Columns Saugatuck/Douglas Commercial Record

Blue Star

By Scott Sullivan
With the longest, hottest summer ever on hand, you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the Saugatuck City Council race is going.
Three declared challengers for four open two-year seats in November cut loose on incumbents at last Wednesday’s workshop.
“Yesterday,” former mayor and councilwoman Chris Peterson said, “I attended a Parks and Public Works Committee meeting to get more information about the new direction for the 170-acre Airport property owned by Saugatuck.”
For back reference, Council May 13 voted 6-1 to accept a $130,000 donation from a family, which wishes to remain anonymous, to accommodate public trails on the site. The family has since kicked in $30,000 more to add what the Outdoor Discovery Center deemed last summer an “optional” observation deck.
“I think the trails are a wonderful idea and support that,” Peterson went on. “I also support the opportunity for the school track teams.
“What I don’t support is the conservation easement, as I believe public land should not be taken away without some type of public vote.”
Fair enough. The public votes to elect representatives each November to guide city policy. Chris for a time was one and hopes to rejoin them. If citizens dislike what the current council majority does, in two years they can vote in new (or perhaps returning) members. Or petition to recall them, as happened in Saugatuck Township in 2018. Or petition for a referendum. The system avails us a number of checks and balances in that way.
In 1936 the city bought the aforesaid lot, which lies in the township maybe two miles east of city limits, for $12,000 with eyes towards the future: Think what an air travel hub could do for a growing tourist destination?
The venture didn’t pan out and the site has sat largely unused — save to store leaf and brush piles picked up in town and hauled there to biodegrade — since then. It’s a largely unexploited 88-year investment that no one has beaten down the doors to buy. Land value, like inflation, can be counted on to appreciate. Think what that $12,000 for 170 acres could sell for now?
Then again, living humans appreciate nature while it and we are still living. How do you gauge or speculate on the value an open public park with trails brings? Or an airport? Can you tell me the tale of the prodigal son again?
How many city taxpayers will use it in return for their money, though? How much up front to prepare the land by providing parking, trail grooming, restrooms, signage and such? Those are what the donations are meat to cover. What about ongoing maintenance by public works and security to assure it’s an asset for not just a few, but many?
Do we pay for sidewalks and streets in our city or township some taxpayers use more than others? Do we use certain parks more and others maybe not at all? Perhaps we should hold referendums — which also cost taxpayers time and money — on every one.
Still, why give away long-held assets such as the airport land without paying a presumably-neutral assessor to answer commonsense questions such as Chris is posing? The “bike trail to nowhere” — former city manager Kirk Harrier’s projection for the Blue Star Trail — is paved with similar failures to do due diligence, critics say. There exists undue diligence too that we’ll get to later.
“Conservation easements,” Chris went on, “are actually a chain with a lock. Let’s slow this down. Let’s invite the City to tour Our (caps hers) land before it is given away.”
Not that recent councils lack experience with such land cessions. The city, with Ox-Bow Art School, agreed to one for 102-acre Tallmadge Woods in 2008, then the next year to acquire the 171-acre Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. How have those worked out?
Joe Leonatti, whose letters appear here often as Voice of the Common Man, is of the Henry Van Singel lineage, for those who remember the late, longtime council member and ex-mayor, i.e. not all that common a man at all. Joe too revels in being a gadfly and town eccentric.
“I’m ambivalent about the property,” Joe said. “Some attorneys say different things about easements. What I want is more input from taxpayers of the city. No one here rules by Divine Right of Kings,” he said.
Sherry Tedaldi, another long friend who for years helped Cow Hill Yacht Club put on Venetian Festivals, spoke on historical terms too about what she feels are today’s council’s misplaced priorities.
“We need water lines,” Sherry said, referencing big tabs waiting to repair Maple Street, state-mandated lead line replacements and more basic infrastructure. Also on the near horizon are new Mt. Baldhead Park restrooms and observation deck replacement, more urgent than discretionary spending on, say, a new park outside of town that has trails.
“I urge you to rein in spending. Saugatuck is burning and you’re playing fiddle,” Sherry said.
Some rhetoric seemed over the top. Was council singing Janice Joplin’s “Ball and Chain” when it “ceded” Tallmadge and SHNA parcels? The mad emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned, per legend, and kings who ruled by “divine right” too earned their posts by birth, not elections. Remember Canadian
forest fires blowing smoke over Saugatuck last summer? On whose watch has climate change happened? Or Maple Street’s disintegration? Or the Heule lawsuits? Have we, like Pogo, met the enemy and he is us?
I came here as editor 18 years ago having visited Saugatuck-Douglas often. The natural beauty and human buzz seemed like soil in which I might flourish. As a history (and, mea culpa, running) geek. I knew I had much to learn about the towns’ lore ,and was eager to learn from new friends I hoped I would meet.
Most people here, like everywhere, were are welcoming, warm and rightly prided themselves in Saugatuck’s inclusivity. I also found right off that some viewed me with suspicion — as an outsider, even interloper — working for a publishing house based in Allegan (just 30 miles east but a whole different vibe) that ran weekly paid diatribes by an anonymous city hall critic.
I didn’t hide from our now ex-publisher that I thought printing anonymous attacks on named people was wrong, but I still love her just the same.
If you’ve ever felt disrespected and/or excluded, you understand hurt and wanting to lash back at them. Suck it up, I told myself. You’re a man. Life is like that sometimes.
One sea change I’ve seen in my now 18 years as editor is in city leadership. For my first 14 of them, local elections ran mostly uncontested. The Local Observer, a now-defunct weekly, was Saugatuck City Hall’s favored paper.
I remember Kirk, whom I viewed as a friend, urging the board of Saugatuck Township, where he lived, to buy legal ads from the LO after they had accepted our lower bid. The board told him no.
Garnet Lewis and Holly Leo broke through what some called city hall’s “old guard” in 2018. So began a sea change fueled by younger voters’ dismayed at them thwarting Blue Star Trail efforts and a recent Saugatuck Public Schools millage ask. Students weren’t voting age, but their parents were.
There was resentment, too, among some in the LGBTQ+ community that the “old guard” questioned flying rainbow pride flags in front of city hall. Might that not be construed in the books as partisan? Let’s slow this down, do more homework.
Neighbors Douglas and Saugatuck both flew rainbow flags without question and allowed marijuana sales within their boundaries after Michigan legalized it. Saugatuck city didn’t, one more sign in the eyes of some council was falling behind the times.
Some “old guard” members gave Garn and Holly the same treatment they gave Wendy Wise-Fisher when she tried to crack their council lock hold, not that Wendy did herself any favors either. But behind Garn and Holly was a growing base.
Fourteen-year manager Kirk and 13-year clerk Monica Nagel — no doubt reading the tea leaves — left, followed by two clerk successors, then planning and zoning director Cindy Osman. Last week, 17-year treasurer Peter Stanislawski resigned, bound like Cindy for essentially the same post at the township hall. I care about all of them. Things I once took as slights seem puny to me now.
With tables turned, the ex-insiders learned what it’s like for those of us made to feel outsiders, our years of experience and service viewed not as valuable but obstacles, obsolete. It’s the “new guard”’s turn now to reinvent the wheel, make their own mistake s– if they are that — and learn from them. Voters each fall can decide if they have suffiently or not.
As such, I welcome Chris, Joe and Sherry putting their views on the line and entering this year’s race. Democracies depend on participation and engagement.
What I don’t like is the back-and-forth vindictiveness, understandable though it be, that lately I hear and see.
Maplewood Hotel owner Catherine Simon, another ex-mayor and council member, has become for the “new guard” what Garn is for the “old.” Both are strong-minded, passionate and not afraid to speak up, albeit for quite different things. Like Wendy once did, they make themselves easy targets.
I love the new downtown playground next to Village Square Park, but the “new guard” should have shown more respect for Catherine and the old Christmas tree growing near her property. She has lived in and run her landmark hotel for 35 years and long served in city government.
Garn too has been demonized by foes unfairly. Power, once you have it, like alcohol, has corrupted better people than I ever hope to be.
So I loved it and took pictures when the playground opened. My own daughter played on the now-replaced one.Later I stopped by Catherine’s place to visit.
Her grandson — a Division 1 college miler of whom she is proud and has sent me pictures — was there and she introduced us. I asked about how many weekly miles he was trainng. “About 50, peaking in the 90s before I taper. I love running trails here,” the young man said.
I swapped glances with Catherine, who shares Chris’s questions about signing off on airport land easements before all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. She knows I’m pro-trails — if done the right way —but anti- pulling out every procedural trick in the book to thwart them, as the “old guard” did to the Blue Star Trail. After enough years it grew conspicuous, then absurd..
Her grandson doesn’t pay taxes in Saugatuck, but couldn’t we use more bright, energetic young people like him here?
The sea change I would like to see, but still haven’t, is shedding the Us vs. Them tactics used by partisans for the mere reason that they work, when we all care about this town.
“If you love Saugatuck,” said 36-year councilman Mark Bekken prior to his last election, “it didn’t get this way by accident.” Could it be, “new guard,” that the “old” wasn’t all that bad?
When the smallness inside my head grows too much, I look to Lake Michigan to remind me there is a far greater world than this.

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