First the small knot of residents printed pamphlets and circulated a petition to try to save Stanley Nature Park.
And then they took their fight to another level.
They used open records laws to dig through government documents for ways to preserve the park. They hired a pilot to take aerial photographs to bolster their case and began contacting federal officials.
In the end, they concede, their efforts could be futile, but at least they’ve won a public hearing Tuesday.
Annabeth Surbaugh, former Johnson County Commission chairwoman, said she was impressed by the neighbors’ ingenuity.
“With the lack of citizen involvement in local government today, it is unusual,” Surbaugh said.
Bob McNay, who lives about a mile from the park and has been walking there since about 2000, often with his dogs, has joined the group.
“We are fighting City Hall, believe you me,” McNay said.
In this case, City Hall is the Blue Valley School District and the Johnson County Parks & Recreation District, both of which strongly back the park plan.
Blue Valley School District wants the park for its expanded sports programs and to ease crowded parking at sports events.
For his part, Michael Meadors, county parks department director, calls the deal a “win-win situation” for everyone.
The parks department has wanted to get rid of the isolated Stanley Nature Park for years because it doesn’t fit in with its master plan of building large destination parks such as Heritage Park and Shawnee Mission Park.
In return for giving up the 40-acre park, Johnson County would receive about 55 acres that could be turned into park land. The area, known as the Brown family farm, is about five miles south of Stanley Park. Blue Valley would pay about $1 million to buy it, then give it to the county.
Stanley Nature Park is south of 159th Street between Metcalf and Nall avenues, bordering Blue Valley High School. It was created with the help of federal dollars in 1969 and was always supposed to have public baseball and softball fields.
But the parks department never had the money to do much with the park. For its first 20 years, there wasn’t even a public vehicle entrance to the park. Homes surrounded it on three sides with the high school on the north, and people walked to the park.
But around 1991, the county leased for free some land from the school district and built an entryway and a small parking lot, Meadors said. The trails remain unpaved.
Still, more than 30,000 visitors went there in vehicles last year, according to park numbers. That doesn’t count foot traffic.
Neighbors have been fighting the new plan for several months, said Dan Nash, who lives near the park.
Through neighborhood meetings, pamphlets, fliers and a petition, a small group of supporters has been working to enlist residents and park visitors.
Now the commission and Blue Valley have agreed a public hearing should be held to air all sides. The hearing is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Blue Valley Academy Commons, 7500 W. 149th Terrace, Overland Park.
But park supporters haven’t been waiting to gather evidence.
They paid for aerial photos of the high school and its parking lot during the day that show several empty parking spaces — it’s part of their argument that there is enough parking at the school.
And they did research, using the open records laws to request a number of local, state and federal documents that they hope can bolster their case and derail the plan.
They learned that because federal dollars were used to purchase the park in 1969, final approval of the park’s fate lies with the National Park Service.
And the federal government requires some steps that could present a problem in converting the park, they said:
• The county must conduct a study on the environmental impact of the conversion on Stanley Park. Meadors said the county plans to do that.
• The county would have to provide a plan to improve the new park — build a parking lot, for example, and provide trails. So far there is no plan, but Meadors said the county will offer one.
• The county would have to find money to make those improvements in a fairly quick turnaround, a federal official said, although that deadline hasn’t been set.
Meadors concedes paying for those improvements any time soon could prove difficult because the county already is slashing its budget and cutting services.
Indeed, the parks department hasn’t had the funding to make improvements to thousands of acres it already owns, Meadors acknowledges.
But Meadors said if the parks department can hold off on fixing up the new park, it will save $25,000 annually that currently is being spent maintaining Stanley Nature Park. And with the budget situation, “everything counts, absolutely,” he said.
Al Hanna, a Blue Valley school district deputy superintendent, said the high school needs the park land.
While the park itself “is not readily identified or well known,” sports in the Blue Valley district are extremely popular, he said.
When the school was built in 1971, there were no organized sports for girls, only cheerleading. Today the girls have to travel to other schools to practice softball.
The expansion would allow the school to add the softball fields, soccer and football practice fields, a cross country track that could be used by the public and parking lots.
“We are just out of space,” Hanna said.
Parking is especially bad during sports events, Hanna said, and flows off the school’s lot into the roads and wherever people can find to leave their vehicle.
Blue Valley plans to spend about $5 million on the project.
Meanwhile, the park’s supporters are preparing for the public hearing.
“I use the park at least twice a week,” said Corey Walton, whose property is adjacent to the park. “I know people who use it multiple times a week.”
She added: “This is serious, honest to God. ‘They paved paradise to put up a parking lot,’” quoting the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Dan Nash realizes that despite all the supporters’ efforts, saving the park is still an uphill road.
“It is very strange because there is nobody in (county and school) government on our side,” he said. “My gut feeling from the government’s side of it, we are a small group of people who use the park and we do not express the opinion of the rest of the public.”