City restricts Dewey Hill uses

Alex Doty • Jul 22, 2015 at 11:11 AM

On Monday night, City Council voted 3-2 on a new ordinance that states Dewey Hill is no longer available as a public forum, with some exceptions. This means the cross is no longer allowed atop the hill.

“It’s sad to see a 50-year-old tradition laid to rest,” Mayor Geri McCaleb said following the vote. “I was disappointed about … our decision this evening. But that’s why we have a five-member council.”

The cross has most recently only been raised on the hill for the summertime Sunday evening Worship on the Waterfront services, which are sponsored by First Reformed Church of Grand Haven and held across the river at Waterfront Stadium.

McCaleb, who joined Councilman Dennis Scott in voting to reject the new regulations, noted that she wasn’t the one who asked for the item to be placed on the agenda.

“I certainly don’t support it, and won’t support it,” she said.

The decision comes following requests to the city from the “Remove the Grand Haven Cross” group — via Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — that they be allowed to erect displays of their choosing on the hill, or face a lawsuit.

The group — consisting of Norton Shores resident Mitch Kahle and his partner, Holly Huber, and Grand Haven Township residents Brian and Kathy Plescher — claims the cross promotes Christianity on city-owned property, which they believe contradicts the U.S. Constitution.

Americans United attorney Alex Luchenitser said he was pleased City Council considered the new regulations, as the decision reduces the chance of any litigation coming against the city from his legal firm.

"It (removes) the constitutional violations we're complaining about," he said. “Litigation would be very likely if the city didn't approve it."

Although the new regulations restrict certain uses, some items and uses could remain on the hill. The American flag is still allowed, and City Council may annually adopt resolutions permitting fireworks and other displays in conjunction with the annual Independence Day holiday and Coast Guard Festival.

"Before adopting any such resolution, the City Council shall review past celebrations and their impact on the dune, consider measures to be employed to minimize the effects on the dune during the proposed upcoming celebration, consider any special weather or other conditions that may affect the fragility of the dune, and consider other factors the City Council deems to be important for its annual review and consideration," City Manager Pat McGinnis said.

The feature pole located atop the hill may only be configured as an anchor and used in conjunction with Musical Fountain programs or when requested in conjunction with other community activities.

McGinnis said anyone who requests use of the anchor display for purposes other than in conjunction with an Independence Day celebration, the Coast Guard Festival or a Musical Fountain program will have to pay a fee to the city that is determined to cover the costs to raise and lower the pole.

The new regulations were a divisive issue with members of City Council.

Scott said he was against the new rules, and thought more should have been done to keep the cross atop the hill.

“All we’ve had are demands,” Scott said of the people who have opposed the cross. “I’m not going to vote for this. I am completely against it.”

Scott said he thinks Dewey Hill is just as important to city residents as infrastructure. He said the hill — or part of it — could be sold to a nonprofit group in order for the cross to remain.

“I don’t think this should be on the table right now,” he said. “I think, if it’s possible, the people of Grand Haven should take a vote on it.”

Others on council, however, felt it was best for the city to move on and avoid the potential for litigation.

“As long as the city owns that hill, it belongs to all people, whether they are religious or not,” Councilman John Hierholzer said.

Hierholzer said it is time to put the issue to bed, and noted that the city has already spent $12,000 on the hill issue without going to court.

“The hill belongs to ‘Caesar,’ whether the community likes it or not,” Hierholzer said. “It has become a focus for our waterfront. I’d hate to give up our control of that dune. That creates a whole other Catch-22.”

Councilman Mike Fritz also noted that it was time to put the restrictions in place and move forward.

“We have a lot of work to do in this town and a lot of people to take care of,” he said.

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