April 27 2016 12:22 AM

Park Board vote set, but questions on sale price, maintenance cost are unanswered

The city of Lansing sign announcing the Willoughby Park location. It's located about 10 feet from the street, obscured by trees.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

In a move to save the city of Lansing money, the Park Board will consider a resolution May 11 to sell Willoughby Park, a 70-acre wilderness preserve on the city’s far southwest side.

“The mayor is very clear,” said James McClurken, a member of the eight-member board. “He wants to get rid of parkland.” McClurken points to the fact the city has struggled to maintain city parks for the last decade as the treasury has run dry — except the city has posted a budget surplus for the last three fiscal years.

To date, Park Board members are unable to determine how much, if anything, the city spends maintaining the 70 acres. There is no parking lot, and the only trails are those from deer criss-crossing the property.

Also, the Park Board has no sense of how much the property might be worth.

While McClurken opposes the sale of the property, he said he will support the resolution to put the matter on the ballot. “It’s ultimately up to the citizens of Lansing,” he said. “While I value the parklands, not everybody may.’

In a response to questions, the Mayor's Office referred to Willoughby Park as "surplus" property being reviewed with the help of the city's Financial Health Team, which Bernero created to help steer the city away from bankruptcy.

Asked who might buy it, the statement said: "Our intent is to ask city voters if they think we should keep it or sell it. If the question is placed on the ballot and voters approve, we will market the property for sale to determine if there are any interested buyers."

Veronica Gracia Wing, vice chairwoman of the board, said she has not yet decided how she will cast her vote May 11. She said she is awaiting more information from the department upon which to base her decision. She wants to know the appraised value, who would buy it and what would it become.

“I am not opposed, in general, to selling parkland,” she said. “We can’t maintain our system in a useful way right now.”

But righting the city’s flailing park system has to be done with a balanced approach she said, evaluating the properties for how they serve the community.

“I’m not for putting parkland for sale just to put it up for sale,” she said.

A meeting earlier this month, where Park Board members voted 5-3 to approve the transfer of Scott Park to the Lansing Board of Water & Light, also serves as a guide point for Gracia Wing. Scores of citizens turned out to oppose the plan to build a power substation there.

“The sentiment we heard in that meeting of how the public perceives the sale of land — it really behooves us to listen and be mindful of that,” she said.

The property is listed as “undeveloped” in the city’s current Parks’ Master Plan. The only other property designated as such is the 40-acre Fine Park, which is also listed as a neighborhood park. Fine has access to the Grand River, which Willoughby does not. Fine is also located on the southwest side of the city, but north of Jolly Road and west of Waverly Road.

The master plan encourages Lansing to “identify current natural areas throughout the city for acquisition” and to “identify and maintain natural areas for wildlife.” The plan also calls for maintaining the current tree stock in the parks by pruning, as well as removing dead trees. It also calls on the city to plant more trees, as park space allows.

Willoughby reflects this charge. Shaped like a finger, pointing north to the city, it is filled with towering oaks and maple trees. Both downy and redbellied woodpeckers flitted from tree to tree. Under the tower trees, patches of waxy mayapples, their bloom buds just coming in glistened in the sun which dappled down through the branches high above. Next to them are the tiger striped leaves and bright yellow flowers of the trout lily.

In a field area in the middle of the park — where once neighborhood kids had a bike trail, complete with jumps and raised embankments for turns — blue darter dragonflies chased each other while tiny periwinkle colored butterflies glided from grass blade to grass blade.

In the wetlands in the back of the property, wood frogs and spring peepers sing. Ducks swam lazily in one area, and deep deer tracks scar the rich, black soil.

Despite its proximity to Delhi Township, a sale of the property to the township is unlikely.

Township Clerk Evan Hope said he and township Supervisor C.J. Davis recently had a “courtesy” meeting with Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero to discuss the possible sale of the property.

“Our township manager told him he didn’t think much of that land would be developable (too wet),” Hope said via social media Sunday. Hope said there are no plans for the area surrounding the park either. He said the conversation with Bernero seemed more preliminary than final, and no proposed projects or developers were mentioned. The property does lie just south of an area zoned for residential single-family housing.

For Lynn Stebbins, the eldest son of C. Rowland Stebbins, who donated the land to the city, the move to sell the property is up to the city.

“I guess if that’s what the city does with it, that’s it,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s theirs to do with as they see fit.”

The Holt resident said he swings by the park to clear the brush from in front of the sign each year, “only because I’m proud of it.”

He said his father obtained the land through a series of land swaps with the Michigan Department of Transportation while the agency was preparing the way for Interstate 96 to go through south Lansing. He said he’s noticed nothing has been done with it in the many years it has been in the city’s possession.

“It’s not baseball ready,” he said. “It’s all wood.”

(This story has been updated to clarify the title of C.J. Davis. He is township Supervisor, not township manager.)

A brown wood frog found in a deep, stagnant pool at the back of Willoughby Park.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse