By Zach Hagadone
While the Sandpoint City Council approved the final contracts for the James E. Russell Sports Center on Sept. 27, and construction crews erected fencing Oct. 11 to restrict access to the future site at Travers Park, a group of citizens continued an almost week-long vigil chained to one of 20 trees that will be removed to make way for the indoor tennis-and-pickleball facility.
“We’re trying to save this tree — we’re calling it ‘Alice Willow,’” said Molly McCahon, who began the protest on Oct. 5.
“Once the trees are gone and the fence is up, there’s no going back,” she told the Reader, seated at the base of the tree Oct. 11.
McCahon’s protest drew numerous supporters, including some like residents Rebecca Holland and Pat Van Volkenberg, who joined her in chains. The trio sat together the afternoon of Oct. 11, surrounded by friends, media and members of the Travers family — for whom the park was named when it opened in the mid-1980s — awaiting the arrival of Sandpoint police officers who they’d been told would ask them to leave or be trespassed.
McCahon said she, Holland and Van Volkenberg did not intend to leave willingly, and so would opt to be trespassed.
“We will allow them to do that easily and with a smile on our face,” she said.
It was unclear as of press time whether any arrests took place.
The tree protest came after months of mounting frustration by some who felt that the James E. Russell Sports Center — made possible by a $7.5 million private donation by the Russell family in the spring of 2022 — had been sited at Travers Park with inadequate public participation.
“We have been weighing in since 2022,” McCahon said, later adding that, “Not one of them [city officials] have responded to any of my emails or concerns from Day 1 — completely ignored.”
“I can’t even describe how insulted I feel as a resident of this town,” she said.
Both McCahon and Holland have contended that no public hearing was ever held on the selection of Travers Park for the location of the almost 40,000-square-foot sports center.
Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad told the Reader in an email that following stakeholder meetings and a community meeting in July 2022, a total of six council meetings addressed the concept, all including public comment. In addition, the city ran a survey in October 2022, hosted a Travers skatepark expansion public meeting in April and a Travers Park open house in May.
“At this point, the decision was made months ago, and we have a signed contract and people are showing up on the job site today,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not like we didn’t hear concerns a year ago … but it wasn’t about the trees. It was the playground being moved.”
Beyond that, he wrote in an email, “The difficult decision to locate this new facility necessarily involved balancing multiple priorities and values. Trees are one of the many considerations. Also important, are impacts to existing user groups. … The chosen site had the least amount of impact to users, preserving all existing uses while accommodating improvements to skatepark, bike course and playground.”
For the protesters, it’s about the playground and trees, but also the park’s ecology as a former landfill and its historic purpose as an outdoor sports facility, which sees heavy use by community members who value its open spaces — all adding up to Travers Park being an unsuitable location.
“We are not against this building — just the location,” said Holland, who has been the most vocal and consistent critic of the sports center plan over the past year.
She said the goal of the protest is to convince the city that it should “pause” the project and revisit it with public input on alternative locations for the facilities.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Holland said, who told the Reader she had collected more than 400 in-person signatures on a petition to reconsider the Travers Park location and 2,000 more online.
According to Rognstad, it’s possible “in theory” that the City Council could change its vote on the Travers Park site, “but I can’t even imagine what that would look like. … It would be a disaster.”
“If the goal is to pause the project, call for an open house and a new council decision to reconsider siting, it would put the project off until spring,” he wrote. “Reconsideration would come at a tremendous cost. Halting a contract that is underway would add substantial penalties for the city.”
Despite that, and no matter that the plan calls for planting 60 trees in place of the 20 being removed, McCahon and her fellow protesters pushed back against the entire process that has surrounded the sports center project.
“This goes against every community value that Sandpoint has held dear for years,” McCahon said.
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