Mansfield's new park keeps a wild side

Posted Saturday, Mar. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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MANSFIELD -- A blue heron took flight low over a creek as a convoy of golf carts puttered along a dirt trail through what will be Mansfield's next community park.

"Do you remember busting your lip on that well handle?" Kelly Williams Jr., 59, asked his sister, pointing from one of the carts to a clearing in the oaks and thorny brush.

"That was my eyebrow," Karen Nelson corrected.

They were kids then, hiking and biking through the wooded hills of the 80-acre patch of nature on Matlock Road. It has changed little since their family bought it more than half a century ago, though now it stands as a fortress against the surrounding upscale housing development.

On Thursday, they joined nearly 100 current and past city officials and other residents to break ground on a $13 million project their family hopes will preserve the land in perpetuity.

"What they're trying to do is protect this land and save it for future generations," said Kelly Williams Sr., whose seven children and 23 grandchildren have roamed the property. "Most land around here got split up."

The property comprises six tracts assembled and purchased by Elmer W. Oliver. Kelly Williams Sr. married into the family and bought the land in 1992 when Oliver and his wife, Myrtle, died.

Williams and his wife, Marianne, sold the property to the Mansfield Park Facilities Development Corp. for $1 million in early 2004.

Park delayed

Although the land was earmarked for a community park, plans were delayed in part because of budget tightening during the recession that made its way to Mansfield in 2008.

The project got rolling in 2010 when the park board and City Council hired a consultant to design a master plan.

Officials said the "footprint" of improvements will be small, leaving most of the park in its natural state.

It will be developed over four years in three phases. The $3 million first phase, expected to open in January, will include an amphitheater, a bridge, a creek overlook, soft trails, picnic areas, parking, restrooms - both of the plumbing and compost varieties - and a wildflower area already showing its first bluebonnet blooms.

The second phase focuses mostly on extending the Walnut Creek Linear Park trail through the community park and eastward about 21/2 miles to Joe Pool Lake, at a cost of $3 million. The linear park links most of the city's large parks.

The $7 million third phase will feature a roughly 8,000-square-foot nature education center and 2,000-square-foot learning lab. It is scheduled for completion in 2017.

Where's the money?

Mayor David Cook said at the ceremony that the new park will be the "crown jewel" of the city's park system, which he said has already been a key factor in the Mansfield's recent high rankings in Money magazine's national list of the best places to live.

"What's really exciting to me," he added, "is that in nine months we'll be coming back out here and cutting the ribbon on this."

The city already has about 800 acres of parkland, including 518 acres of developed parks, a figure that will approach 600 when the as-yet-unnamed community park is completed. It will be the city's sixth community park and 14th park overall, including neighborhood parks.

The city's relationship with the Williams family hasn't always been so cordial. In the late 1990s, the family refused to sell a pecan-shaded strip of land the city needed to expand Matlock Road. With condemnation proceedings looming, the two sides settled on a price in 1999.

After buying the entire property in January 2004, the city allowed Kelly Williams Jr. to continue living in a 500-square-foot cabin on the site until two months ago, as construction preparations proceeded. He now lives in a nearby apartment, but he said he doesn't feel like he's losing anything.

"It's kind of like allowing my child to go on to bigger and better things," he said. "It's just a new chapter."

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