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Drama continues in Ferrysburg

Marie Havenga • Oct 4, 2017 at 10:00 AM

FERRYSBURG — The tension over the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve remains, and at Monday's City Council meeting, opposing sides took jabs at each other over the park’s trash and cleanup issue.

Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg said she's “suspicious” about a presentation at a council meeting last month that showed trash in the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve in South Holiday Hills and wonders why the park was singled out.

“Part of the ire was this park was singled out,” said Sjoberg, who is running for mayor against Councilwoman Rebecca Hopp in the Nov. 7 election. “... (Councilwoman) Kathleen Kennedy sent us all a message that no other parks had any trash or any problems, and that's not true. I just showed (City Manager Craig Bessinger) phone shots that I took at Coast Guard Park just from the path from Parkwood (Drive). I didn't even go into the woods.”

Sjoberg said she saw large pieces of metal, yard waste, machines and railroad ties at Coast Guard Park.

“(FNP) was singled out for condemnation to devalue it,” she said.

RELATED: Take a walk through the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve at the Tribune’s photo gallery of the week.

Councilman J. Patrick Twa — whose wife, Bobbie, asked Grand Haven resident Mischelle Julien to present the photographs of debris at FNP at the Sept. 18 meeting — snapped back at Sjoberg.

“You think it was in the park, but you don't know,” he said. “You're dropping a bomb here and you don't know whether it was in the park or not. The reality is, we can say whatever we want, but we don't know if it's true.”

Sjoberg retorted: “Well, I know what I saw.”

Referring to the FNP trash, Twa replied, “And we know what we saw. And I have been in the park. I can show you where holes were dug. I find this a bit disingenuous that you would bring this up when you don't even know if it was in the park.”

Sjoberg said she finds it interesting that people who didn't even know where the park was a year ago have more recently claimed that it is a liability because of the debris there.

There were reports of holes in the ground, concrete, building materials, animal traps and zip lines, although no one has been able to verify animal traps and zip lines. Supporters of the park say many of the photographs that Julien presented were of debris on private property.

South Holiday Hills neighbors got together last week and cleaned up the park after receiving notice of an ordinance violation from the city. The letter also asked residents to volunteer to pick up the debris.

“We're satisfied with what's been done out there,” Bessinger said Monday night.

Councilman Mike DeWitt thanked the neighbors for their efforts.

“I'd like to thank the citizens that did the cleanup of the nature preserve,” he said. “I appreciate it. From what I've been told, they did an excellent job.”

But DeWitt's agenda on Monday wasn't all gratitude. Phil Sielski, a Grand Haven attorney representing DeWitt, spoke during the meeting’s public comment period and demanded a correction from Sjoberg for posting on her Facebook page that DeWitt was at the FNP on Sept. 19 and that he spent several hours there on Sept. 22.

“Both statements are false,” the attorney said.

Sielski said if she didn't correct the statements, further legal action would be taken.

“You'd have to ask the people that witnessed it,” Sjoberg said.

“I never set foot in that park,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt said that on Sept. 19 he pulled into the church parking lot near the FNP to make sure that Sgt. Jason Kik of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office and Ferrysburg public works employees showed up at 7:30 a.m to tour the property, like they said they would.

“I turned around and left,” DeWitt said. “I don't care what you've been told. It's wrong.”

Some supporters of the park said they were shocked to receive the letter requesting the cleanup.

Several residents chastised council members for the way they've been acting and for showing up in the news for “all the wrong reasons.” They pleaded with them to hold themselves to a higher standard, work together and to get along.

Although most people who spoke supported keeping the 43-acre nature preserve intact, resident Jerry DeWitt (no relation to Councilman DeWitt) had a different take on the issue.

“I think the property should be sold,” he said. “If you put 80 homes on it, you could probably have an income of $65,000 a year from that property (in taxes). In 10 years, you could have $650,000. Think about it — $650,000 is a lot of money.”

DeWitt said the city has seven other parks, so there are plenty of places to walk.

“If I were living along there, I would be in the same ballpark as you are,” he said. “I would say, 'Keep it, don't get rid of it.' I think there are about 18 homes there. There are 1,400 homes in the City of Ferrysburg. If that property were sold, it would benefit everyone in the City of Ferrysburg as far as taxes are concerned, not just the 18 homes there.”

Besides the mayoral race, the Nov. 7 ballot in Ferrysburg will include a 3-mill request to fund repairs of the Smith's Bridge and also a ballot measure that, if approved, would allow voters to decide if a city-owned park should be sold. Currently, City Council can decide if a park should be sold.

Sjoberg said that people who signed the petition to put the issue of letting voters decide the fate of parks were from all over the city, not just from the homes surrounding the FNP.

“It's important to all of us,” she said. “When that green space is gone, it's gone forever. There are lots of ways we can pay for that bridge and it doesn't necessitate selling the park. The effort to turn people against one another is so evil.”

Sjoberg said with all the division in Ferryburg, it could be a tough job to pull everyone back together.

“Whoever wins (the mayoral race), it's going to be really hard to bring people back together,” she said.

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