Overland Park planning commission OKs plans for amphitheatre, parking expansion at arboretum over neighbors’ objections

Neighbors say the expansion plans will “commercialize” the quiet arboretum. Photo credit Benjamin White. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Neighbors of the Overland Park Arboretum showed no signs of being reassured at a planning commission meeting Monday that the major changes the city wants to make there won’t result in loud rock concerts and unbreakable lines of traffic on 179th Street.

“It’s not our intention for it to be a Sandstone or a Starlight,” said city park services director Greg Ruether. “That’s not our intent and it never has been.”

All the same, neighbors have formed a Facebook group called Preserve the Overland Park Arboretum to express their concerns about the garden plans. And they’ve hired a lawyer to represent them.

A rendering of the proposed amphitheatre and visitors center by Confluence.

The city planning commission unanimously approved a preliminary plan Monday that would add a visitors center, amphitheater and more parking in the northern half of the acreage. But homeowners across the street complained that big events like the Luminary Walk and Brewfest already bring too much noise and bright lights shining in their front windows.

Nearby residents have tolerated those events because they support the arboretum, said neighbor Jeff Cox. But adding capacity for more big events could result in things like outdoor concerts, they fear.

“You’d have alcohol and young people and that traffic and it’s a disaster,” Cox said.

The city is proposing a big new plan for the arboretum near U.S. Highway 69 and 179th Street. The arboretum recently acquired 20 acres from the Margaret Cundiff family trust, bringing the facility to 640 acres.

The building plan includes new gardens, walkways and tropical conservatory eventually. But the centerpiece is a 28,000-square-foot visitors center. Arboretum officials also want to add a new chapel and more parking.

The city has budgeted $12.4 million for the project into its five-year capital improvement plan, with $10 million of that to be raised from private donations. So far the arboretum has $7.5 million of that goal, Ruether said.

There’s no phasing plan for the construction, Ruether said, explaining that the new amenities would go in as the funding allows.

But high on the priority list is the new visitors center. Arboretum volunteers and officials told the commission that it needs to be built so the education building, which has served as a visitor hub, can expand its programs and volunteers can focus on education.

Neighbors who spoke said they have nothing against the visitor center. It’s the amphitheater with room for 850 that worries them.

Residents who were against the arboretum plan said big events like the Luminary Walk last weekend already put a strain on the neighborhood. One speaker showed drone video footage of a long line of cars lined up along 179th Street. Others mentioned the noise from music at Brewfest and other events exceeded city noise limits. A few held signs asking commissioners to vote against what they said was commercializing the destination.

Gail Radke, who has a farm near the arboretum, said the expansion is a “clear betrayal of trust” with the late Margaret Cundiff. Radke, a friend of Cundiff’s, said the former landowner wanted the arboretum to remain contemplative and pristine. “I can’t imagine her vision included loudspeakers, floodlights, bumper-to-bumper cars and thousands of people trampling on native grasses,” Radke said.

J. Hudnall was concerned that the changes in the arboretum layout would mean the end of dog walking there. Leashed dogs are allowed on some of the mulched trails but not in the north part where most of the paved trails and gardens are, she said. Ruether said later there are no plans to end dog walking.

Other speakers cautioned the city to consider the ecological impact of the building plan. Adison Banks, land trust coordinator with the Heartland Conservation Alliance, said impervious surfaces on the new parking lots and walkways could affect nearby Wolf Creek and the headwaters of the Blue River. Naturalist Elaine Giessel ticked off a long list of things to be considered, including de-icing chemicals, pet waste, litter and light pollution and prairie grassland preservation.

About half the crowd that packed into the commission chambers was in favor of the development plan, according to a show of hands requested by one speaker. On the pro side were volunteers and supporters who said that adding to the arboretum would make it a better, more usable destination with more opportunities for education and events like indoor wedding receptions. The city is doing its best to work out issues with lighting and noise, they said.

“To prevent this whole thing because of issues that are fixable is ridiculous,” said Megan Rudzik, of Stilwell.

The plan will not go to the full city council unless a valid protest petition is filed, a step the neighbors will consider, said their lawyer, Eric Worster. If the petition meets the Dec. 23 deadline and is declared valid, the full council would discuss the plan Jan. 6.