Sept. 6 2018 10:17 AM

Stanford: Restitution talks ‘stalled’ amid lawsuit

    The local residents behind a lawsuit levied against the city of Lansing still want officials to improve conditions at Ormond Park, but they’re willing to hash out their concerns outside of a courtroom if the city wants to settle.

    Merry Stanford, president of Friends of Ormond Park, said her group is urging action for the “negative impacts” caused when the city last year paved a two-lane roadway through the middle of the narrow parkway, replacing dozens of trees and playground equipment with a driveway to Groesbeck Golf Course.

    A list of “suggestions” accompanied the release, outlining requests for various improvements as well as $60,000 to cover legal expenses incurred from the ongoing lawsuit. Stanford said the city met with her nonprofit organization to discuss a settlement but she hasn’t heard back since July. They’ve reached a stalemate, she said.

    The roadway, in the meantime, has been built. And Stanford thinks Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is in a “difficult position” in terms of how to handle the lawsuit and alleviate the growing concerns from local neighbors.

    “The former mayor (Virg Bernero) had a number of follies that unfortunately Schor has inherited the consequences of,” Stanford added. “We think Ormond Park should be the exception. We’d like to see the mayor support our neighborhoods so our neighborhoods can support the mayor.”

    Friends of Ormond Park filed suit against the city last November to prevent the roadway construction. The city didn’t first survey for an endangered Indiana bats and the removal of trees and the jungle gym would “detrimentally alter” the space and pose safety concerns for children who play in the park, the complaint stated.

    At the time, city officials thought the roadway would reduce traffic for neighborhood residents and make it easier for golfers to meet their tee times. Scott Keith, President and CEO of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, suggested the renovation actually reduced risks for those strolling on neighborhood streets.

    “Those cars are no longer zipping in and out of those streets,” he added. “It made the area a safer place.”

    Stanford disagrees. She counted 57 mature trees that were removed from the park and can now only spot nine living replacements. Animals have lost their habitat, children have lost their playspace and neighborhood residents have emptied their pocketbooks to push back against the city in a courtroom, she contended.

    But Schor said he’s working on some damage control regardless of the lawsuit. He committed to replacing playground equipment and a basketball court during his campaign for office. He, too, wants to reactivate the space for local residents, but he has stopped short of offering to pay for their attorney fees.

    “It’s going to cost probably about $100,000 to put in that playground equipment, but I made a commitment and I’m going to do that,” Schor said, noting another $60,000 could buy a jungle gym for another city park. “They’re suing us, essentially, for something we’re already going to do. We’ve already ordered the equipment.”

    Stanford claimed the city agreed to replace the trees one-for-one when they were initially uprooted. A drive through the park is evidence of that unkept promise. Schor this week suggested “most of those trees needed to come out” anyway, and the playspace — for now — takes priority over any environmental remediation.

    “We’ll do whatever we need to keep kids safe,” Schor said. “If that means speed limit signs or whatever, we’ll take care of that. The bigger issue for us is the playground equipment and the basketball court, and we’re already working on that. Our interest is also to keep kids safe. We’re going to do what we need to do in order to do that.”

    Stanford — in an open letter to Schor — emphasized the list of suggestions do not represent demands. The group no longer looks to uproot the street; neighbors just want to reach a compromise with the city, she said.

    “Let’s work together to ensure that the playground and road can share the space safely,” Stanford said. “We hope to hear back in a subsequent discussion what the city feels it can reasonably offer in response to our requests.”

    In addition to more prominent signage and speed calming along the roadway, the Friends of Ormond Park have requested a raised pedestrian crosswalk and natural fencing around any new playscapes. The release also suggested the roadway be kept, in perpetuity, as a public roadway and never sold into to private development.

    Schor said an additional line that requested a “public disclosure” of all costs associated with building the roadway was unnecessary. Those documents have been publically available for months, he said. A spokesperson for his office said the roadway tallied just over $445,053.

    The city sought last year to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of governmental immunity, but the request was ultimately denied.

    That city’s appeal has since sat motionless for months at the Michigan Court of Appeals. No oral arguments are scheduled. A clerk there said it’ll likely remain just as stagnant through the end of the year.

    Stanford said attorneys from both sides have had “limited” conversations in recent weeks, but she’s interested in reaching a settlement sooner than later. Schor said he would entertain a settlement discussion and could consider a smaller payment for legal costs, but he has no plans to reel back the city’s defense of the lawsuit.

    “By settling, the city also avoids having to respond to our very broad discovery requests and deposition notices,” Stanford wrote in the letter. “It has been over a month, without meaningful response. This leads us to wonder if the city has ever intended to negotiate a settlement. This is why we took the conversation public.”

    Visit lansingcitypulse.com to for continued coverage or to view Stanford’s open letter to Schor.