Nature Preserve fate may be decided by voters

Marie Havenga • Jan 18, 2017 at 12:00 PM

FERRYSBURG — During a four-hour marathon meeting Monday night with much public comment, Ferrysburg City Council took a step toward allowing the fate of city-owned park land to be decided by the city’s voters.

Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg asked staff to place on the Feb. 6 agenda a proposed charter amendment that would require a public vote to sell any park, whether designated as such in the city’s Master Plan or not.

According to the City Charter, a two-thirds majority of Ferrysburg voters must approve the sale of designated park land. Because the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve is not a designated park in the city's Master Plan, it doesn't qualify for a ballot initiative and can be sold at the discretion of City Council.

After Sjoberg's request, Councilman Mike DeWitt asked that staff also put on the Feb. 6 agenda a proposal to put an issue on the ballot to consider selling the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve near South Holiday Hills.

City Manager Craig Bessinger said he will check with the city attorney on both requests.

Bessinger said a charter amendment ballot proposal could likely be on the November ballot. He said he's also “looking to see if it's possible” to place the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve sale proposal on the May ballot.

“We're preparing information to get to the city attorney for him to review,” Bessinger said. “It's the request from council members to have those two items on the agenda. We'll put them on the council agenda for Feb. 6 and see what council does with the proposals.”

Several council members, including DeWitt, have said the city has a lot of major expenses coming up — noting City Hall and infrastructure repairs, and a new bridge over Smith's Bayou. DeWitt has suggested that some services will need to be cut or the city will need to find other revenue sources, such as funds from selling city-owned land. The city is also considering selling vacant land adjacent to City Hall.

DeWitt said recently that the city has maxed out the amount of property tax it can levy since Ferrysburg 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,” DeWitt said. “If we put it on the ballot (Headlee rollback millage question) and get it passed, then this discussion is done.”

Council will have further discussions on a Headlee amendment ballot proposal at its March meeting, according to Bessinger.

As in past meetings, many neighbors spoke against a park sale, saying both children and adults use the 40 acres for recreation, including walks, forts and cross-country skiing.

A total of 17 residents spoke against the sale of the park Monday night. No one spoke in favor of a sale.

DeWitt said council has to look out for the greater good for the whole city, and not just people in one area.

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