Belle Isle 'seems calmer' under state
Detroit — In warmer months, William C. Plumpe spends his days on Belle Isle to write, meditate and observe wildlife.
The 62-year-old resident says his visits have increased over the last year as the state assumed management of the 982-acre island under a long-term lease with the city of Detroit.
"There's more order and a greater feeling of safety," said Plumpe, a city retiree. "By and large, the island seems calmer."
Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of the state takeover of the island, making it Michigan's 102nd state park. The 30-year lease kicked in on Feb. 10, 2014, under an agreement reached by Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit's former emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.
State parks officials say statistics show the response to changes on the island has been good.
The department has logged more than 2 million visitors to the island from June through the end of December, and the number of Detroit residents purchasing passes for their vehicles is up, too.
The number of cars with Detroit ZIP codes that had obtained passes in November 2014 had increased by nearly 13 percent over those that had them in November 2013, says Ron Olson, parks and recreation division chief for the state DNR.
"It's a positive sign," Olson said. "We know that people are aware."
Feb. 1 will officially end the phase-in period for recreation passports, meaning all Michigan motorists will be required to have the annual pass — $11 for cars and trucks, $5 for motorcycles — to enter the park. Pedestrians, bicyclists and those using public transportation will still be able to enter the park for free.
State officials say the passes will be available at the park office for those who don't have them. Vehicles traveling on the island without them will be issued a notice. If they are checked again and failed to comply, they will be subject to a fine of up to $100.
"All we're trying to do for those who have bought passports is be fair to everybody," Olson said. "That's what it's about."
State management of Belle Isle was initially met with resistance from some City Council members, residents and activists who viewed it as the taking of a city asset.
Tensions grew over the summer amid claims of overzealous traffic enforcement that riled some of Detroit's elected officers and community groups.
Council President Brenda Jones and Clerk Janice Winfrey raised concerns in June that residents were being unfairly targeted by police on the island. Both called for sensitivity training for State Police and conservation officers working for the Department of Natural Resources.
But State Police have maintained that they were doing nothing more than enforcing laws already on the books. The focus has been on changing driver behavior on the island, not writing citations, they say.
Since January 2014, state officers have conducted 2,003 traffic stops on the island. Of those, the vast majority — or 1,814 drivers — were issued verbal warnings. The department has given out 191 traffic citations, says Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw. The biggest offense was speeding, he added.
"We made it no secret of what our mission was on the island," Shaw said. "The days of driving 50 in a 20 mph zone on Belle Isle are officially over."
State Police also made 25 felony arrests and 225 misdemeanor arrests. They have apprehended 119 fugitives and seized four firearms.
Last year, Winfrey and Mayor Mike Duggan were stopped and warned for speeding.
Plumpe said he, too, was given a warning for a minor traffic violation. He hasn't been approached since and is "happy that there is a definite police presence on the island."
Winfrey was pulled over in her city vehicle by a State Police trooper on Good Friday and, at the time, said she was insulted by the demeanor of the officer, whom she said accused her of "looking like riffraff."
To alleviate confusion over the island's speed limit, which varied between 20 and 25 miles per hour, Belle Isle now has a uniform 25-mph speed limit.
Shaw said there was an adjustment for visitors when enforcement began last year. Today, things are running smoothly, he said, noting the success of the Grand Prix and annual fireworks, and crime is "very low."
Belle Isle is the most populated state park in Michigan, and it's the only one where State Police provide continuous patrol coverage, he said.
Winfrey says she put the traffic stop behind her. She's visited the island since and said it will be the site of an August family reunion.
The incident, she added, "is what it is," and was representative of the growing pains associated with the transition.
"It's just part of the changes that the city of Detroit is going through on both sides. We're going to have to learn how to come together and work together for the betterment of our city," she said.
State Police hosted several events last year to connect with the community. More programs are anticipated this year.
Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, says the organization views 2015 as a year of planning and community engagement.
Among the priorities is to carve out a community engagement strategy. The conservancy last year made the vow to create a grass-roots group to connect with residents and ensure they feel welcome.
"It has to be a top priority," Hodges said. "We owe it to the community."
The island also has undergone several aesthetic changes under state management.
Crews have focused attention on restoring picnic tables, chipping hazardous trees, reforesting and revamping comfort stations. Upgrades on the west end of the island feature widened bike paths and trails and additional parking.
The conservancy also is working on both a strategic plan and a cultural campus plan with a focus on the island's aquarium and conservatory.
Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield says she's found most people are satisfied with the changes on the island.
"It started off with a lot of concern about inclusion, but I think that has died down some," said Sheffield, who represents council District 5, which covers Belle Isle. "Residents are pleased, overall."