Top stories of 2017

Tribune Staff • Dec 30, 2017 at 7:00 AM

The past year has seen several significant stories break across the Tri-Cities area. As we say goodbye to 2017 and look ahead to 2018, we spent some time going over the most impactful news stories of the past year. 

Our list of top stories follows. If you have a story you think should have been included, please let us know in the comments section.

Joyce Verplank Hatton’s reign as Spring Lake village president

It was a wild ride for the Village of Spring Lake, with Joyce Verplank Hatton being sworn in as its president early in January.

Hatton, who ran on a platform of disincorporating the village and making it part of Spring Lake Township, beat out Village Councilman Steve Nauta and former Village President Bill Filber in the November 2016 election.

During her short reign, Hatton made comments comparing a proposed parking ordinance to Nazi Germany. She also questioned the way the village conducts its business, and the salary of Marv Hinga, an Ottawa County employee who serves as village clerk/treasurer.

Local businesswoman Michelle Hanks launched a recall effort against Hatton last summer. 

Hatton resigned in August, on the eve of the election when voters were to decide the question of revising the Village Charter to allow for a means for disincorporation. President Pro Tem Mark Powers was sworn in to replace Hatton, and council appointed Hanks to fill Powers' vacant seat.

Ferrysburg mayor race 

After years of uncontested races, Ferrysburg started the election cycle with three candidates for mayor — incumbent Dan Ruiter and challengers Regina Sjoberg and Rebecca Hopp. 

Voters in the August primary chose Sjoberg and Hopp as finalists for the November election. 

But the contest became chaotic at times, with Sjoberg's camp pointing out an illegal (too large) sign displayed on Councilwoman Kathleen Kennedy's deck rail. Sjoberg also said some of her own political signs had been stolen, and police determined Spring Lake Township Clerk Carolyn Boersma's husband had taken them. Boersma said it was a simple misunderstanding, that she had thought the signs were illegally displayed on township property. 

Hopp, who appeared at a League of Women Voters forum with Sjoberg and Ruiter prior to the August primary, declined to participate in a similar event prior to the November election. Sjoberg appeared alone at the event. 

When the ballots were finally tallied in November, Hopp bested Sjoberg by 29 votes. 

Galloway goes to prison for sexual assault of softball player 

A former club softball coach and home builder, Thomas Galloway, continues to serve a prison sentence of 8-40 years for the sexual assault of a girl he used to coach.

Galloway is housed at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. His earliest possible release date is July 13, 2025, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The 46-year-old Spring Lake man was arrested in March 2016 for the 2012 sexual assault of a 13-year-old softball player.

During a plea hearing in July, Ottawa County Judge Jon Hulsing went over the details of the case:

The girl was 13 in 2012 when she accepted a ride with Galloway to his home in Spring Lake Township. According to court records, Galloway gave the girl alcohol, marijuana and a Norco tablet before kissing and touching her. He then had her give him oral sex and then penetrated her.

That accounted for three of the first-degree charges, Hulsing said.

The fourth count was from a 2014 incident in which the victim was cleaning a home in Grand Haven Township while employed by Galloway. He asked her to perform oral sex on him, and she did, the judge read.

At the Aug. 7 sentencing, Hulsing said a minimum sentence was not adequate given the circumstances of the case.

“The impact on the victim and her family is profound and it will be lifelong, as will the impact to your young children, unfortunately,” the judge told Galloway.

Willis gets life in prison for Rebekah Bletsch murder

The man convicted of murdering jogger Rebekah Bletsch infuriated the late Muskegon County woman’s family as he blew a kiss while leaving the courtroom before victim statements were given.

Jeffrey Thomas Willis, 47, was sentenced to life in prison on Dec. 18.

Officials confirmed later that he was forced to listen to a CD of the victim statements as he was transported from Muskegon to the Charles Engeler Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson. There, Willis is being evaluated before being placed in a state prison. 

Bletsch was murdered in 2014 while jogging along a Muskegon County road, and Willis was charged with her murder in May 2016. He was convicted Nov. 2 of the murder after a 10-day trial.

Willis is also charged with the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa, who went missing in April 2013 while working at a Norton Shores gas station/convenience store. That trial is scheduled to begin in March. Heeringa remains missing.

The Muskegon man was arrested following the investigation of an attempted kidnapping of a teenage girl in Muskegon County’s Fruitland Township last year. 

Ground broken for new Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium

The start of the $3.2 million Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium construction project took center stage this past fall after planning for the stadium redevelopment project began nearly five years ago.

A preliminary concept was developed based on some gathered ideas. The new design will have tiered grass seating, a volleyball playing surface, seasonal ice rink, areas for dancing, a permanent band shell, winter fire pits, concession stand, flagpoles and other amenities.

The project is scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day 2018, with costs covered by charitable donations and a state grant.

The new stadium is named after Lynne Sherwood, a local philanthropist who died in 2016. Sherwood and her family have been philanthropic supporters of the community for decades, and a $3 million gift from her estate helped kick off the redevelopment project.

Earlier this summer, city officials approved a grant agreement with the state to receive $280,000 from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund. As part of that deal, the city agreed to a $674,900 local match. The Grand Haven Area Community Foundation also announced this past August that the project had received a $25,000 gift from Fifth Third Bank.

Short-term rental talks abound

The discussion about what to do with short-term vacation rentals in many local communities was another hot topic of discussion this past year.

Grand Haven City Council approved new rules regulating the rentals within the city. The new rules state that in the North Shore district, no new short-term rentals would be permitted; in the Dune Residential district, new short-term rentals would be permitted as a special use; in the Southside district, new short-term rentals would be permitted on Franklin Avenue, and west of Fifth Street as a special use; and in the Old Towne district, new short-term rentals would be allowed on key street segments as a special use.

The ordinance revisions also establish a means of handling non-conforming short-term rentals that were established prior to the new rules, as well as a series of special land use regulations that would help the city’s Planning Commission determine if a short-term rental could be allowed.

Spring Lake Township and Ferrysburg also adopted short-term rental ordinances in 2017 that restrict free-for-all vacation rentals. In February, the township enacted an ordinance that limits the use to 14 days a year in the most common residential zones. Ferrysburg City Council earlier this month approved an ordinance that limits the number of guests and sets a minimum seven-day stay.

Spring Lake Village reviewed its current ordinance, which has restrictions in place, and decided to stand pat. It prohibits short-term rentals in all residential areas because they meet the definition of a hotel.

At the same time, news broke that the Michigan Legislature was looking at implementing new rules that address short-term rentals across the state. House Bill 4503 and Senate Bill 329 would amend the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act and define short-term rentals as a residential use of a property, not a commercial use. If the legislation becomes law, it would mean short-term rentals would be permitted in all residential zones of a community. Short-term rentals would also not be subject to special use permits or other permits or procedures different from other dwellings in the same zone.

Save the Catwalk reaches $1 million goal

The Save the Catwalk fundraiser was a big story in 2017 as the campaign sought to reach its $1 million goal. After a year of fundraising, the city announced in December that the goal was reached.

Campaign organizer Erin Turrell said more than “six figures” worth of donations have come through the local community foundation. She also noted that money to replace the highly photographed structure on Grand Haven’s south pier has also come from children conducting can drives and selling lemonade.

The south pier, which was removed in 2016, is expected to go back up in 2018 once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes work on the repair project.

Nelson named Grand Haven head football coach

After a turnstile approach the past four seasons, the Grand Haven football program decided to get back to its roots after the varsity head coaching position was once again open.

On Jan. 13, the school announced that Joe Nelson, a 1989 Grand Haven graduate and assistant coach at the school for 20 years, would take over as the leader of the Buccaneers football program.

The challenge of the head coaching position wasn’t a new undertaking for Nelson, as he had served as the program’s junior varsity head coach, as well as the boys’ track and field coach, for the past five years.

“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” Nelson said of being a head coach at the varsity level. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. I love coaching football, it’s something I’m passionate about, and I feel like it’s the right time to lead the program into a new direction. It’s a program that needs to be re-energized, and that starts with attracting more kids to play.”

It’s also a program that Nelson has cared deeply about as he himself is a former Grand Haven High School football player.

“I played linebacker and fullback here, and then went on to play one year at Grand Valley State University,” he said. “I then decided to take an assistant coaching job at Grand Haven while I was still in college, and I stuck with that for 17 years. After that, I coached as an assistant at Hope College for seven years, and then came back here about three years ago.” 

Grand Haven baseball team reaches state semifinals

The spring sports season came with a slew of surprising playoff runs, some dominant teams and some individual milestones.

The most entertaining run through the postseason was the storybook streak put together by the Grand Haven baseball team.

After finishing the regular season at 18-15, the Bucs put together a magical run of defensive gems that helped the team reach the state semifinals for the first time in the modern playoff era.

Grand Haven earned a berth in the state semifinals by beating No. 12-ranked Saginaw Heritage. The Bucs’ luck ran out in the semifinal round at Michigan State against Northville, as they fell, 9-1.

The run was anything but ordinary and will be remembered by the Grand Haven baseball community for years to come. A perfect storm of talent, spirit and luck, the 2017 Grand Haven baseball team rose above the noise and played out an unprecedented storyline that captured the hearts of the local community.

Spring Lake golf coach George Bitner retires

After 49 years and 88 combined seasons of coaching the Spring Lake boys and girls golf teams, George Bitner will no longer be leading the Laker programs he helped establish.

Bitner wrapped up his coaching career by helping the Laker girls squad to their 16th conference championship in his tenure and a third-place finish at the Division 3 state meet.

"I love kids, I love teaching and I love golf, so this was a no-brainer for me," said Bitner of his career choice. "I've enjoyed every minute of it. If one of my teams won a tournament, we would always go out to eat afterward. There was always a sense of camaraderie with both the guys’ and the girls' teams.”

Bitner has been simply outstanding as the leader of the golf program, holding an 85 percent win percentage in his 88 seasons coaching the teams and has claimed more than 1,100 match wins in that time.

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