Monday, August 06, 2012

Joe Harris sells land he shouldn't have

Benton Harbor emergency manager sells parkland he shouldn’t have

Credit Julie Weiss
A sign on the land reads "City of Benton Harbor open public space”. The emergency manager sold the land and construction of a dialysis center is underway.

Updated -

7/16/12 - Scott Geerlings with Zeeland, Michigan based Geerlings Development Company says the company bought the parcel for around $102,000.

Benton Harbor’s emergency manager has sold a piece of land that was supposed to be open for public recreation. lot Now a dialysis center is being built on the undeveloped parkland instead.

The roughly 1.5 acre, grassy parcel was given to the city in exchange for land in Jean Klock Park. That park was part of a deal to build the Jack Nicklaus-signature golf course in Michigan’s poorest city.

Benton Harbor’s state-appointed emergency manager sold the land late last month. He got approval from the state’s treasury department, but not the Department of Natural Resources which supervised the land swap.

“It should’ve been documented well but there is the potential that that detail got lost,” said Steve DeBrabander, who manages grants for the DNR.

“I’m not saying [the city] intentionally did this; they might not have been aware that this was dedicated for public outdoor recreation,” DeBrabander said.

There is a sign on the property that read “City of Benton Harbor open public space.” The DNR found out about the apparent mistake from a citizen.

It’s unclear how much the land was sold for. Calls to Emergency Manager Joe Harris and his assistant last week were not returned.

Harris commented on the land deal to The Herald-Palladium:

But Harris said he doesn't know whose responsibility it was to record the mitigation designation - the state or the city administration at the time the parcel was designated.

"I don't know who dropped the ball," Harris said.

Julie Weiss is a long-standing opponent of the city selling and leasing parts of Jean Klock Park for the Harbor Shore development.

"To me, the big story is that there is no institutional memory of this. And that they’re taking gross advantage of the fact that it’s Harris – who presumably has no accountability for anything before he arrived,” Weiss said.

Harris arrived long after the land swap. Weiss says the state should've done a better job informing local governments of the rules. But a state official says Harris should’ve contacted them first.

The vacant lot is one of five replacement parcels for land in Jean Klock Park. This parcel had not yet been developed into any sort of park.

“These mitigation sites in no way compensate for the lands that they’re replacing. They’re replacing Lake Michigan lakefront. In some case dunes, in some cases actual lake frontage. But they’re very forgettable. There’s nothing special about them at all,” Weiss said.

DeBrabander says city official tell him they will likely allow the dialysis center to continue construction. They’ll look for new land to swap out for a public park instead.

DeBradander says the city would have to purchase new land to convert into a public park to replace the land Harris sold. They’d need to complete an environmental assessment and take public comment on a potential conversion. --To see comments, go to: