The park's founder never intended it as a recreation area, one professor said.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
BOARDMAN -- A proposed hike and bike path and bridge installation over Mill Creek is ill-advised and should be abandoned, three Youngstown State University biology professors and a Sheban Drive resident say.
"This is the most ill-conceived and obtrusive park improvement project I have ever seen," said Thomas Diggins, an aquatic biologist and assistant professor of biology. "Why is there a necessity for a 30-to-50-foot-wide swath to be cut through the forest?" he asked.
"Abandon it now. We could have our students go down and study the way the forest recovers over decades," Diggins urged Mill Creek MetroParks officials.
But park officials, who have already cut down the trees for the path they intend to build this summer, and some hikers, joggers and bicyclists want the project to go forward because they see it as a traffic safety issue.
"We feel very strongly that we represent the broad base of users at the MetroParks. We represent the families, bikers, walkers, runners, also the disabled people that would love to have access. We feel that this alternative provides them that safe use," said Susan Dicken, MetroParks executive director.
Path and bridge
The controversy pertains to a proposed 850-foot-long, 10-foot-wide asphalt hike and bike path, with a bridge over Mill Creek, which park officials seek to install to connect East and West Newport drives just north of Shields Road.
The path and bridge, to be built using a $164,000 federal grant, would improve the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists by keeping them inside Mill Creek Park and off Shields Road and Sheban Drive, which have heavy motor vehicle traffic, said Stephen L. Avery, the MetroParks' chief landscape architect.
Average daily vehicle counts exceed 20,000 on Shields Road and 8,500 on Sheban Drive, Avery said. As residential development in the area continues, "There's going to be more traffic in years to come," he said.
"As cars shave that corner, they cross the white line coming around. We just ran there and truly had a car come within inches of us," said Chuck Petzinger of Canfield, referring to Sheban Drive. "It's a tough intersection to get across whether you're running or biking," he said of Shields Road and Sheban Drive.
Petzinger was running with Kerry Kimerer of Boardman, with whom he trains for marathons. Petzinger also runs and bicycles in the park as he prepares to participate in triathlons. Both men enthusiastically endorse the connector path as a safety improvement.
"It's a mistake," said Carl Chuey, a botanist and professor of biology, who has been with the university 36 years. "The purpose of the park is to preserve open space, not be a recreation center. Volney Rogers [who founded the park in 1891] intended Mill Creek to be an open preserved area with limited use," he said.
"It is a very unique wetland and wildflower area and a migratory bird flyway," said Lucky Kaiser of Sheban Drive. "It is a waste of the taxpayers' money because they're spending over $160,000 on asphalting over this beautiful wetland, when, within eyesight, the Shields Road Bridge is going to accommodate pedestrians," she added.
Kaiser was referring to this summer's planned replacement of the Shields Road Bridge with a new span featuring 8-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle lanes on both sides. That project will also include installation of a push-button activation device for the traffic light at Shields Road and Sheban Drive.
She also recommends beefed-up speed limit enforcement in the area, a bike path along Sheban Drive, a three-way stop at West Newport and Sheban drives, and another three-way stop, either at Truesdale Road and Sheban or at Mill Trace Road and Truesdale, to slow the traffic.
Cuts through forest
The path planned by park officials would run through a high-quality old-growth forest, with a nearly 100-foot-high canopy of trees, where some trees are up to 3 feet in diameter and 200 years old, Diggins said.
The trees that were chopped down for the path include a 110-year-old, 24-inch-diameter white ash, and an 80-year-old, nearly 3-foot-diameter silver maple at the creek's edge, and numerous 6- to 12-inch-diameter black cherry and elm trees, he said. "This is not ratty little stuff that was cut. This is a swath through a forest," he added.
"You're taking out not only trees, but habitat for nesting birds and migrants. You get all kinds of thrushes, veeries, wood thrushes, hermit thrushes, that use that area during migration. It's a really important stopover site during migration," said Courtenay Willis, an ornithologist and assistant professor of biology.
Effects on other species
Willis also said the path would dry the area out and drive out moisture-dependent plants, such as may apple, and adversely affect amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders.
Avery said the width of the swath where trees were cut down is generally 16 to 20 feet, but some additional trees outside that range were cut down if they were in poor condition or posed a safety hazard. The route park officials have designated is the path of least environmental impact in the area and removes only a tiny fraction of an acre of wetlands, he said.
Ten of the trees cut down were of 10 inches or greater diameter -- the largest being 34 inches in diameter, said Justin Rogers, park landscape planner. Park records show 142 trees of 2-inch or greater diameter were cut down, with 75 percent of them between 2 and 5 inches in diameter, he said.
All three professors said projects such as this path degrade the quality of the forest by fragmenting it. Clearing such a forest corridor opens the door for nonnative plants to displace native plants, makes trees more likely to blow over and kills ground-level vegetation by exposing it to direct sunlight, Diggins said.
"Shields Road is already a major barrier. How many times do you think a squirrel can cross that road and survive? And they can run. The poor little salamander or the frog -- they'll probably never make it," Chuey concluded.