Advocates on both sides of a divisive plan to make Martin Park Nature Center more accessible to people with disabilities are optimistic that open communication and a little more time will give them the opportunity to reach common ground.
Wilderness Matters, a local nonprofit, has been given permission by the Oklahoma City Council to develop plans to spend a $1 million donation on making parts of the park more accessible to people with disabilities. The plan requires council approval before it can be implemented, and it has met some resistance as proponents try to get approval from the Parks Commission.
Friends of Martin Park, a group of longtime park supporters, has been the leading voice expressing concerns the park could be permanently and negatively impacted by modifications without using the greatest of care, and Wilderness Matters hasn't yet won over skeptics in the group.
But there's hope that more communication will yield a plan that's broadly acceptable.
“I think we're going to find we can make this work for both sides, and more importantly that the city of Oklahoma City and its residents benefit from a park that has some really special attributes,” said Janna Gau, an Edmond attorney serving voluntarily as a spokeswoman for the Friends of Martin Park.
Wilderness Matters' plans involve making improvements to trails at the park, which sits just south of the Kilpatrick Turnpike at 5000 W Memorial Road. One of the park's three main dirt trails would receive a new surface that is more accessible to people with disabilities, but there are no plans for a hard surface like concrete or asphalt. A new trail with the improved surface also would be constructed alongside an existing dirt service road at the park.
The group also would build a universally accessible tree house and a sensory garden for use by people with disabilities related to vision and other issues. A boardwalk on part of the park's lake is also possible.
All in all, the improvements would impact “less than 10 percent” of the 144-acre park, city Parks and Recreation Director Wendel Whisenhunt said.
Impact on wildlife
Friends of Martin Park is not yet convinced there has been enough study to ensure the plans won't have a detrimental impact on rare vegetation and wildlife in the park, Gau said. The group also is concerned about getting guarantees from Wilderness Matters and the city that the modifications won't be too expensive or difficult to maintain over time.
Jack McMahan, Wilderness Matters' executive director, points out city projects like the children's playground haven't hurt the park's atmosphere or purpose, and he doesn't expect the accessibility modifications to either.
“We don't want to run the nature out of the park. That's why we all want to go there,” he added.
The Parks Commission's vote in November to approve McMahan's plans resulted in a 3-3 tie. It hasn't been put on Tuesday's Oklahoma City Council agenda, and there's no deadline to get it on there.
That leaves both sides time to engage in more talks. McMahan said he's confident he can show skeptics that his plans will only improve the park and not hurt it, and that he's willing to work with the Friends of Martin Park to allay fears. Gau said Friends members will be receptive to a plan they think addresses their concerns.
Approval by the Parks Commission isn't necessary before the plans go to the city council, but it wouldn't hurt the item's chances. McMahan said he thinks he'll give it another try after more discussion with the Friends.
“We'll continue to have meetings with them until we can reach that kind of understanding,” McMahan said.