The Insider

With Friends Like These...
Details, details: You'd think that the proposed whacking of more than 100 trees on the Hermann Park Golf Course would have somehow come to the attention of a group that calls itself the Friends of Hermann Park -- especially since that nonprofit organization vigorously lobbied the city to keep the course in the hands of the BSL Golf Corporation, the private operator that wants to carry out the landscaping maneuver.

Come to find out, though, the Friends of Hermann Park -- which, for a private organization, seems to exert an enormous amount of control over a supposedly public amenity --claims to have had no idea that BSL's plans for its $3.6 million renovation of the golf course called for the removal of 111 large trees, some of whose trunks are larger than three feet in diameter.

That oversight may be par for the course at the Friends, however, since its executive director was forced out six months ago and a small cadre of insiders on the board took control of the direction of the nonprofit, which is dedicated to raising money for improvements at the park.

When City Council, at the Friends' urging, granted BSL an unprecedented 15-year concession last fall to operate the park's golf course, no one mentioned anything about cutting old growth at Hermann, where the remaining stands of trees are already in severe decline after decades of neglect. But in late December, after several of the more environmentally attuned members of the Friends board discovered that many trees on the course were sporting white ribbons marking them for extinction, both BSL and the Friends leadership began trying to put a happy face on the proposed tree-cutting.

Along those lines, a news release from the city's Parks and Recreation Department announcing a "public meeting" last week to review the "master plan" for the course referred to BSL's "reforestation plans." (The private operator does propose to plant 500 trees elsewhere in the park to compensate for the loss of the larger trees on the golf course.)

As it turned out, "the public" was little in evidence at the January 7 meeting, but BSL owners Andrew Schatte and Richard Bischoff and their allies from the Friends were on hand at the park's Garden Center to try to justify the proposed deforestation.

First, Bill Coats, the chairman of the Friends' golf committee, soothingly explained that the group was starting with the idea that no tree ought to be executed, if possible, and that a two-stage review would take place before any were removed. Of course, that two-stage process had to be completed in the next nine days, according to deputy parks department director Susan Christian; otherwise, it would delay BSL's schedule for refurbishing the golf course. Coats didn't explain why the Friends of Hermann Park hadn't been informed during the planning of the renovation that large trees would have to come down.

According to what Schatte told the board, BSL "unfortunately" had to pursue the tree removal because Hermann's course, at 115 acres, is smaller than most standard golf courses, which generally run to 140 acres, and therefore BSL needed more room for its planned improvements. And Charles Burditt, the professional forestry expert paid by BSL to oversee its work, explained that the cutting could have been worse. Initially, BSL had targeted 150 trees for removal.

"A golf course is one of the hardest places for a tree to survive," Burditt told the group. Maybe he should have specified a "BSL golf course."

Friends chairwoman Deborah Rylander later told The Insider that BSL never mentioned previously that healthy trees would be cut down, and apparently no one thought to ask about the fate of trees in the public park. (By comparison, the recent redesign of the golf course at Memorial Park did not require the loss of any trees.)

But asking pointed questions hasn't been a high priority at the Friends since last summer, when the organization's executive director, Mary Anne Piacentini, was replaced by Patricia Winn in the newly created post of president/CEO.

Piacentini, who joined the Friends in 1993 after running the Cultural Arts Council for most of the eighties, took an independent, no-nonsense approach to her job that reportedly irritated some very influential Friends: Elyse Lanier, the Friends honorary co-chairman, Kenny Friedman, the organization's president, and Susan Keeton, a board member who is the wife of one of Friedman's partners at the downtown law firm of Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton.

Having decided that Piacentini was too confrontational and independent for their tastes, Elyse and friends persuaded the board to create the new position. Although Piacentini applied for it, the $95,000-a-year job went to Winn. Word of Winn's appointment was leaked to Chronicle columnist Maxine Mesinger before the board had even voted to hire her.

"Some of the board members felt the direction of the organization should change, and I did not agree with the new direction," said Piacentini, who is now a consultant for other nonprofits in Houston. "I thought I was a good leader of the organization, and I did not want to be a second in command. So I left to pursue other opportunities."

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