Park Districts Struggle with Residents' Concerns About Land Development

For years, residents in Westlake Village, Calif., have enjoyed the natural beauty of the hilly, 40-acre open space known as Lot 79. So when rumors started spreading two years ago that the city was intending to develop this wild piece of land into a sports park, residents' passions were instantly inflamed. "As beautiful as parks may be, people don't want them right next door to their homes," says Betty de Santis, council member for Westlake Village. "So when we first discussed putting a park on Lot 79, the neighbors around the land all opposed it. And they were very, very verbal." Now, however, the city is on a much better track, says de Santis. Shortly after the uproar, a committee was formed with a representative from each of the city's 15 homeowners' associations, plus a few at-large members. A new plan under development will likely scale back the project to less than one-third of the original plan, providing two soccer fields superimposed on two softball fields, probably without lighting. The remainder of the site will remain natural. While parts of the plan - including basketball courts, in-line hockey rinks and a large picnic area - have been sacrificed, city officials felt it was important to reach a compromise. "I don't think there are any easy answers, but clearly, cities need to reach out to neighborhoods and try to establish a basis of trust," says Ray Taylor, city manager for Westlake Village. "They must listen to the issues neighbors raise and deal with them as best as they can. It's often time-consuming and frustrating to everyone involved, but it's a process that has to take place." Such compromise is a crucial element when negotiating land development these days. In many cities, the "not in my backyard" mentality is still a big factor. In others, even residents whose property does not abut the park have concerns about maintaining the rural nature of their communities. In either case, by communicating with residents about issues such as lighting and noise, and explaining the true impact a project might have on neighbors, a reasonable solution can generally be developed. Park district officials in Naperville, Ill., planned to develop a sports complex and asked the city to annex 131-acre Frontier Park several years ago. But residents bordering the park quickly approached the city council with concerns about the project's scope, and the council decided not to grant annexation until those concerns were addressed. The park district therefore created a committee of staff members, two park board commissioners, neighbors of the park and representatives of user groups such as Little League, Naperville Youth Football and Lightning Soccer, a local youth league. For about nine months, the committee met monthly to discuss issues and redesign the park. While the result looks different, the new plan is even better than the original, according to Ken Brissa, acting executive director for the Naperville Park District. The first step was erecting fencing and 14-foot berms to create a buffer between neighbors and the existing soccer fields. The traffic infrastructure was altered, easing some anticipated congestion, and the park was made much smaller, reducing (it is hoped) noise and parking problems. Because of concerns about lighting, the 10 soccer fields will remain unlighted. This lessens the amount of usable field time, but Brissa isn't worried. "While it doesn't maximize our ability to use the fields, it doesn't restrict us," Brissa says. "We feel that if we only operate those fields during the day, we will still be able to come close to meeting the needs of the residents." This isn't the case, however, for baseball and softball. The need, Brissa says, was too great to be contained within daylight hours, so the 12 baseball and softball fields will be lighted. But lighting engineers anticipate very little light spillover from the fields, and reports from cities using similar configurations support that claim. The project was finally given the go ahead in July, and the land was annexed. Once residents were involved in the design process and understood the park district's concerns and ideas, the project quickly moved forward. Whether it involved the estimated number of users at the park, lighting spillover, noise, traffic or water retention, everything recommended by the park district was backed by data from engineering experts. "Communication is the key," Brissa says. "It has to start early, and it has to be thorough and accurate. When residents really understand your needs and buy into the process, they often become advocates for the project." Advocacy might be a long way off in the town of Middleton, Wis., where several residents aren't exactly ready to carry the torch for the development of Pioneer Park. Last fall, nearby residents spoke vehemently against a proposal to install lights on a second baseball diamond. While the proposal was dropped, opposition remains regarding the park's development. "When I bought my property across from the park, my realtor gave me a copy of the town of Middleton's land-use plan," says Doug Normington, a neighbor opposing the development. "It sounded great. But the park described in the land-use plan is very different from what is being developed." The park currently includes a soccer field, a lighted baseball diamond and an unlighted diamond. Now a third, smaller diamond is under development, while the land-use plan - describing a community park that would also feature a jogging trail, a wooded picnic area, two tennis courts, a hockey rink and an ice skating pond - remains idle. According to Bill Weber, chairman of the town's park commission, the change in plans is a result of a change in demand. While a 1998 survey indicated a preference for some of the excluded facilities, little demand has been seen since. But the baseball program's popularity continues to increase, Weber says, and facilities need to expand to serve that growth. Lights at the current field are mounted on 40-foot poles and must be tilted at almost a 90-degree angle, which creates a high level of light spillover. The park commission is hoping to replace the lighting with a system featuring an automatic shutoff, special shielding to focus the light and 60-foot posts that can tilt lights directly downward to minimize spillage, but some neighboring residents remain concerned about glare. In addition, these residents say, if more fields are developed, adequate parking could become an issue, since the lot is often overcrowded during peak baseball season. They also worry about the potential for increased traffic and noise, and fear that the project may negatively impact their property values. Because the town did not have an open process in which residents had early input on the project's development and the issues it might create, city officials now must take care to assuage neighbors' fears and address their concerns through increased communication. The town of Middleton's plight serves as a valuable lesson: The key in all of these situations - as well as in building projects across the country - is to involve residents from the very beginning, and keep them involved throughout the design process. Whether by applying results of polls and surveys or reconciling differences at public meetings, open communication can help develop a plan that effectively serves the public and the park department.