When the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission (OCPRC) acquired its first piece of real estate in December, 1967, the Pontiac Press reported that the basic concept behind the newly-established park system was to leave the parks "in a natural state and not allow extensive construction of facilities."
In the words of Kenneth Van Natta, founder of OCPRC and its first commissioner, the goal was "to provide open space and a self-sustaining system of parks."
Now, nine years later, OCPRC has gone in the opposite direction, over-emphasizing the goal of self-sufficiency at the expense of conservation. In a recent editorial, the Oakland Press lamented that the goal of self-support has led to the development of "lavish and expensive park facilities." N.O. Van Natta, brother of the late commissioner, has condemned the commission for distorting and misrepresenting his brother's goals.
Concern over self-sufficiency and the resulting park development has come about partly because of a power struggle between OCPRC and the Oakland County government. When established in 1966, the Parks and Recreation Commission was an independent entity, eligible for matching federal funds to purchase park lands. Most of the money spent during the first five years was spent buying land. During that period the park commission was applauded by conservationists for setting aside wild lands, but plans for the development of these lands were left vague. When Addison Oaks was purchased in 1969, the projected cost of development was given as $200,000.
Last year, only one of the six county facilities, White Lake Oaks Golf Course, finished in the black. The others lost a total of $378,000. Oakland County Parks Commissioner Eric Reichel is painfully aware of this. He admits that the "goal of self-sustaining parks was unrealistic." Yet he has proceeded with elaborate plans to develop Addison Oaks and the rest of the county parks. Why?
One reason might be the ongoing power struggle between OCPRC and the newly-created county government. County Executive Dan Murphy, serving his first four-year term, is trying to build a power base and would like to see the parks system under his control. Should Reichel abandon his idea of self-sustaining parks and concede to financial dependency, he would be dealing from a weakened position.
Because self-sufficiency has been made so essential to the survival of OCPRC as an independent entity, Reichel and company have been more than willing to sacrifice the wealth of clean air, open space and wildlife to develop "revenue-producing facilities."
Addison Oaks is the prototype revenue-producing facility. White Lake Oaks Golf Course has produced revenue for the past few years; Addison Oaks will have a golf course. Mallard Point recreation area in Decatur, Alabama, built a "wave-action" pool in 1969 and saw a steady rise in park attendance; the Addison Oaks plan includes a wave-action pool. Other potential money makers included in the plan are a 5,000-seat Amphitheatre, an expanded convention center, a 100-room motel facility and an electric trolley system to get people around.
The trolley system is a gesture towards environmentalists, because it is an alternative to auto exhaust and will be less disturbing to the woodlands. More important, it is a revenue producer, a curiosity which will bring in the customers. The proposal also includes a 1,200-car parking lot, so people can bring their polluting cars out to the country to ride the non-polluting trolley.
OCPRC has made it abundantly clear that Addison Oaks is the wave of the future. The attendant brochure describes the advantages of wave-making pools over ordinary oceans: "... as a bonus, there's no undertow, no seaweed, no varmints that sting swimmers in nature's waves." Instead of that irritating sand that collects in the elastic of one's swimsuit, the proposed facility offers a carpeted "beach" which goes quite nicely with the pool.
The cost over 15 years? Only about $10 million, according to the plan, which calls for development of 22% of the park. But this figure does not include the golf course and other outdoor recreational facilities. Only 110 out of the park's 700 acres will remain "wilderness." The conversion of the park to a recreational hardware store would mean increased traffic, increased pollution, more need for police and fire protection. And they- the taxpayers and residents of the township-would have to foot the bill.
In spite of parks Commissioner Reichel's statement that "none of this will be done overnight," a group of Addison Township citizens were sufficiently alarmed to call a meeting soon after hearing of the plan in the spring of 1975. Plans which call for the widening of several scenic dirt roads would result in the destruction of woodland, farmland and wildlife. Indian Lake Road, now designated as a "natural beauty road" by the county, would be transformed from a one-and-a-half-lane dirt road to a four-lane superhighway, and township residents would have to pay for the "improvement."
The meeting spawned Citizens Against Park Expansion (CAPE), which immediately took steps to protest the development. CAPE began publishing broadsides attacking the Addison Oaks plan on both environmental and economic grounds. They declared that the plan violated the Michigan Natural Resources Act of 1970 because no environmental impact study had been done on the impact of park expansion on the entire community. In fact, there had been no impact study whatsoever. Township residents feared that additional construction would result in raising the water level. This would increase the chances of local dirt roads being washed out after any big rain.
CAPE maintained that the area was being exploited economically as well as ecologically. The park would be run by private concessionaires who would be doubly subsidized. First, they paid no taxes on facilities they used and, second, these facilities were to be built with taxpayers' money. Township taxpayers would also be paying for highways to bring customers in and police to protect them while there. None of the money earned by concessionaires would revert back to the township, since the former paid no. property tax.
Four demands were issued: First, no part of any plan was to be implemented without an environmental impact statement. Second, no public funds were to be used to subsidize concessions competing with private businesses. Third, concessions were to pay the equivalent of property tax to the local govern-
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The Addison Oaks plan includes a wave-action pool along with such potential money-makers as a 5,000-seat Amphitheatre, a 100-room motel facility, an electric trolley system and a carpeted beach.
The Oakland County Parks Scam
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-ment. Fourth, sewage disposal was to be designed so as not to add to surface water levels.
In April of this year, shortly before a May 18 millage vote, OCPRC offered to delete the wave pool, the amphitheater and some motel rooms. But the trolley ride, golf course and convention center remained. These concessions would not eliminate the problem of additional traffic. There was no reassurance that these would be removed from the plan forever, that these facilities would not reappear once the controversy died down.
OCPRC, meanwhile, had begun to gird itself for the all-important millage vote. The additional quarter-mill would ensure the survival of OCPRC as an independent entity. CAPE had decided to oppose the millage as a way to stop the development of all Oakland County parks. The projected cost (inflation not included) of developing all six county parks would now be $50 or $60 million over a 15 year period.
OCPRC began to panic. Anthony Franco Associates, a public relations firm employed by the parks commission, suggested that taxpayer money be used to set up a dummy "citizens group" to agitate in favor of the millage vote, or, in public relations lingo, "counter dissident groups and set up third party credibility." This paper "citizens group" was to be led by someone having prestige in the community. Somehow this plan was leaked to the Oakland Press. OCPRC officials were embarrassed, but bravely insisted that such use of public funds was within the law. Fortunately for them, a local businessman donated the money and the pro-millage "organization" was set up.
For weeks before the millage vote, Oakland County was inundated with cardboard posters urging a "yes" vote for "safer" parks. Nowhere was park expansion mentioned. Parks and Recreation stepped up its public relations campaign. They made slide presentations at shopping mails around the county, emphasizing the noncontroversial aspects of the park program.
A few days before the crucial vote, 3,000 county employees found leaflets stapled to their paychecks urging them to vote "yes." These were apparently placed there with County Executive Murphy's permission. Although rules bar "engaging in any political activity during scheduled working hours or while on duty," Murphy's press secretary said, "We don't think this is political activity." Although the county has since apologized to its employes, at least one county employe plans to initiate a civil suit against the county for the violation.
On election day, a total of 176,000 out of Oakland County's 488,000 registered voters turned out. The millage was approved by a vote of 103,006 to 73,343 [or less than 60% of those voting. This meant that 21 % of the registered voters decided the issue, and chances are that many had no idea what they were voting for.] A vote for park millage? What could be more innocuous? The OCPRC purposely made no mention of its plans for the parks in its leaflets, posters and presentations. "Enjoy Safe Parks" was the theme.
CAPE 's budget of $300 or $400 a year could hardly compete with the $1,200 monthly fee Oakland County tax money paid to Anthony Franco Associates. The battle goes on. "Our main alternative," says CAPE spokesperson Ralph Hogg, "is to exert pressure on the Addison Township government to veto the project." But he concedes this is no guarantee that the building will be stopped. OCPRC might be able to proceed n spite of an Addison Township veto.
OCPRC would have us believe that CAPE is a group of self-serving citizens who seek to "stop progress" and hoard the Addison Oaks area for themselves. The truth is, the group's goals are far more substantial.
"We are not opposed to parks," says Hogg, who admits that Citizens Against Park Expansion might have been a poor choice for a name. "What we are against is turning beautiful parkland into so-called 'active' parks by what is essentially a private company. I say private because the public really has no input whatsoever. Oh, the park commission will invite prominent citizens to lunch and a slide show, but this is not even consultation. The decisions have already been made.
"More important, the less wealthy people who pay for this park with their taxes will hardly be able to afford to use t. And there is no Question that this park is not intended for the poor people living in Pontiac."