The city is considering selling the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve near South Holiday Hills to add income to the city's coffers and also generate an ongoing tax base from residential development.
In 2002, City Council voted unanimously to designate the land as a park. Two years later, the city tried unsuccessfully to obtain a state grant to build trails in the park.
The wooded dune property is a popular play area for children and a haven for walkers and dog owners.
South Holiday Hills resident Heather Hawley said she grew up with the acreage behind her backyard. In 2008, she purchased the home she grew up in from her mother.
“I walk my dog back there every single day,” Hawley said. “We cross-country ski back there. People ride mountain bikes back there. There are trails back there. They're there because people of the community have been using it for so long. We need to protect this for our kids. It's beautiful.”
At Monday night’s council meeting, children held up signs asking city officials to save the trees and not build big buildings on the property.
Levi DeJonge, 6, went to the podium with his mom, Kristin, and told council: “I want you guys not to cut down any trees and not put houses back there so we have space to play in the woods.”
Kristin DeJonge teared up when she addressed council.
“We moved here a year ago and that land was a huge part of our decision,” she said. “We would be devastated to lose it. Please keep my kids in mind.”
Dozens of other residents spoke, citing traffic concerns from any potential development, the need for “green” space and the importance of keeping wildlife habitat natural. They praised the scenery and the diverse ecosystem of plants and animals.
Resident Mark Herman said he likes that the property isn't marked with man-made trails and signage.
“There's a constant stream of people playing there,” he said. “I like the fact that it's unstructured. There are even forts back there. I think it's cool in this day and age they're not virtual forts. It's the real thing.”
Chuck and Ann Holman said they have lived near the property for a half-century.
“I don't see any benefit whatsoever (to selling it),” Chuck said.
“I can't fathom a bulldozer going through and destroying all of this,” Ann added.
Although the discussion took place during a work session and Mayor Dan Ruiter told the standing-room-only crowd there would be no decision that night, Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg said her mind was made up and she was ready to vote.
“I think we should make a decision tonight,” Sjoberg said. “We could say we don't think we should pursue this.”
Other council members said they will not take any decision lightly. However, with sewer, road and city hall repairs looming in the next several years, money could become tight.
Council members also noted they have maxed out the amount of tax they can levy since voters several times have turned down ballot measures that would allow the city millage to be increased.
“The city is not in a critical financial situation, but we have some big projects coming up,” Councilman Mike DeWitt said. “If we put it on the ballot (Headlee rollback millage question) and get it passed, then this discussion is done. We certainly appreciate your input — however, we have to look at the greater good for the whole city, not just for people in one particular area.”
Ruiter said after listening to the public passion, he is not in favor of selling the property.
“I'm opposed to doing away with the park land, especially after hearing the comments tonight,” he said. “That's my take on it right now. That may change in a year or two, but that's where I'm at.”
Tim Scarpino, who served on City Council when it voted to create the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve, said he was proud to have made the motion to do it.
“The reason we created the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve was because, at that time, we wanted it protected,” he explained. “This is about protecting it not only for our use but for future generations.”
According to the Ferrysburg City Charter, a two-thirds majority of the city’s voters must approve the city selling any park land. But City Manager Craig Bessinger said because the property is not a designated park in the city's Master Plan, any sale would be at the sole discretion of council.
Scarpino said if council should decide to sell the property, residents could gather signatures and petition to potentially get the measure on the ballot.
“I encourage you to do it,” he said. “It's exhilarating to fight city hall.”