When Julie Stutterheim purchased her Kansas City North home in 2017, she did not know she would soon become an activist — a saver of the woodland.
But right now, that is her story as she heads up efforts to encourage city and school district leaders to preserve 600 acres of tree cover she is calling the “Last KC Forest.”
Stutterheim had just quit her job to have time to write a book when her family moved into their home near the Line Creek Trail. When her daughters went back to school, she discovered that walking through the wooded area behind her home was life changing.
“I started walking every day, and it was just so peaceful,” Stutterheim said. “It’s surrounded by enough trees that you can almost not hear the traffic, so I started bringing my friends, and it was therapeutic.”
When she purchased the home, Stutterheim assumed the wooded area it abutted was protected. Those woods extend some 600 acres between 68th Street on the south, Coventry Road on the east, N.W. Barry Road on the north and existing neighborhoods to the west.
Line Creek and its accompanying trail run through the area.
While Stutterheim was correct about the existence of public easements surrounding the Line Creek Trail and a thin 50–acre swath of parkland in the area, most of the other property is privately owned.
The largest land owner is now the Park Hill School District, which purchased 272 acres at 68th and Wakomis in April 2017, and plans to break ground on a new elementary school there in 2018. Plans also call for construction of a permanent home for the district’s LEAD Innovation Studio program — currently housed in leased office space at 10150 N. Ambassador Drive — by 2020 in another section of woods.
When Stutterheim heard the school district planned to develop the area, she decided to start a petition to raise support and awareness that neighbors and residents surrounding the woods want as much of it as possible to stay.
“There’s this understanding by citizens, the presumption is that it is sort of protected, or owned by the parks system,” Stutterheim said. “Almost 100 percent of people figured that it’s preserved. There was zero awareness about what’s going to happen except for the petition.”
They have talked with the school district and other city leaders and have brought other organizations into the conversation, like the environmental group Bridging the Gap and the Missouri Department of Conservation. Stutterheim and other supporters say the area is unique in the Northland and deserves to be protected.
“There’s a lot of development that’s happening in the Northland,” Stutterheim said. “If you pan out and look at Kansas City North, this remains one of the last places that has this kind of tree coverage.”
Director of Communication Services for the Park Hill School District Nicole Kirby says the $3 million land purchase of 272 acres in the area was part of a long-range, enrollment-based facility plan that the district has worked on for years.
“Land that is large enough to build schools is difficult to find, especially in the areas where we have significant enrollment growth,” Kirby said.
The school district currently plans to use 15 to 20 acres of a 28-acre section designated for a new elementary school, which will break ground in 2018 and open in August of 2019.
Plans for the LEAD Innovation Center would include up to 100 acres, but architects have not yet worked on final plans for that site.
Kirby also says plans for the area will be dependent on enrollment. The LEAD program started during the 2017-18 academic year as a way to ease enrollment pressure at the district’s two existing high schools, Park Hill and Park Hill South, without having to add on to the schools or build a third full-scale high school.
“One of the things that our community told us when we went through the public engagement process was that, although our current enrollment projections suggest we might not have enough enrollment to have a third high school, it was important to people that we not add on to our existing high schools,” Kirby said.
That leaves slightly less than 150 acres that the district currently does not have plans to develop. However, that does not mean they could not in the future. Kirby says most of the land they are currently planning to develop is not heavily wooded.
Second district City Councilman Dan Fowler says the situation is complicated, but he is glad that so many of his constituents are making their hopes for the area known.
“I think that it’s an important effort on their part to alert us to these kinds of issues, and I’m gratified that they are concerned about it,” Fowler said.
Fowler is referring to current zoning for the area, which affects the value of the land. However, he also points out potential protections already in place, like a section of the city code that prohibits building within 250-feet of a stream, like Line Creek.
“There’s only so much you can do with land you don’t own, and we don’t own most of that,” Fowler said. “Certainly, I think there are some things we can do. We’re trying to schedule a meeting to look at some realistic ways to preserve what we can.”
The city does have a master plan for the Line Creek area, which was adopted in 2011. The plan includes a potential parkway that would run along the Line Creek Trail through the area. The Last KC Forest group also is opposed to the parkway.