The state is taking a Rockford man to court to force him to remove a play structure and myriad plants it says are encroaching on the White Pine Trail, creating a hazard to users.
The lawsuit against Paul J. Golembiewski is the latest salvo in an on-going battle between the landscape architect and the Department of Natural Resources over what the state says is encroachment of its right-of-way along the linear state park between Comstock Park and Cadillac.
“It all started off with my kids needing a playground,’’ said Golembiewski, a father of four who moved into his home on Cahill Drive NE in 1978.
He says he got permission from the railroad company to build a playground that is now used by his five grandchildren. The state, he says, even said it was OK to maintain the parcel after it took ownership “as long as you keep it up,’’ Golembiewski said.
The state sees it differently. Even if he got verbal permission, it was only temporary. It sent letters and staff to the Rockford man’s home urging him to remove the obstructions.
The nuisance lawsuit filed earlier this month in Kent County Circuit Court was a last resort, the state Attorney General’s office says.
Its lawsuit asks a Kent County judge to declare the playground and landscaping projects a nuisance and order them removed. If Golembiewski doesn’t comply, the DNR wants Judge Mark Trusock to give them permission to clear the parcel and send Golembiewski the bill.
Golembiewski, a professional landscaper, moved into his home south of the downtown Rockford business district well before there was talk of a 92-mile Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park. The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad was still active.
Rail traffic largely ceased in the mid-1980s. The state in the 1990s took over the right-of-way, eventually developing the popular linear trail.
Golembiewski says he got verbal permission from state officials to maintain the right-of-way behind his property, which extends 50 feet from the center of the trail.
He put in myriad plants, including lilacs, rhododendrons, ferns, ground cover and a bald cypress tree.
“I have 10 people that if I’m down here will stop and tell me how incredible this looks, how much of a wondrous place it is,’’ Golembiewski said Friday.
Many of the plants, the state says, are non-native species and detract from the trail’s otherwise natural woodland setting.
“Natural is kind of an ambiguous term because there isn’t anything natural along the trail,’’ Golembiewski said. “All of this has been chemically controlled by the railroad for a hundred years and there are other contaminants that have been placed here too.
“I think it’s quite natural; it may not be exactly native but on the other hand, the native species here are weak and diseased. They fall onto the trail, they uproot the asphalt.’’
Besides planting non-native species, Golembiewski built a deck, bridge and playground, installed sprinklers and overhead lighting, planted a vineyard, placed large decorative boulders and completed other landscaping projects including a stone path, the lawsuit claims.
“Large boulders he placed within inches of the trail create a hazard to the trail’s users, many of whom are on bicycles,’’ the lawsuit says. “Mr. Golembiewski’s playground and landscaping on the parcel inhibit the DNR from properly maintaining the trail.’’
It says his work has “significantly decreased’’ the value of the land and created a hazard “effectively eliminating the uses to which the parcel has been legally designated.’’
Several people jogging or biking the trail Friday morning offered compliments to Golembiewski as they passed by. “I have people asking me all the time how did I accomplish this?’’ he said.
The state in Jan. 2012 notified him by certified mail that his playground and landscaping on the DNR’s parcel were “unlawful and in trespass’’ and had to come out.
Golembiewski was given until the end of November, 2012 to remove the offending items. That date came and went with no change.
“Mr. Golembiewski indicated that he planned to get arrested rather than remove the items and restore the parcel,’’ the lawsuit states. “The DNR has since attempted to persuade Mr. Golembiewski to voluntarily remove the offending items and restore the parcel.’’
He wasn’t the only one targeted. Other neighbors received notices and have since removed property from the state right-of-way, the lawsuit contends.
“Unlike Mr. Golembiewski’s neighbors, who voluntarily removed offending structures once the DNR notified them of their trespasses, Mr. Golembiewski has repeatedly refused to voluntarily comply with the DNR’s efforts to clear its right-of-way along the trail,’’ the state said.