As development marches onward, the crowd at a public forum on plans for Big Bull Creek Park in the southwest corner of Johnson County seemed to back the notion of keeping most of the nearly 2,000 acres wild.
The Johnson County Park and Recreation District has owned most of the land since 1999, following the passage of a bond issue that devoted $6 million to buy 1,350 acres between Gardner and Edgerton. An adjoining 600 acres was purchased for another $6 million in 2004-05.
It has remained undeveloped ever since.
“We’ve owned the dirt for a long time,” said Bill Maasen, superintendent of parks and golf courses. “We need to get it open for the public to use.”
At just under 2,000 acres, Big Bull Creek is the county’s second-largest park, after 2,400-acre Shawnee Mission Park.
“It’s a good place. It’s a short drive to see this habitat. You don’t have to drive all the way out to the Flint Hills,” said Dolores Silkworth, a senior partner at Des Moines, Iowa-based RDG Planning & Design.
The park department hired RDG to come up with a master plan for Big Bull Creek Park, and RDG officials facilitated Monday night’s forum. About 35 people attended.
Participants were invited to place green or red dots on photos of a series of potential uses for the park land, depending on whether they were for or against them. By the midpoint of the forum, there were only green dots on such uses as paved and soft trails, shelter houses, habitat restoration, camping, fishing, an obstacle course and an archery range. Only red dots could be seen on photos of a skate park, a golf driving range, space for “RVing” and a livestock show or rodeo. The dots were mostly red when considering fields or courts for soccer, baseball/softball, basketball and tennis. Reaction was more equally divided when it came to a dog park, an aquatic center, a rock-climbing wall and an outdoor theater.
“It’s a rural area,” said frequent park user Bob Potty of Overland Park. He placed red dots on soccer and baseball fields, saying there were already enough places to play those sports.
“I like the idea of restoration of the natural land,” he said. “The activity should be such that small groups come, and not ones that generate a huge volume of traffic. …This is an opportunity to make sure that the outdoors is preserved from future development … and we can see nature as best as we can. That’s important for our kids to have.”
Kevin Orr of Olathe agreed.
“Other county parks have soccer and baseball fields — things for the masses — but there is nothing else that preserves the original habitat,” Orr said.
Big Bull Creek Park is not entirely tallgrass prairie. Silkworth said, however, that a large central section is ripe for replanting with tall grasses and related plant life. Her company’s initial sketches featured a five-mile trail around that central area. The banks of the creek itself are already forested, and that would be enhanced in a future park, she said. There are also designated savannas, or areas that are partly forest and partly plains.
The fact that Interstate 35 bisects the park, however, is a problem that planners must overcome, Silkworth said. Her idea is to build a broad “wildlife bridge,” carpeted with grass, over the highway, allowing people and animals to cross safely. A potential second crossing point would be a trail running alongside the creek and under the highway. Diagrams also showed the establishment of “noise walls” along the roadway to mitigate traffic sounds in the park.
RDG officials will take the feedback from at Monday’s meeting and return to the county’s advisory committee in mid-January with a more detailed plan.
The park board is to consider at a Dec. 8 special meeting a capital improvement plan for 2016 that would devote $3.5 million for the first phase of Big Bull Creek Park. If that passes, Maasen said, contracts could be let in late 2016, and the park could be open to the public in late 2017.