March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing City Council members express concern over the administration’s plans to naturalize some city parks

Wednesday, July 20 — City officials are moving forward with plans to naturalize areas in more than a dozen parks in the city. Meanwhile, four City Council members are expressing concerns over where it’s happening and the alleged lack of information about how it’s being done.

At a City Council Committee of the Whole meeting late Monday night, three city officials presented the Council the “naturalization pilot” program, which aims to “naturalize areas where it makes sense to do so,” the plan says.

“We’re trying to operate on a budget of 2012 at levels of 2001,” said Finance Director Jerry Ambrose. “There’s a great challenge to us to provide as many of these services we can with the resources we have. I think it’s in that context — how do we maintain the park system?”

Translation: This plan is about saving money. Interim Parks Director Brett Kaschinske said the city will save an estimated $3,000 per acre that’s naturalized. The plan proposes to naturalize portions of Ranney, Ben Davis, Tecumseh, Riverside, Pleasant View, Ormond, Munn, Graves, Michigan Avenue, Ingham, Grand River, Fulton, Fine and Beck parks. Those parks total 300 acres. The largest is Ben Davis Park, which is 41.8 acres. However, each will not be completely naturalized, and Kaschinske said it’s uncertain at this point how many total acres are being naturalized.

The plan, which didn’t require Council approval, is already under way, Ambrose said. For instance, the perimeter of Ranney Park east of the Frandor Shopping Center is mowed, but the interior of it is waist-high grass. Long grass is overtaking Beck Park, as one nearby resident told Council Monday.

“It’s kind of a work in progress,” Ambrose said in an interview. “It’s in the purview of the mayor — we’re responsible for maintaining the parks system.”

Kaschinske said “there are various definitions of naturalization,” which could include planting trees or replanting native plant species after controlled burns, “letting nature take its course,” or some combination of the two.

City Council President and 3rd Ward representative A’Lynne Robinson expressed concerns about how these parks were chosen because six of the 13 are in her ward.

“There’s absolutely no way I’m going to support anything that takes double (from my ward) than what is spread out throughout the city,” she said. Robinson added that she is “gravely concerned” about safety issues regarding children who pay near these naturalized areas.

Kaschinske said parks were chosen based on the amount of recreation that takes place there. “Obviously if there’s a playground, we’re not going to naturalize around there.”

Public Service Director Chad Gamble, whose department picked up mowing duties from the Parks Department as a result of the last fiscal year budget, said there continues to be “tweaks” to the pilot plan but that the selection process did consider how the park is used. “We tactically, logically selected these areas to make the least impact to the parks system.”

At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said she’s received calls from seven different residents whose properties abut parks. She said a perception is out there that instead of naturalization, it looks more like “abandonment.”

“Whether we like it or not, that’s the perception that’s out there — that I’m paying a parks millage and my property is impacted,” she said.

Wood also said Council should have been included earlier in some of the naturalization plans so that residents could be more aware of what’s going on. “What they (residents) assumed was that because of the rainy weather, that’s why parks aren’t being mowed. As it started to dry up and parks still weren’t getting mowed, that’s poor communication.”

Robinson agreed and Kaschinske confirmed that there are no postings saying a park is undergoing naturalization. “There is no sign on any of these parks that says this is a naturalized area. It just says this is wild. That’s a point of contention for me, and neighbors were blindsided,” Robinson said.

Second Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton, whose ward includes Beck Park, is concerned about long grass in parks so close to nearby properties. “When my neighbor doesn’t mow his back lot, I know how they feel. To think that a park is going to do that and we have a parks millage, how do you justify that?”

And At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney had concerns about potential “dumping” of trash in areas where grass is growing long. He said the long grass also “invites safety issues,” like the possibility of “mosquitoes and ticks” increasing.

Officials said other benefits to naturalization include improving native bird habitats and storm water absorption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from mowing equipment.

“Not every park needs to be maintained at golf level standards, nor should we solve our problems simply by stopping the mowing of parks that are actively used,” Ambrose said.

Kaschinske said the Parks Board made recommendations and changes to the pilot program. He said the plan is evolving and could change based on more input from residents. “This is a plan in progress,” he said.

In a four-page letter to the Council, Lansing Parks Board President Rick Kibbey said the board’s reaction to the pilot plan was “mixed. We understand the need to adjust mowing schedules and we welcome the move to introduce a larger portion of natural uses into parks. But we also recognized that what was submitted was not in fact a naturalization plan but a system of increased neglect and less attention to the park.”