Pella residents debate future of Big Rock Park

Photo by Emily Hawk/Pella ChronicleJim Brandl shares his opinion of the disc golf course in Big Rock Park to city council members and a large audience on Tuesday.

The construction of a disc golf course has been halted by the Pella City Council after multiple residents packed a city council meeting Tuesday.

Partial construction of a disc golf course in the park has sparked controversy from the community since George Clark, of Pella, urged council to cease construction on the project at a meeting on May 21, stating the project does not align with Pete and Lucille Kuyper’s wishes when they gifted the 83 acres of timber to the city in 1958. So far, 10 out of 18 holes have been completed.

About 22 residents shared multiple perspectives regarding the course and a potential mountain bike trail, sparking debate about what forms of recreational activity align with not only the Kuypers’ wishes but the community’s desire for the park’s future.

“We value and appreciate the many recreational opportunities in Pella that support our city,” said Pella resident Robin Martin. “But our parks must also maintain passive recreational areas for health and well-being of the public, and for the preservation of wildlife in the environment.”

Martin refers to passive recreation as walking, hiking, fishing, bird watching and meditation, among other low-impact activities. Other residents who live near the park shared Martin’s sentiments, stating their concerns about preserving the natural beauty of the park and ecological impacts. Residents were also concerned about increased foot traffic and noise.

“I fail to see how four-foot by 10-foot concrete slabs conserve the natural beauty of the park,” said Pella resident Susan Van Waardhuizen. “I am very offended by the slabs going down … personally, I have nothing against disc golf. I think it’s a great sport. It’s when Big Rock is not destroyed, but certainly damaged.”

However, other residents were in favor of the course, listing health benefits, increased community involvement and continued park maintenance from the Pella Disc Golf Club as advantages for both the community and the park.

“Pete and Lucille Kuyper stated their desire for Big Rock Park to be maintained primarily as a recreation area, and that the natural state be retained as far as practical,” said Pella resident Ryan Van Soelen. “I would argue that the new disc golf course does just that … the sport of disc golf is inherently built around nature.”

Mark Van Maanen, a former Pella resident who proposed and organized the course project, stated there are misconceptions about the construction process. According to Maanen, the club has benefited the park by voluntarily eliminating invasive species, picking up trash, clearing paths and maintaining the park’s natural state. Maanen stated they have not cut down any mature trees.

“We are not just walking out there with chainsaws, cutting everything down in sight or clearing the woods,” said Maanen. “We want to respect the woods. We want the woods, that’s part of the fun … we’re trying to help the city, and we want to increase the use of the park."

Pella resident Scott Volpe said the city should focus on existing problems, like lack of restrooms, parking and traffic issues in the area, before completing the course. Volpe and other residents were also distressed about the lack of information provided to the public regarding the project. Many stated they were unaware of its construction and were troubled the community was not notified before the project was approved.

The Kuypers’ quitclaim deed to the city on Dec. 16, 1958 was cited multiple times, specifically the stipulation that states the usage of the property may be changed “only after a unanimous vote of the City Council of Pella at a meeting duly called for such purpose, and notice of which shall have been published in a newspaper … once each week for eight consecutive weeks.”

City Attorney Kristine Stone stated the Kuypers’ gift letter to the city shows their intent, but there are many ways the language can be interpreted, specifically what constitutes as “recreation.” In her interpretation of both the deed and the gift letter, the course’s use fits the city’s definition of recreation.

In March 2017, the club approached city staff about the project, along with the Red Rock Area Mountain Bike Association regarding a mountain bike trail. After investigating both projects, the city scheduled them for consideration by the Community Services Board in May 2017. City staff also consulted the Kuyper/Farver family during this time and were informed they were supportive of both projects.

After review, the board approved submitting the projects as part of the Community Services budget request for the fiscal year 2018-2019. Both projects were discussed with the council during the budget work sessions in Feb. 2018. Subsequently, the council approved funding allocations of $6,000 for the disc golf course and $6,250 for the mountain bike trail in the fiscal year 2018-2019 budget.

The council held an open forum following the regular meeting to discuss options for the course moving forward. Council members were also given the opportunity to share their opinions and were divided on how to proceed.

Council member Tony Bokhoven discussed concerns regarding lack of parking and public restrooms to accommodate the influx of traffic during disc golf tournaments, which would likely result in construction of a parking lot and additional costs.

The council has the option of removing the disc golf course, leaving it as a 10-hole course without additional construction, or authorizing construction of the remaining eight holes to complete the project.

If the council chooses to remove the disc golf course, staff recommends refunding sponsorships who donated to the project, which is approximately $8,500. If the council chooses to leave the disc golf course as-is, staff recommends refunding the cost of items already purchased and donated by sponsors that have not yet been constructed. This amount is approximately $4,300.

City Administrator Mike Nardini, Mayor James Mueller and city council members agreed to conduct a facility study and discuss the course further before deciding how to proceed. Construction has been postponed, and council will reconvene in 60 days to make a final decision.

“I want to make sure that we, as a group, do what’s in the best interest of the entire community,” said Mueller.

Emily Hawk is a staff writer for the Pella Chronicle. Reach her by email at ehawk@pellachronicle.com.

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