'What’s happening out there is disgusting'

Becky Vargo • Sep 26, 2017 at 10:00 AM

FERRYSBURG — South Holiday Hills residents living next to the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve are being asked to clean up their act or face action from the City of Ferrysburg for violating a local ordinance.

Some of those residents, who over the past year have actively sought to protect the 44-acre park from development, said they felt like they were being attacked following a presentation at a recent city meeting.

Grand Haven resident Michelle Julien, a landscape restoration professional, gave a PowerPoint presentation during the Aug. 21 City Council meeting. She showed pictures of garbage, old tree stands, forts built with wood and assorted household materials, a zip-line, and brush and grass clippings littering the park.

When questioned about who asked Julien to make the presentation, she answered that a group of concerned Ferrysburg residents requested it. As the meeting became heated, and residents further pushed for information on who requested the presentation, Bobbie Twa, wife of councilman Pat Twa, spoke up and said she requested it.

Julien told residents that the debris in the park needed to be removed and recommended asking for volunteers to do the job.

The next morning, Sgt. Jason Kik of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, Ferrysburg Public Works Director Matt Shindlebeck and two other Ferrysburg public works employees walked the property after the complaints were aired. Kik noted that they had been out there for almost three hours.

“There are some things that look like there’s some dumping on city property,” Kik said. “We did not locate a zip-line.”

The sergeant said some of the items had obviously been on the property for a long time, while a couple of fire pits looked more recent and had well-used paths going to them from a gate in a resident’s fence.

City Manager Craig Bessinger said he walked part of the property later that day.

Those inspections resulted in a letter to residents on the streets that surround the park — Mohawk, Hiawatha and Dogwood — asking them to clean up any dumped items prior to Oct. 2 or face action from the Sheriff’s Office.

Also that day, a group of residents — considered members of the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve — walked the property with a Grand Haven Tribune reporter, pointing out different items shown in the presentation pictures.

“That tree stand is on private property and has been there at least 30 years,” noted Sandy Tuggle as she pointed out property markers.

Other household items and garbage was concentrated in fort areas built by children in the neighborhood, according to another resident, Heather Hawley.

The residents picked up some of the garbage and household items as they walked, and vowed to do so every time they went on the paths.

Councilman Mike DeWitt, who during the Aug. 21 meeting admitted to never going to the park, predicted it would be expensive to clean up and police the property.

“What’s happening out there is disgusting and it needs to be taken care of,” he said.

Hawley and Tuggle said that by far the majority of the property was untouched and a pleasure to walk. They said they would work with their neighbors to help make sure everything that shouldn’t be there was removed and no further dumping was done. 

Lisa Royce, who has been outspoken in her efforts to protect the park, said there was no need to spend extensive resources to clean it.

Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg protested that some City Council members and some residents were picking on this particular park when all of the other parks were just as bad.

Bessinger said on Monday: “The sheriff’s department and the Public Works Department are in the other city parks almost on a daily basis. The sheriff’s department and the DPW have been asked to visit the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve on a routine schedule.”

Royce and some of her neighbors gathered enough signatures over the summer to put a proposed City Charter amendment on the November ballot that, if approved, would allow a vote of the people to decide whether or not to sell city-owned park land. The current charter allows council to make that decision. 

This issue surfaced following a Ferrysburg Planning Commission discussion of the possibility of selling the park land to a developer to help raise funds for upcoming budget items such as the rebuild of the Smith’s Bayou Bridge, a new boiler and roof for City Hall, and sewer improvements.

Earlier, Councilwoman Kathleen Kennedy told a Tribune reporter that she had done nothing wrong in approaching a developer.

“As far as I know, there's nothing unethical that I did,” she said. “It was a fact-finding mission and I can do that. The city will have expenditures coming up in the near future. The 40 acres in South Holiday Hills is owned by the city. It was an idea to see if anybody would be interested in it.”

Kennedy said she never said the property was for sale, but said that if it did come up for sale that many developers might be interested in the land.

“Even if the property were to come up for sale, it would take the majority of council (to decide that),” she said. “It's a council decision — it's not my decision.”

Bessinger told the Tribune that he didn't see any ethics issues with Kennedy meeting with a developer.

“A lot of council members talk to residents and businessmen during the course of their day,” the city manager explained. “As long as they're not committing the city to any particular action, they have the right to talk to somebody.”

A motion to protect the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve was voted down at an early February meeting.

Tribune reporter Marie Havenga contributed to this story.

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