City dramatically rejects parks land donation sought by county

Following more than two hours of testimony Monday night, the Salisbury City Council refused the county’s request for 35 acres of city-owned forest to build new softball fields.

About 30 people — some speaking passionately and drawing comparisons between spirituality and nature, and all prompting applause — rose to strongly oppose the land donation adjacent to the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex. The council chamber was filled to standing room only capacity and others crowded the hallway.

Those against giving away the land asked city leaders to preserve the lush hiking and biking trails, aged trees, wildlife and, perhaps most importantly, the PaleoChannel underground water supply.

After the final speaker was finished, Council President Jake Day called for a motion from Council members, but they were silent. Day declare the matter dead and the room exploded in extended applause.

Councilman Tim Spies called for protecting the forest. Councilman Jack Heath agreed, but said he still wants new softball fields to boost “the very, very poor economy we are in right now.”

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell said fields can be built, maybe on land that’s already cleared. She said she’d like to see the forest in question placed in land trust. “I think that’s where it belongs,” she said.

“What we have now is the best use for that land,” she said to further applause.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields agreed. “All the e-mails I received, and I met with some people, and I was educated. When you have something that is over 100 years old, you don’t destroy it,” she said.

Among the half-dozen or so who favored the land donation was John Cannon, president of the Wicomico County Council.

He tried to assure environmentalists and city leaders that county officials would  be careful during construction, especially since the state mandates protections of sensitive streams and storm water management.

The design captures nearly 100 percent of run off, he said. “If you evaluate the use of this park, you’ll probably find this is the best use,” he said, adding vital habitats would be preserved.

Wicomico County has “great parks,” he said, and staff members who are environmentalists. “That’s what they do for a living,” he said.

“We have a beautiful complex there right now … I’m not so sure the trails would be there for you to visit if Wicomico County hadn’t had the foresight to build the original park, but we did,” he said.

Others in favor included Alex Bubbas, former owner of Zia’s Italian Grill; Tony Nichols, representing the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce; a hotel owner who said his business is sustained by tourist dollars; hotel managers and employees, who argued tourists, including families in town for sports tournaments, spend money in town; and a man who brings tournaments to the area, who said millions of dollars are spent at hotels, shops, restaurants and gas stations.

But the night belonged to ardent parents, bikers, hikers, outdoorsmen and conservationists who love the forest.

Trent Swanson talked about listening to his 5-year-old and 6-year-old sons as they spotted ferns in the woods and called them “dinosaur plants,” leading to an educational conversation with him.

“Things that make Delmarva wonderful are the bay, the grasslands, the trees. When we talk about bringing economic benefits we have to think about things like Seagull Century, that bring in thousands of people and we don’t have to destroy anything,” he said.

Joan Maloof, who has written two books about forests — including one about forest ecology in this area —  said every community should have older forests “so they understand what the life form is, in the very land where they live.”

The area in question is populated by tulip trees, dogwood, maple, persimmon, American holly, the rare Atlantic white cedar, red oaks, red cedar, water oak, short-leaf pine, black oak, insects, reptiles, amphibians and rare fish in the stream, she said.

“Nobody planted those trees. Nobody waters them. Nobody fertilizes them. They are doing their work for free,” Maloof said, to rousing applause.

“This is one of those amenities that, if we let it go, we can’t replace it,” a man who identified himself as an accountant said. “I would urge you to find another area for the expansion of the ball fields.”

A Sharptown resident who grew up in Salisbury was pleased so many people rallied to save the forest, and said losing it “would be a travesty.”

Jamie Heater, coordinator of Third Fridays in downtown Salisbury, said she didn’t know the trails existed. “I can’t wait to go. What kind of place do you want to live in?” she asked.

Margaret Barnes, who recently bought a house in Salisbury, said it makes no sense “that you would want to level 35 acres of forest for softball when there are a lot of fields in this county that don’t have any trees.”

“Once water is contaminated, it’s contaminated … it seems to me there must be a better way to have softball without ruining a forest,” she said.

Dr. Ernest Bond said he and his family spend a lot of time at the soccer fields, and “the coolest thing about it is,” after a game, his children go  into the woods and often have more fun than they had during the game.

A professor of biology at Salisbury University said taking away the forest would cause habitat destruction, “a bigger problem on the planet than pollution and climate change.”

It would affect animals that move in other populations and between populations, as well as migrant birds, he said.

“It’s easy for us to sit at home and say we should prevent forest destruction in other parts of the world, but we have this really great forest here. We should do the right thing and protect this forest,” he said.

Barry Johansen said it alarmed him “that we’re even having this conversation.”

He said he doesn’t want his children, grandchildren and future generations to discover their water is contaminated. “I think it would be a tragedy. I strongly oppose it,” he said.

The woman who posted Friends of the Forest on Facebook said if there is contamination at the wellhead, it would take only a matter of minutes to affect the water supply. “That’s high stakes,” she said.

A 15-year-old softball player who loves the game stood firmly in opposition because, “I like water more than I like softball and I think that I don’t want to turn on the sink one day and get sick, because then I can’t play softball on the fields we already have.”

Keith Henry  said the forest “has been here for eons and the aquifer below us has been here for eons.”

“I hope the council would be responsible on their voting for this. This is a resource this is just not replaceable,” he said, stressing the importance of clean drinking water.

If it were contaminated “we’d all be ashamed to have been in this room and not said more than we said,” he said.

Retired surveyor P.J Hannon spoke eloquently about city leaders’ responsibility to decide what is best for the community.

“It’s your decision, your vision. What change are you going to leave? They’d certainly like to have water in California …we have the PaleoChannel here.

“I hope you have the vision to say, ‘I’m concerned about what my legacy is going to be on this council,’” he said, remembering how former city engineer Pete Cooper, known as a Salisbury legend, fought for the PaleoChannel.

State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello said he, too, knew Cooper, and believes he would have strongly discouraged the City Council from  parting with the land.

Day commended all speakers, joking he would hire them to handle marketing because they recognize the importance of caring for the community and about both ball fields and nature trails.

“When we can talk as neighbors, as friends, as co-workers, as patrons, you can go to better places,” Day said. “And I believe we are on our way there.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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