Years of controversy over road resurfacing and the tree cutting that goes with it culminated in a stand-in at a Liberty Grove Town Board meeting on Oct. 2.
It started during the public input period, which happened after the board awarded the bid for tree cutting and basically solidified the plan to cut trees along Garrett Bay Road. Those present were asked not to address the Garrett Bay Road issue during public input.
When resident Carol Maronek took her turn addressing the board, she asked if there had been an official vote to bar residents from talking about Garrett Bay Road.
“I’m talking about when you decided in public input that we could only discuss things sans Garrett Bay Road,” she said. “I thought I heard two people agree with it but I don’t remember hearing a vote.”
“It was by consensus, Carol,” said Town Chair John Lowry.
Maronek requested someone read back the minutes, then others started reacting too, asking and demanding to hear the minutes.
Lowry moved on. Maronek asked again, still standing. Her husband seated next to her stood, too, and neither sat at Lowry’s request.
“Let’s stand together folks,” Maronek said, gesturing to the rest of those present.
Approximately half the audience stood, and Lowry asked the deputy to remove them from the room, and to tell them they’d be allowed back if they behave for the rest of the meeting.
About 30 people filed out, but not Maronek. She stayed standing, until the officer stepped in to escort her to the door.
“Be aware of what’s happening here, folks,” she said before being moved through the door.
She raised a good question. What is happening in Liberty Grove?
When roads are repaved, some trees are removed. It started on Isle View Road, which was slated for resurfacing in fall 2011. The project would widen the road and clear some trees. Where some people saw safer travel, others saw a loss of local heritage and rustic charm.
Some residents asked the board to reconsider, to delay the project and conduct another engineering study. In July 2012, an engineer recommended widening the road but offered the option to move the centerline in the road to save some trees. Town officials from the board and highway committee met with residents along the road to discuss individual trees.
Construction on Isle View Road started last year, and residents promised the town board another fight on Garrett Bay Road, another up for construction. They followed through, protesting removal of any trees even after Lowry’s explanation of why some cutting is justified.
“I understand there’s been a lot of emotion regarding the tree cutting,” he said at the Oct. 2 meeting. “The board received a recommendation from the engineering firm that we hired to have a clear zone of 10 feet [on Garrett Bay Road]. The board said that was not acceptable, we have heard concerns from the citizens. We went to six feet.
“Within that six feet there are numerous trees that are going to remain. There are some trees that cannot remain. Some trees, unfortunately, some of the beautiful maple trees that are closest to the road, as that road is reconstructed, resurfaced will suffer root damage and any arborist will tell you that the tree is then doomed. Not immediately – it may take years… If we do it correctly the canopy will return.”
Disagreements between residents and the town board seem to have escalated, though it’s a small portion of town residents that attend the board meetings and tie ribbons around trees slated for removal.
“I’ve been attending municipal meetings in Door County since the ’70s and I don’t recall this level of behavior in any of the meetings I’ve ever attended,” said Jeff Johnson, owner of Going Garbage. He attended the Oct. 2 meeting. “And I’ve been to a lot of them.”
Johnson said the Liberty Grove board did a good job managing the stand-in at the Oct. 2 meeting.
“It’s never a great situation when there’s extreme opinions from one way and the other,” he said. “It’s always more satisfying to everybody if there is some way to find common ground.”
Michael Mercier, a member of the Liberty Grove Plan Commission, as well as the IT and Economic Sustainability committees, said he understands the emotional points of those opposed to tree cutting. He said the town board isn’t easy to deal with, but protesters have been excessive in their tactics, such as taking out advertisements alleging the board can’t afford road maintenance or that road maintenance isn’t necessary.
Many of those protesting aren’t year-round residents, Mercier said, so they can’t vote for town board supervisors. Attending and speaking at meetings is one of the only ways they can voice their opinions, but he thinks they should follow Robert’s Rules of Order and town meeting rules.
Mercier, who attends most town board meetings and many town committee meetings, said going to the town board isn’t the most effective way to have your voice heard. Committee meetings usually allow more time for public comment, and there’s more of an opportunity for committees to explore different options. Town board supervisors often just follow committee recommendations.
“There’s not a whole lot of negotiation at that [board meeting] point,” Mercier said. “The recommendation has been made by the committee and the board’s trying to decide to take that recommendation or not… I feel like I’m getting further…by going to the committee level.”
But as far as mending the relationship between town factions and the board, Mercier’s not so sure.
“I feel like our board is in a similar situation as our president right now,” he said. “There are so many people who want him or them to fail because of some of what’s gone on in the last 12 months – lawsuits, the road thing. There’s been a lot of animosity created. I think the board’s in a difficult situation. They’re going to have a tough time satisfying anybody at this time because of what’s going on.”
Zip Line Lawsuit
Another division between the Liberty Grove Town Board and the community arose in May when the board filed a lawsuit against the Door County Board of Adjustment and Rowleys Bay Resort over a technicality in granting a variance for a zip line.
In justifying its decision to sue the county and Rowleys Bay Resort, the town board invoked a strict constructionist view of state and county statutes, writing in a letter to the Pulse as the town Plan Commission and Town Board (Sept. 6) that “After much soul-searching, the Town Board voted 5-0 to bring suit against the BOA [Board of Adjustment] on grounds that the BOA incorrectly interpreted the law of variances. The existence of a zip line is not at issue before the Circuit Court of Door County.”
The letter concluded: “Thus, the suit seeks to uphold the law as set forth by the governing body – Door County – and to administer the law equally to everyone so as not to discriminate between the subjective and personal circumstances of one landowner against those of all the others.”
Rowleys Bay Resort owners were naturally upset that the town board would go after the largest provider of room tax revenues in the town. The board’s letter prompted a response the next week from Rowleys Bay Resort owner/manager Jewel Peterson Ouradnik, who started by writing, “Conspicuously absent from the Liberty Grove Plan Commission/Liberty Grove Town Board letter to the editor about suing the County Board of Adjustment was any mention of why they are suing Rowleys Bay Resort. When confronted with the actual lawsuit document, Lou Covotsos (town board member and attorney) still denied that the town is suing the resort.”
She concluded with: “Business is tough enough without being bullied and abused by your own town. No matter how they try to explain it away with lofty legalese, this whole action is deplorable.”
The resort owners had claimed from the start that the town board was underplaying the resort’s involvement in the suit, that it was just between the town board and the county, and they were getting frustrated that some important people were not hearing their story.
Door County North Funding in Question
One of those people was Larry “Thor” Thoreson, president of Door County North (DC North), a two-year-old organization that is trying to do for the communities farthest north on the peninsula what Egg Harbor Business Association and Sister Bay Advancement Association has done for those communities, by representing busy business owners in the economic development of their respective communities.
“We feel we’re the business arm of Liberty Grove. I was adamantly defending the town board’s decision to some of the people who run Rowleys Bay,” Thoreson told the Pulse recently, adding, “I’ve since changed my position.”
But even though he personally did not hold the town board accountable for the resort’s new legal woes, he said it was important to show the resort owners that Door County North supports its members.
When the resort owners asked Door County North to distribute a letter about the town’s lawsuit that had appeared in the Peninsula Pulse (July 26, 2013, written by resort co-owner Bob Czerniakowski) and a copy of the summons naming them and the county’s Board of Adjustment in a lawsuit, Thoreson said he saw no problem with disseminating the information to DC North members.
“We distributed it to our membership,” he said. “We passed out the information but we did not take a stance, absolute neutrality. That is not what we’re here for.”
And that, he thought, was that.
On Oct. 1, Thoreson and DC North Vice President Mary Ellen Sisulak were summoned to Town Board Chairman John Lowry’s office.
“He said we had no right to distribute to our membership that letter that appeared in the Pulse and copy of lawsuit without first clearing it with them,” Thoreson said. “This was really shocking to Mary Ellen and I. It kind of left us speechless.
“And then he went on to say that the budgetary concerns were so dire for the future, there is a very good chance they won’t be able to fund the community coordinator position for next year.”
On Jan. 13, 2013, the town board had approved spending one-third of its room tax collections, or $20,000 from its total of $60,000, on hiring a community coordinator for Door County North. Previously it had been run by the already overworked business owners. A savvy coordinator could do all the smart things necessary to help promote the businesses and events of the town. DC North hired Kathleen Pearson last February as its coordinator.
At a recent Door County Tourism Zone Commission meeting, Door County Visitor Bureau President/CEO Jack Moneypenny mentioned that DC North has had a much more professional presence since Pearson came on board.
Thoreson fears the board doesn’t understand the value Pearson has brought to the organization.
“It seems money is so tight, it looks as if we will be cut out of the mix,” he said. “This will most likely, easily, put [DC North] out of business.”
Thoreson also sent a letter to the town board stating the same ideas, and the letter was sent out via the DC North mailing list on Oct. 6.
Asked via email about the letter, Town Chairman John Lowry wrote, “I informed Thor and Mary Ellen that the town is facing some difficult questions/decisions when it comes to next year’s budget. I told them that the most obvious and tempting item is to place the room tax monies back into the general fund as they had been in the past. What he forgot is my comment that I was not in favor of that and felt those monies ought to be spent on tourism-related expenditures.”
In a telephone call on the same subject, Lowry said that despite the budgetary challenges the town faces, it’s unlikely the board would vote to end funding for the community coordinator position.
“I think everybody is of the mindset, one year is not a good gauge. You have to give it time. It’s a relatively new organization in the sense of the people now involved in it. They’ve got to get their feet wet a little bit and find out what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure it helps having somebody devote the time she gives to it.”
What Should Happen Next?
Relationships between constituents and governmental bodies are often challenging, but need not always be so strained. Different sides to every issue can, and should, find a way to communicate, work together and meet on middle ground when there are disagreements. It takes efforts from both sides, no doubt. Here are some suggestions:
• Listen to other sides of an argument and give yourself time to consider what others say. Then, instead of reacting based on emotion or a perceived attack on your beliefs, you can give a sound, calm, respectful response.
• Understand yourself. Before you take a stand on an issue, consider the things that are driving you to care about that issue. Ask yourself how things in your personal life, professional life, background or fundamental beliefs affect the way you see an issue. Can you understand why others may see an issue in a different way? What is a fair way to come to terms with different beliefs?
• Acknowledge when those with differing beliefs make compromises, and thank them. Consider making a compromise in return.
• Find common ground and build on it. When things get out of hand, take a step back and decide what things you and the other parties agree on. What are the best ways to enhance the things you both support?
• Avoid personal attacks. Sending raging emails, for example, does nothing but widen gaps between groups.
• Attend committee meetings. This was Mercier’s idea – attend committee meetings and get your ideas on the table at the ground level. Board meetings are typically the last step in the process, and you’re less likely to affect change at that point. Since committee meetings are typically smaller, you may have more opportunity for conversation with the committee members.
• Address public input practices. The Liberty Grove Town Board discussed how they want to handle future public input before the “stand-in” at the Oct. 2 meeting. While they ultimately made no changes to the procedure, they discussed ideas to make it go smoother. These ideas should be given more consideration.
Supervisor Nancy Goss suggested increasing individual public input time from just three minutes to three to five minutes, and supervisor Frank Forkert suggested not allowing individuals to address the board more than once on the same issue. Others said board supervisors should have an egg timer on hand to help them keep track of everyone who addresses the board.