Federal case seeks to remove golf course from Benton Harbor park
Opponents of the privatization of Jean Klock Park are hoping that all the attention focused on Benton Harbor as a result of the suspension of local government will bring support for the legal fight to take back the park.
In 2008, amid political pressure from Whirlpool heir and Republican Congressman Fred Upton , the National Park Service approved a plan to allow developers to swap former industrial parcels in Benton Harbor for the pristine Lake Michigan dunes at the heart of Jean Klock Park.
Federal approval of the swap was needed because the National Park Service had spent money on improvements for the park, and it cleared the way for Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment Inc. to build the Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course that now dominates the city’s park.
A group of Benton Harbor residents is arguing that the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers failed to follow environmental laws when they allowed the deal. The residents say that the scope of the golf project was trivialized in order to avoid federal environmental review and that information about the severity of the contamination of the parcels offered in trade for the park was not made available to the public.
Terry Lodge, attorney for the Benton Harbor plaintiffs, said that the federal agencies failed to meet their responsibility to ensure meaningful public involvement in the decision of whether to privatize public property.
In January 2011, Judge Robert Holmes Bell of the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids rejected these arguments, and park advocates are now appealing that decision in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where oral arguments are expected this summer.
A key element of the appeal is whether local residents have standing to sue over an appraisal of the park that valued it at less than a collection of contaminated inland parcels, Lodge said.
A standard buildable lot with Great Lakes frontage was going for a million bucks an acre at the time of the 2007 appraisal of Jean Klock Park, Lodge said, but the 22 acres of lakefront dunes were appraised at only about $900,000. Meanwhile, the contamination of the parcels offered in the trade was not disclosed, and one industrial parcel of less than two acres was valued at $700,000.
“The appraisal is huge.” Lodge said, “There was a complete lack of disclosure to public that the land to be traded was seriously contaminated. If this had been disclosed, elected leaders might not have gone along with the project.
“If the appraisal is dead,” he said, “presumably the deal is off.”
Lodge said that now that Benton Harbor is under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, “conditions are ripe for a “to hell with you, try and stop me” transaction in which the remaining acres of the park could be leased or sold without any public involvement.
“I am genuinely afraid of the fact that the remainder of the park could be conveyed into other ownership.” he said, “Benton Harbor has nothing else to sell off.”
“In addition to the repudiation of democracy, everyone should know that the key to Whirlpool getting control of Benton Harbor was first getting this beautiful half-mile of Lake Michigan lakefront in Jean Klock Park for their golf course,” said LuAnne Kozma, of the Park Advocate Alliance, who has worked with people in Benton Harbor on the park issues.
Kozma said that the takeover of Benton Harbor’s city government by Emergency Manager Joe Harris shows a scaled-up attack on the public commons.
The federal case over the conversion of Jean Kloc Park will show whether environmental laws like the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act will endure as meaningful tools to uphold protections for the nation’s parks, she said.
“The Jean Klock Park-(Protect Jean Klock Park advocate Julie) Weiss case is going higher in the federal courts, and it will set precedent for all parks in the nation protected by LWCF,” Kozma said. “There are other LWCF-protected public parks that are also in the middle of takeovers by corporations, including Lake Texoma State Park in Oklahoma, being taken over by corporate CEO Aubrey McClendon, and many Ohio state parks are threatened by fracking for methane gas by the gas companies.”
“This is more than just a trend,“ she said. “It’s a plan.”
More information about Weiss v. Salazar is available here.