Landscaping, playground has been there 20 years
By BETH ALTENA
Rockford resident Paul Golembiewski said there are 1.2 million incidents of encroachment on state land across Michigan’s public properties. With a past deadline and threats of enforcement to remove landscaping on the White Pine Trail right-of-way abutting his yard in downtown Rockford, Golembiewski feels singled out. He believes he has a solution for the state for all encroachments that would be a win-win for all residents and allow him to leave his property as is for the immediate future.
“Maybe I’m a test case. Maybe this has to go to the attorney general,” said Golembiewski. When he bought his home on Cayhill in Rockford in 1977, the property abutted a then-working railroad track. Back then, 33 years ago, he received permission from the railroad owner to install landscaping, a deck and a playground on the right-of-way for the track. Right of way extends fifty feet on both sides of the rail track. DNR paperwork to Golembiewski said that his development of the right-of-way inhibits the state from maintaining the trail in a safe manner and that he has non-native plants that are inconsistent with the natural intent of the trail.
Over the years his children, and now his grandchildren, enjoyed the playground, zip line and bridge over an unnamed creek. Landscaping includes encouraging a bald cypress to grow, ostrich ferns, several large decorative boulders, a fence protecting a drop-off to the creek, the arched bridge over the creek, a deck that includes a row of rubber under tongue and groove 2×6 boards, giving the deck the resonance of a basketball court.
“I’ve received so many compliments on how nice this looks,” Golembiewski said of his pretty yard and tidy playground. He said he has fond memories of the years the train ran, passing behind his house. “We would wave at the engineer when he went by,” he noted. “He gave us rides.”
He remembers the day on July 4, 1986 when the engineer stopped the train at his property—which just happens to be at the halfway point from one border to the other of the State of Michigan—and told him the railroad was going to cease operations. Golembiewski met the new property owner when the length of the track was sold. That gentleman also approved of the landscaping. “He pulled up in a limo one day and said it looked fine,” he shared.
Golembiewski said he remembered his misgivings when he heard, years later, of the plan to follow Rails to Trails re-use of the then state-owned property into a linear state park called the White Pine Trail. “I thought, there goes my privacy,” he stated. The new use for the land ended up being a pleasant addition to the Golembiewski home, with regular trail users getting to know each other and the Golembiewski family enoying watching people hike and bike the trail.
Then, in January of 2012 Golembiewski received a notice from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources telling him he was encroaching on the trail right of way and giving him a deadline to remove all structures, landscaping and non-native plants from the land. To date, he has resisted, hoping someone in the government will listen to an alternate plan he has which would generate revenue for the residents of Michigan and allow himself and others like him to keep existing encroachment for a period of time.
Golembiewski said there is a process in place currently for property owners who have inadvertently built structures on state land. He said the process allows the owners of the structures to purchase the land from the state to eliminate the encroachment issue. He said he has proposed a similar process to state Representative Pete MacGregor and asked him to try to move the idea forward in legislation. Golembiewski said it would be a huge financial gain to the state if encroachers like himself were allowed to make rental payments to the state in exchange for grandfathered in encroachments.
“This could be a huge win-win for the state,” Golembiewski said. He said there are 400 incidents of encroachment just along the White Pine Trail, and if all those people—much less those encroaching elsewhere in the state—were to pay, the income could be very significant. He also said he carried additional insurance that could be used if anyone was injured on the right of way abutting his yard.
In addition to lack of interest in his lease plan for encroachers, Golembiewski has issues with why his property in particular is being singled out for enforcement of encroachment. He said other property owners have more significant and less appealing development on the trail right-of-way. He said there are businesses along the stretch that runs through Rockford that have chain-link fencing installed in the right-of-way, another that has part of a paved driveway on the trail property.
He points out that he has, in fact, made the trail more safe, not less so. The same drop-off on his side of the trail is hidden behind fencing that is ivy grown and landscaped. The other side, by contrast, features a straight fall of a dozen feet that could cause serious injury should a biker or hiker go over the edge.
“On July 7 we had seven inches of rain,” Golembiewski described. He said a landslide made the drop more sheer and children have fallen into it. He thinks that it is silly that the DNR is now telling him that his rocks on the other side of this drop off are dangerous after they have been there 17 years without incident.
Golembiewski said the matter has been turned over to the enforcement division of the DNR and he is afraid he will end up jailed over his unwillingness to remove the several tons of material that comprise the deck, playground, rocks and bridge.
Throughout it all, Golembiewski has not denied that his landscaping is an encroachment, but believes he should be given an option to lease or that more serious offenders should be addressed as well as his, or instead of his. “I was there prior. I was there when it was still a railroad and still operating, and also when it was owned by the DNR. What’s changed? Why am I being singled out?”
Chris Starks of the Cadillac office of the DNR said the agency intends to address every incident of encroachment eventually, and the Rockford stretch of the trail seemed a logical place to start. “There are 94 miles of trail with multiple trespasses,” he said. He said in the Cayhill neighborhood there were several obvious encroachments within a short stretch of trail and the DNR has a duty to take care of state property.
Starks agreed that the DNR did launch an initiative to resolve trespasses for houses and garages that were built in part or entirely on state land. He said that Golembiewski’s proposal to pay a lease for use of the right-of-way would set a precedent that isn’t in the public’s interest. He said if Golembiewski continues to refuse making the fixes the state has asked for the state will take that action. “There are concerns of safety with those rocks. We are in the process of getting bids to fix that.” Starks also said that other neighbors with encroachments were also contacted and some resolutions have been made.
“This has been turned over to law enforcement since October,” Starks said.