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Thursday, May 31, 2012 04:50 pm

Park district mulling Griffin Woods purchase

Part of land eyed for supermarket could become park

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The southern edge of Griffin Woods overlooks Fairhills Shopping Center at the intersection of Washington Street and Chatham Road.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

The warm summer breeze rushes through the dense underbrush of the second-growth forest known colloquially as Griffin Woods, filling the close space with the rustle and shimmer of thousands of leaves. A broken shoelace, a potato chip bag and a few empty beer bottles lie just inside the perimeter, a testament to careless trespassers who find temporary refuge under the tall green canopy.

The 20-acre stand is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and sits a few hundred feet west of Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, overlooking the Fairhills Shopping Center at the intersection of Washington Street and Chatham Road. There doesn’t seem to be anything historically or biologically remarkable about this particular patch of forest, but it may become significant as grocery chain Schnucks eyes the site for a new supermarket.

That doesn’t sit well with Springfield resident Charles Matheny, an amateur environmentalist, and others who want to see the forest preserved as a public green space.

“Trees are so much more than just green things that help clean the air,” Matheny says, adding that he feels forests and other natural spaces enhance the city’s appearance. “How many 20-acre green spots are there around?”

Matheny could get his wish – at least in part – if the Springfield Park District takes advantage of a chance to purchase a portion of Griffin Woods. Gray Noll, vice president of the Springfield Park District board of trustees, explains that a long-standing city ordinance gives the park district what’s known as “right of first refusal” – basically first dibs to purchase part of the land. Only about 1.7 acres would be eligible for purchase by the park district, Noll says.

He’s not convinced it would make much difference to Schnucks’ plans.

“I don’t think the park district has any ability to stop Schnucks’ development from occurring,” he says. “Purchasing this property might keep 1.7 acres from becoming a parking lot, but that’s about it.”

But Schnucks spokeswoman Lori Willis says the new store will need the entire 20-acre plot. Willis says the St. Louis-based company has signed a contract with the Catholic Diocese to purchase the land, though the sale is still subject to government approval. That’s where the park district comes in. Noll says the board can exercise its right of first refusal within one year of the land plat being approved. That process hasn’t even started yet, Noll says, so a final decision isn’t likely soon.

Schnucks currently has two existing stores in Springfield, and the store planned for Griffin Woods is one of two more announced in April. Willis says those opposing the new Schnucks should look at the company’s record of building environmentally-friendly stores.

“We appreciate their concern, but we would hope our reputation as a strong community partner and responsible builder would reassure them,” she says. “Our developer is working on plans to harvest the trees (at Griffin Woods) should we get to that point, but we’ll only remove those trees that are necessary.”

Park board president Leslie Sgro says the board hasn’t met yet to discuss Griffin Woods, but they are gathering information on the park district’s options and what could be done with the land.

“This is obviously a parcel of land that means a lot to members of the community,” Sgro says. “We have to take that into consideration, but we also have to consider the economic development of the city. We’re going to take a hard look at it; the city deserves that.”

Kathie Sass, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese, says it makes no difference to the diocese whether the forest remains intact or becomes a Schnucks.

“We have no position on that,” Sass says. The land has been in Diocesan hands since the 1920s. We were approached with an offer and we accepted it.”

The diocese is asking $200,000 per acre for the plot.

Both Noll and Sgro say if it were solely up to them, they’d probably opt to preserve the forest.

“My personal feelings are that I hate to see any green space turn into blacktop or development,” Noll says. “As a regular Joe Citizen, I see a variety of empty stores right now across the street, so it makes sense to develop that mall a bit more first.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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