For more than 100 years, families have hiked through and played on property previously owned and gifted to the city by Martha Duncan as a public park.
At last week’s meeting, the Grand Haven City Council took action that creates a fund designed to protect the area in an ongoing legal dispute with an attorney representing Duncan’s alleged descendants.
“Since the current onslaught of litigation ... we have spent a total of just over $119,000 on legal fees to protect that treasured natural area,” City Manager Pat McGinnis said. “That doesn’t count what our insurance companies have spent – they certainly more than double that amount.”
Duncan Memorial Park, a 40-acre forest located between Lake Forest Cemetery and Sheldon Road, was established in 1913. A three-member board was put in place to hold Duncan Woods in a “forever trust” as a public park.
“The original deed to the property provided for a three-member board and a self-perpetuating method to replace trustees,” McGinnis said in a press release. “When the current trustees resigned in 2013, the city needed to take action. The city petitioned the (Ottawa County) Circuit Court to reform the deed and name the city as the sole trustee. City Council then adopted a new ordinance appointing five citizens to serve as new trustees, with definite terms and a sensible manner to reappoint the members, so that the board would never again be vacated.”
McGinnis said the court approved of this transfer. The matter was assumed over until Grand Rapids attorney John Tallman filed a suit in March, claiming the Circuit Court-approved transfer was an illegal taking of property and the heirs should now own the park.
“Mounting costs for legal defense caused the city to contact the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, who agreed to help by setting up the Duncan Park Preservation Fund to collect and hold funds for the protection of the park,” McGinnis said.
City Council approved the fund agreement Oct. 7.
Without the help of the community, McGinnis said the city will not be able to continue fighting to keep the property, as the city’s general budget for legal services is $35,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
“It really makes me sad when we have to spend very scarce resources to defend a public interest from very real threats,” McGinnis told council last week. “We can’t just sit back and do nothing, so we have to step up and pay for this.”
With a fund in place, McGinnis said the community can battle against such litigations and make sure an asset such as Duncan Woods isn’t lost, ensuring the natural area remains as it is.
City Councilman Mike Fritz said the community needs to help prevent people who are no longer from the area taking the property and potentially changing it.
“Definitely, this is a jewel in our town, and very few towns have something like this,” he said. “It’s very natural, and that’s the way Mrs. Duncan wanted it kept.”