through.
Still, it left a scar, and several speakers said they believe the emergency exit proposal is evidence of a bigger game afoot.
“I just don’t trust the college,” said Annette Spates, who works at JCCC as a counselor. “I believe it’s a slippery slope. You get a toe in and you want to open the door.”
Carol Davis, president of the Kimberly Downs neighborhood conservation group, also had reservations. “If I felt there would never be anything but the catastrophic egress point, I think I could be very comfortable and supportive of that,” she said. “But I’m just terrified of it becoming something more.” The exit would be an inviting temptation to use for a big event, she said. “They’d go use it just this once, and then again and again.”
Others noted that although the current college administration promises not to try to use the park, they can’t bind future administrations to that same pledge.
Shari Stoll Adams and Susan Stoll Hills, daughters of the park’s namesake, also attended the meeting. “We just want to make sure the park is still supported,” said Hills, who like her sister is an Overland Park resident. “I’m just nervous about what could come to be in the future,” she said. “It’s just such a popular park. I’d hate for something to happen to it.”
Geller stressed that she was not advocating for either side of the issue, but wanted to encourage feedback. “The route proposed is a pre-identified, efficient and agreed-upon route for both our organizations should a catastrophic evacuation be required,” she said. “I can assure you permanent or even occasional use of the route is no part of this proposal.”
The question will not be on the Johnson County park board’s agenda for tonight’s meeting, but residents are still welcome to comment, Geller said. There’s another public meeting scheduled at JCCC for 7 p.m. Oct. 3.