Weeks of impassioned testimony and email writing have apparently paid off for neighbors of Thomas S. Stoll Memorial Park. The county park board on Wednesday officially shot down a proposal for a gated exit through the park that Johnson County Community College wanted for emergencies.
Some 40 neighbors applauded as the county park and recreation governing board unanimously voted to deny the egress route for college use. College officials should look for other alternatives, park board members said.
Park neighbors have turned out in force to meetings on the idea and have submitted numerous emails since learning of the idea about a month and a half ago. JCCC had asked for a connection as an evacuation route for the campus that would bring traffic south and out through the park’s entrance. But neighbors feared the idea would be a foot in the door toward college expansion into the park or a traffic cut-through into their neighborhoods.
College trustees decided at a recent meeting to defer action so they could talk to more homeowners associations, park director Jill Geller said. But the park board decided to draw things to a swifter conclusion.
“I think the college request to defer it kind of implies the discussion is going to continue and I think we need [to] say just to stop,” said board member Mike Pirner.
Park neighbors were relieved.
“We’re very, very happy with the board’s decision. We’re glad that our voices were heard and we hope that JCCC takes into consideration the fact that the public doesn’t want anybody to interfere with the park. This is our park and we want it to stay that way,” said Amanda Vehlewald, who organized the neighborhood opposition.
JCCC saw path as helpful for evacuations in emergencies
College officials said the connection with the park road was necessary for catastrophic emergencies such as tornadoes, gas explosions or active shooters. But neighbors never believed the college would leave it at that. They remembered the college’s efforts in 2004 to arrange a land swap in which they would take over the park for expansion in return for another tract to be given to the county.
Once the gravel emergency link is established, they said, JCCC would have an interest in the park land that could restrict the park board’s control over how the park is used, said Connie Owen, a park neighbor. She and others who spoke at the park board meeting continued to stress the point they’d been making at previous public hearings – that the college has a longer-range plan afoot to make use of the park.
There is evidence of at least a hint of that in a transcript of a college trustee meeting two years ago, during a discussion of the school’s master plan. Urban designer Michael Johnson of the SmithGroup mentioned the school’s plan for emergency egress:
“I think that what it allows you to do is at least begin discussions with the city and with others about if that wants to be something more than that,” he said. “But I think that at a minimum, the idea of continuing to pursue a south egress route … under the guise and under the idea of security and campus safety is a good idea and it is a pivot that we’ve made since we’ve met last in August.”
He had been asked by Trustee Lee Cross about designs for a southern “exit or entrance” to the college, “with respect to safety and security.” There was no discussion immediately afterward, though Trustee Nancy Ingram later said it should be a top priority as a security measure. SmithGroup was one of the consultants working on the college’s master plan.
Neighbors were adamantly against any change to one of the larger parks within a populated suburban area.
“My husband would have been very disappointed to see this happen,” said Mary Ann Stoll Adams, whose husband got funds from Topeka to have the park developed. “It’s very clear to me that the junior college (JCCC) interest long-range is to pursue a permanent road through the park. Please do not let this happen,” she said.
Board members said they were convinced by neighbor’s arguments that the emergency road would not be a first option in events like a tornado or shooter because students would more likely be told to shelter in place. And in a true emergency, first responders could still drive over the grass if necessary, they said.
“We’ve got to be very careful about changing things on our parks,” said Pirner. “People love our parks.”