Nature slept through her own party Saturday.
But the trails wandering through rolling brown hills and stands of towering, leafless trees were met with throngs of warmly dressed people eager to celebrate the grand opening of the city’s first park dedicated to observing the outdoors.
More than 200 turned out in the early chill for the dedication of the $3 million first phase of Elmer W. Oliver Nature Park, an 80-acre oasis amid upscale housing developments on Matlock Road. As many as 4,000 people overall, city officials estimated, tested the park throughout the afternoon as temperatures warmed toward 70 degrees.
The park stayed busy well beyond its six-hour schedule of activities, as steady streams of visitors strolled on the mile of crushed-granite trails, stopping at observation decks and pond-side booths where kids could look at turtle shells and live tadpoles. They followed the paths through a soon-to-be colorful wildflower meadow to a natural amphitheater and a 30-foot-high overlook deck above Walnut Creek.
“To use a kid’s term, it’s awesome,” said Kelly Williams Sr., who along with his late wife, Marianne, sold land to the city in 2004 with the goal of preserving it. As he waited in a golf cart for a more thorough tour, he smiled at the result. “It exceeded any expectations we could have had. Just beautifully done.”
There were a few who weren’t so pleased with the grand opening. A group of homeowners of the Estates of Creekwood, a gated subdivision that adjoins the south end of the park, has been trying to block use of a park bridge that spans Walnut Creek and connects to a greenbelt used by the residents.
On Friday, a Fort Worth district judge denied a temporary injunction sought by the homeowners, who challenged the city’s contention that it owns the green space. The homeowners said the bridge would increase foot traffic on the property, which could increase their liability and hurt property values.
Saturday, several of the homeowners handed out fliers stating “The bridge you are crossing is built on private property maintained and insured by the Homeowners of the Association of the Estates of Creekwood, a gated community. Suit has been filed against the City of Mansfield for trespass and by crossing this bridge (which the city spend $250,000 tax dollars on), you could be prosecuted for trespass.” At one point, there was a brief verbal confrontation between a resident and a park supporter, witnesses said.
One of the homeowner group leaders, Allison Arseneau, said they would file for a permanent injunction this week and likely request a jury trial.
“We’re going all the way,” she said. “Basically they’re building a public park on private property.”
The residents have a different interpretation of the 1995 subdivision plat and other land records that city officials say earmarks the greenbelt for a future public park.
The greenbelt and bridge are crucial elements in connecting Oliver Park to the Walnut Creek Linear Park trail system, which is being extended through new and established parks from the city’s west boundary to its east.
The $3 million second phase of Oliver Park, scheduled for completion late next year, would extend the linear park’s 12-foot-wide concrete trail – the spine of the trail system – through that contested strip of Oliver Park and eastward to the city limits at Joe Pool Lake, almost 2.8 miles away.
The $7 million final phase of Oliver Park includes construction of an 8,000-square-foot nature center and a 2,000-square-foot learning lab, to be finished in 2018.
By design, the park is and will be almost nothing like the city’s other 13 parks, which cover about 520 acres. It has no sports fields or playgrounds, geared instead for experiencing nature and hosting a variety of educational programs on plants, aquatic organisms and wildlife for classrooms of school students as well as for adults.
The park on Saturday seemed to embrace its role as an outdoor learning lab. The park staff and volunteers set up stations along the trail for site-specific information and activities.
“Want to see what happens when a duck’s feather gets wet?”
When Sheila Franklin of Fort Worth, one of many naturalists volunteering for the day, caught the attention of a small boy near her pond-side setup, she held out a white plume and an eyedropper of water. A squirt of water quickly rolled off the feather.
Franklin, a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas, then applied a couple of drops of clear oil, which soaked into the feather.
“When a duck gets wet with oil and pollutants, it can’t fly,” she explained. The boy took in the lesson, and then started checking out two turtle shells on the next display.
Andy Keeble, a master naturalist – a volunteer with specialized training in a Texas Parks and Wildlife program – offered a look at tiny mayfly, damselfly and dragonfly larvae that were dipped from the pond that morning. Their presence was fresh evidence of healthy water, he said, because they don’t survive in unclean water.
“If there is heavy pollution and no oxygen, you get leeches and tubifex worms,” he said.
Nearby, Morgan and Andy Barg of Mansfield, and their daughters Addison, 4, and Ellie, 2, prepared to set out on the trails. They usually go to Donald R. Barg Park, because it’s closer to home – and it’s named for his father, the long-time former treasurer of the city’s park board, which administers the half-cent sales tax that funds park projects, including Oliver Park.
Barg said he welcomes the focus on nature over sporting and playground facilities they use at other parks.
“We’ve got plenty of that stuff, plenty of soccer fields and football fields,” he said. “And that stuff is high maintenance.”
Addison didn’t appear as sold on nature when her mom asked what she thought of the park.
“I want to go to a slide,” she said.