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Protesters call on city to save trees

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | October 5, 2023 1:00 AM

▶️ Audio story available.

SANDPOINT — Protest anthems played in the background as people danced with willow branches while others stood quickly holding signs calling on the city to halt its plans to cut down trees at Travers Park.

Roughly 50-75 people turned out for the protest, held shortly before the city's council meeting and filling the small courtyard at the front of Sandpoint City Hall.

The city declined to accept additional public comment at Wednesday's council meeting. The facility, which was approved at the Sept. 27 meeting, was not added to the agenda.

"People are ignited about this issue because this is their park; this is their children's park," said Rebecca Holland, who organized the protest along with Molly McCahon. "We have no problem with this building, this big building being built, but it should not be [where the city put it]."

New designs for the park have been developed to accommodate the James E. Russell Sports Complex, which was made possible when the city received a $7.5 million donation in 2022 from Jim Russell and his mother, Ginny. Council members said previously they hope the complex will offer a place for youth to play and stay active during the winter, especially for those unable to afford ski passes.

While plans for the park have been in the works since 2020, the council voted unanimously Sept. 27 to move forward with construction, which includes the removal of 20 trees. However, city officials said 60 trees are expected to be planted in their place.

City officials said previously that a lot of thought went into the location and that sites suggested by critics would take away from soccer and baseball/softball fields. They said that no sports fields will be lost by the facility's construction at Travers Park and that none of the existing uses will be impacted by the facility.

However, protesters said that while they appreciate the gift that allows the facility's construction, they feel Travers Park is the wrong spot to build it. They point to other locations at the Travers Field complex, such as Centennial Park or Great Northern, both located to the north of Travers.

"There are other spots to put this building," Gail Lyster said. "Instead of doing it all as this giant rip-this-down, take-all-these-trees-and-forget-everything kind of thing."

Some protesters said they are heartbroken by the loss of beautiful, mature trees that provide shade on hot summer days, a spot where local youth can test their climbing trees, and add to the ambience of the park. While they acknowledged that the city plans to plant 60 trees to replace the 20 it plans to cut down, they questioned the impact of replacing older, mature trees with smaller ones.

"They have other options," Sharon McCahon said. "I feel they could move the building over not much at all and keep the trees."

They said they feel the city doesn't want residents' input. Instead of the community members sharing their views and the city taking direction based on their wishes, the opposite is happening. They said only certain groups were invited to give input, claiming that local schools, nearby residents, and taxpayers never got the chance to comment on the proposal.

"I hope that they will pause [the project] and really listen to the people, have meetings, and give people a chance to come in and talk about their concerns," Ranel Hanson said.

While it could be easy to get lost in the numbers or the infrastructure and such, Holland said the heart of the matter is that the park is the community's playground. Instead of tearing down the playground, she said it needs maintenance and updates.

Many, she said, feel the same, noting that more than 1,300 people signed petitions calling on city officials to change their minds and preserve the trees. Holland said critics plan to keep the pressure on through the Nov. 7 election, in which three council seats as well as the mayor's post are up for vote.

John Travers and Monica Gunter said their father, for whom the park was named, said he would be heartbroken by the tree's removal. He, the siblings said, would be against such a big building on what is meant to be an outdoor sports facility.

"He'd be sick," Gunter said. "That Travers Park is amazing the way it is. You know, add on the playground, take that million dollars, and build a bigger, fancier one, but incorporate the one that's there and leave the shade trees."

The park is popular in the community, with children always playing on the playground and the parking lot always full, Travers added. Instead of taking away spaces where children can play, the city should be added to it.

"There are plenty of places to put this," Gunter said.

"The city is growing, getting bigger. We need more parks," added Travers. "But they're cramming this into a park that is fabulous right now. It's used by everybody, and they're going to cram this thing in there instead of going out and finding another park."

Some protesters said the city failed to seek the public's opinion — or take their wishes into account. They questioned what they said felt like a rush to cut the trees down and build the $7.5 million facility for indoor tennis and pickleball.

"Let's do this slowly; it all seems just too fast," Lyster said. "What a great gift for our town. It will be wonderful, but it doesn't have to be right there and be so destructive."

Many of the protesters said they hope the city hears their message and is willing to consider slowing down on the project.

"I wish that our city council would pay more attention to their constituents and get some input from us all about what we actually want instead of just doing it," Hanson said.

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(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

Rebecca Holland, organizer of a Wednesday protest that called on the city to not cut down 20 trees at Travers Park, talks to the roughly 50-75 people who took part in the event.

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(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

Sharon McCahon and Ranel Hanson said they hoped Wednesday's protest would encourage the city to change its mind on cutting down 20 trees at Travers Park. They also hoped the city would find a new location for a new tennis-pickleball facility.