July 13 2016 09:45 AM

Score one for BWL, city in battle over Scott Park

Opponents of the plan to locate a $26 million power substation in a downtown park have apparently lost an important battle.

On Tuesday, City Councilwoman Jody Washington, who chairs the Planning and Development Committee, said it cannot be put on the ballot for voters to decide if the Lansing Board of Water & Light should be permitted to build the proposed Central Substation in Scott Park.

Washington said both City Attorney James Smiertka and Deputy City Attorney Joseph Abood have told her that the results of such a referendum would be considered an advisory opinion, which is illegal under state law.

Opponents have been demanding a referendum, contending that the City Charter requires a public vote to sell parkland. The city has maintained it was not selling the park, only transferring the property to another public entity, in this case BWL.

But on Monday, the city and BWL took a new legal avenue. Officials told the City Council said that the property would remain a park under zoning laws and that a Special Land Use permit, which the Council must approve, would allow the utility to use that park for the substation.

This move, Smiertka told the Council, would not require a transfer of the property ownership and negates the need for a vote by Lansing residents.

The fight began in February when the BWL announced its plans to build the substation in the park at the corner of Malcolm X Street and Washington Avenue between downtown and REO Town. Utility officials have argued the location is the only viable site. They say it needs to be built and online in the next 18 months in order to meet the schedule to decommission the coal-fired Eckert Power station by Jan. 1, 2020, as part of a cleaner energy initiative.

Opponents, including Preservation Lansing, have argued that not only does the plan eliminate an historic sunken garde, but also a nearly 100-year-old home that has stood vacant and barely maintained since 2007. They also argue this is a dramatic shift in the use of the park.

The two sides will continue to hammer on the issue starting at 10 a.m. Thursday when the Planning and Development Committee will meet to consider when to set a public hearing on the proposal.

Washington, the First Ward City Council representative, said she is “disturbed” by the “slippery slope” argument that the city can transfer a park property to another department for other use.

“If we start going down that road — and we know this mayor has no love for the parks — we could have the Public Service Department want to build a garage on park property,” she said.

Responded Mayor Virg Bernero: "What is she babbling about? I can't imagine that anyone takes her relentless negativity and hyperbolic nonsense seriously."

"The fact is we are blessed to have more than 2,000 acres of parkland in Lansing, nearly twice the national median according to the National Parks and Recreation Association," he added.