GT County Commissioners Approve Parks Plan, Exploration of GO-REC Acquisition, Contentious Rule Changes
By Beth Milligan | Jan. 4, 2024
In their first two meetings of 2024 – back-to-back organizational and regular meetings held Wednesday – Grand Traverse County commissioners approved a new five-year Parks and Recreation plan, passed a motion directing staff to explore the possibility of acquiring the 200-acre Camp Greilick/GO-REC property, and approved several rule changes that were contested along partisan lines.
Parks & Rec Plan/GO-REC Acquisition
County commissioners approved a new five-year Parks and Recreation plan Wednesday – a document required for the county to be eligible for certain state grants that outlines 111 targeted parks projects between 2024 and 2028.
Parks and Recreation Director John Chase explained the plan “serves two different purposes” – ensuring community input is gathered and aligned with the direction of the county, and guiding Parks and Recreation activities for the coming five years. Parks and Recreation held public input events at locations across Grand Traverse County and conducted online surveys to gather feedback.
Some of the 111 projects listed in the document’s “action plan” are general to all park operations, such as creating Parks and Recreation volunteer and internship programs, producing new park signage, conducting a comprehensive ADA audit of parks, and working with partners like BATA, TART Trails, and the Traverse City Arts Commission on collaborative opportunities. The department also aims to increase internal revenue streams, develop more programming and events in parks (like Easter egg hunts or summer outdoor concerts), and publish a public dashboard “displaying key statistics measuring park operations,” according to the plan.
Other projects are park-specific. More than a third of the total action items in the plan are at the Civic Center, ranging from expanding the skate park to adding pickleball courts to developing a sledding hill. Other goals include installing a universally accessible kayak launch at Medalie Park, exploring installing restrooms and replacing the playground at the Keystone Soccer Complex, installing a vault toilet at Maple Bay, and upgrading boardwalks at the Natural Education Reserve. Projects planned for Power Island include replacing the dock, building two or three Adirondack shelters on campsites for rental use, and exploring the feasibility of a shuttle service to the island.
While many action items are specific, others are intentionally broad – giving Parks and Recreation flexibility if new opportunities arise between now and 2028. The need for flexibility came up Wednesday when county commissioners said they’ve received numerous emails from residents encouraging them to explore acquiring the 200-acre Camp Greilick/GO-REC property recently listed for sale for $3.25 million by Rotary Camps & Services. Acquiring that site is not specifically mentioned in the new Parks and Recreation plan, but the document lists this goal: “Identify strategic property acquisitions for use as future parkland, with particular emphasis on areas outlying from Traverse City.”
County Administrator Nate Alger said the county was originally in talks with Rotary Camps & Services about using the property for a juvenile detention center or crisis wellness center. The discussion has since shifted to possible use as a public park. Alger said the county had wanted a year to explore the acquisition – citing extensive environmental and infrastructure evaluations that will need to happen at the site – but Rotary Camps & Services didn’t want to wait that long. The two entities are now trying to work on an option that would give the county at least some time to explore a purchase agreement, Alger said.
While Vice Chair Brad Jewett expressed wariness about acquiring such a large parcel after the county just offloaded Twin Lakes Park to Long Lake Township, Commissioner Darryl Nelson said the significance of the site required a careful look. “When you have a resource like that available, I think we need to look at it,” he said. “Twenty years from now that’s not going to be there...this is the time that it’s there.” Commissioners unanimously passed a motion to direct staff to explore the possibility of an acquisition, with more information to be brought back for future discussion.
While commissioners found common ground on parks issues Wednesday, other topics were more contentious. The board’s first vote of the year – to nominate a vice chair – was split along 6-3 partisan lines, with the majority-Republican board successfully nominating Jewett to serve another year as vice chair over Democratic nominee Ashlea Walter.
Several other changes were extensively debated and approved along 6-3 lines. Those included a new rule requiring four – not three – county commissioners to request a study session. That will essentially require the three Democrats on the board to get at least one Republican to agree to a study session on any given topic, a move Commissioner TJ Andrews said seemed like “retaliation” for some commissioners recently expressing a desire for more study sessions on topics like the county’s budget process. Nelson and Chair Rob Hentschel defended the rule change, saying the commission’s expansion from seven to nine commissioners merited the change and would ensure study sessions weren’t called for topics only of interest to a “small minority,” in Nelson’s words.
Another rule change says the chair now “may” instead of “shall” accept a friendly amendment to motions. Andrews argued that change allows the chair to reject friendly amendments even when both the motion maker and seconder support them, which she said said gives the chair undue power. Hentschel said it would allow the chair to run meetings more efficiently. Language in the county’s appointment policy was also amended to say that county appointees can serve concurrently on no more than two boards (down from three, a move meant to increase diversity in citizen appointments) and that appointees “should avoid signing documents containing statements of loyalty to any particular organization or interested party that is inconsistent with the appointee’s representation of the best interest of taxpayers of Grand Traverse County and the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners.” That language generated extensive debate about the right of appointees to act in the best interest of the boards they’re appointed to rather than the county commission – particularly given recent controversies with county appointees to the BATA and Northern Lakes Community Mental Health boards – but ultimately passed along partisan lines.Comment