By Wally Kennedy
For Jennifer Jones and her children, it's a short walk down a steep hill from McClelland Boulevard to Tin Cup Creek.
"There's always water in it,'' said Jones, as her children and their friends jumped from stone to stone in the creek bed. "It's got to be a fairly clean creek because there are minnows in it."
Nearby is a two-lane trail that's flat and straight. It used to be a railroad line that connected the south part of Joplin to Grand Falls. Jones and her neighbors often walk the route for exercise.
On the other side of the creek is the home of Richard and Arlene Patterson. Though they live close to Freeman Hospital West and the Joplin Family Y South, they can see wildlife near the creek from their back yard.
"I had two deer in my front yard this morning,'' said Arlene Patterson on Friday. "That happens all the time.''
Until recently, the two families had never met. Now, they and others who live on both sides of the creek are allies in a struggle to preserve the "green" character of the land near their homes.
In a matter of days, they used e-mails and telephone calls to organize and rally a network of concerned neighbors in three subdivisions. They scored a victory Monday when they convinced the Joplin City Council that rezoning 25 acres along the creek from residential to commercial - without more information about what would happen there - was a step in the wrong direction for their neck of the woods.
Said Richard Patterson: "We have met a lot of people in the last two weeks. This zoning issue has brought our neighborhood together."
Patterson said he is hopeful the issue can lead to a new plan acceptable to the parties involved.
"The developer has every right in the world to develop his property. That's what it's all about it. But, everybody has a right to try to defend their property. We just want them to leave some green space," he said.
Though the neighborhood group came out on top, they know the issue is far from over. They live where Joplin's burgeoning medical district is transforming timbered land into offices, parking lots and retail developments.
The developer of the property, Fanun Kanan, a longtime Joplin businessman, is preparing a new proposal for the council. He still wants to give about three acres to the Y so that a parking lot and new entrance can be created on the south side of the Y.
He says he's willing to connect the trail on his property to the network of trails under development along Shoal Creek in Wildcat, McIndoe and McClelland parks.
Said Kanan: "Right now, I am working with an engineer and architect to finish the plan of what I want to do over there. I made a promise to the Y six years ago that when the time comes, I would work with them and see to it they have the land they want to expand their parking lot. I will not disappoint them."
'We can do that'
Kanan, noting that much of the land around his property has been rezoned to commercial, said, "I am willing to cooperate. We could work it out with them. If they want a trail, we can do that."
Kyle Denham, the architect, said, "He (Kanan) definitely sees it as something we can incorporate, and he's open to the idea of a green buffer."
The zoning proposal that was nixed by the council would have created a planned office district with no retail. The existing residential status of the property would permit the construction of apartment buildings, which also is opposed by the neighborhood group.
"A planned district offers the neighbors some involvement and protection. They would have a voice in the layout of it," Denham said.
Another point of consideration for Denham is his relationship to Richard Patterson, who was a founding (now retired) partner in Patterson, Latimer, Jones, Brannon, Denham Inc., the firm retained by Kanan.
The abandoned rail right-of-way is centered between two tracts that make up the 25 acres. The plan submitted to the council called for the construction of a road that would connect to McIntosh Circle on the north end, cross the creek and continue to the south end of the property.
For Jones, the road would create a pathway for continued development of the valley and would bring that development closer to her property. She and other residents fear the road will be connected to a city-owned service road that extends from McClelland Boulevard to the city's sewage equalization ponds in the valley. The road is used by city workers to maintain the ponds.
"If the road behind the Y is connected to the service road, there would be no way to stop the development of this valley," Jones said.
Denham said he hopes to come up with some sort of solution that considers all of the property owners. He said the trail system could be "a real asset to the community. This rezoning issue could spark something positive for the community. Fanun has a real love for this town."
Beyond the 25 acres, the abandoned rail line crosses land that is owned by the city of Joplin and Missouri American Water Co. The water company operates a pump station at the south end of the valley.
But for Jones and others, the question is: Even if a trail is constructed, what's going to happen to the rest of the 25 acres?
"They were thinking about doing something with these 25 acres when they decided to get it rezoned, but they are not telling us what it is," she said. "We are stakeholders in this. We live here. We want to know exactly what you have in mind. We want the facts."
Her neighbor, Dave Henness, said, "This might be an environmentally-friendly project that preserves the trees and the habitat. It might not be a problem, but we don't know that."
While the group was organizing, a second threat to the green space near their homes surfaced. A 12-acre tract west of the Joplin Family Y South - a hillside that is covered with mature trees - was rezoned from residential to commercial and sold to Crossland Construction Co. Neighbors learned about it after the fact. Because they do not live within 185 feet of the property, they were not informed of the proposed rezoning by the city.
Bennie Crossland, with the company, said the contract on the property is pending, and he does not want to talk about what is planned for the property until he owns it. The deal should close in three weeks.
Troy Bolander, who handles zoning issues for the city, said the property is zoned for a planned central business district. That means the plan for the property will more than likely involve offices. The plan will be reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the council before a building permit is issued.
"The public will have an opportunity to speak, but these are not technically what you would call public hearings," said Bolander. "The ultimate decision is by the City Council."
In the meantime, Jones, who moved to Joplin three years ago from Charleston, S.C., said she and her neighbors will continue to monitor changes taking place near their homes. She is checking to see whether the city's comprehensive plan, released in 2003, is being followed.
"The plan emphasizes the big picture for the city, the need for nature and the impact of development on natural areas," she said. "But, are we really going by the plan? It seems that if we were, we would not be where we are now."
For details on upcoming meetings of the Joplin City Council or the Planning and Zoning Commission, go to the city of Joplin's Web site at www.joplinmo.org
By Wally Kennedy
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