In summer 2010, “Friends of Reeds Lake” (FRL) formed when several people re-discovered and tried to visit John Bonnell Park on Reeds Lake. Members of the neighboring Woodcliff Park Association (WPA) – comprised of about 50 neighboring homes – had gated and occupied this public park for decades and were opposed to use by others despite several attempts at discussion and negotiation. The Township supervisor, Mr. Michael Devries, avoided requests for involvement and did no more than confirm the park was Township Property. He stated in a private meeting that the township had no interest in any special use agreement but that no one was banned from the park’s use. Eventually FRL drafted a formal legal complaint against the WPA. Since the Township would not take an active role, FRL filed for “declarative and injunctive relief” from the Kent County Court to end privatized and exclusive occupation of the public John Bonnell Park. This was to be a simple formality for what was already obvious and would free the 200 feet of Reeds Lake waterfront for equal use by all citizens.
In early 2011, just before the case was to go to court for hearing, a curious special use agreement was made between Mr. Devries and the WPA. Two days notice was given for this meeting to be held just days before the Christmas holiday. The 30 who scrambled to attend and voice objection had the strong impression that the meeting was not for the purpose of discussion but to simply authorize a deal already made quietly behind closed doors. A lease was issued to the WPA for a fraction of the market value of the property ($1100 per year for 200 feet of waterfront). A token allowance was made for a maximum of 25 “non-WPA” members to use the area at a separate and comically prohibitive annual membership fee. Membership applications and park rules are now at the discretion of WPA members acting as governing authority for this public park. There was overwhelming attendance at the Grand Rapids Township meeting to argue that this is a highly suspicious “sweetheart deal” and most probably an illegal arrangement. Regardless, the six township board members led by Mr Devries approved it with no apparent regard for public reaction. Effectively, only the WPA may now use this public park.
Our goal is to archive documents to facilitate future efforts by a motivated group of Grand Rapids Township residents to reverse this arrangement. Despite Mr Devries’ acknowledgment that the WPA could not substantiate a claim for adverse possession against Grand Rapids Township, he nonetheless entered into a leasing agreement on the alleged grounds that the township feared a suit for adverse possession. We believe this was merely a facade to justify a sweetheart deal that was made for unrevealed motives. Michigan law does not allow cases of adverse possession against a government and no serious argument can be made that this was a threat to the township. It is unscrupulous for our represented leaders to act as if their hand was forced to exclude others from publicly donated property.
FRL efforts did provide the groundwork for a very strong future case. While “adverse possession” was largely a concocted feint to which the township pretended to yield, it nonetheless was an “argument” the WPA could have used to stall the suit in court for years. Now this is no longer possible. The WPA -in entering a lease agreement -lost all possible grounds for even the most basic principles of an adverse possession claim. They have conceded they do not “possess” it by virtue of leasing it. Attention would now be directed toward the township board and supervisor – all elected officials whose terms end in November 2012 – for having entered into an illegal and collusive agreement.
It is the strong opinion of lawyers who have assessed the situation that a case of collusion can be made against the Grand Rapids Township. What currently stands is a lease contract between the WPA and the Township that ends in 2013. This in itself is not illegal – governments lease to private groups all the time. What is quite likely illegal is that it occurred in a cloaked manner and against strong public opposition. Furthermore it was not a lease opportunity offered openly or equally to competing parties nor was it offered at a value that represents the public’s interest monetarily. Other taxpayers have now been barred from using property they own without due process and without fair compensation. Furthermore, a select few have been awarded a limited public resource with the opportunity to independently govern this public property for their own privatized financial gain. There is a strong legal case to be made against the Grand Rapids Township and it will simply take a leader within the Grand Rapids Township community to collect interest and bring it forward. If nothing else, as elected officials the supervisor and board members should at least be interested in public opinion on the matter and these opinions can only be correctly formed if the information is available.
The historical facts and documents will be preserved here to facilitate this ultimate goal. Please read through the pages of this website and introduce the issue and website to others. Our hope is that soon a leader will emerge to concentrate public interest toward the goal of forming a park open to others as John Bonnell originally intended.