Veteran apologizes, wants to move forward with Vietnam War memorial

By Cory Smith • Last Updated 9:10 pm on Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Vietnam War veteran and Eureka Township resident Denny Craycraft apologizes during Tuesday’s Belding Planning Commission meeting for moving forward with constructing the Vietnam War Memorial after unknowingly forgoing the proper procedure of filing official site plans. (Daily News | Cory Smith)

BELDING — Standing before the members of the Belding Planning Commission on Tuesday evening, Denny Craycraft apologized, admitting he had eagerly begun a race prior to the sound of the starter’s pistol.

After having dug into the earth, scraping out a new foundation for what will one day be a monument honoring fallen Michigan veterans of the Vietnam War, the veteran and Eureka Township resident came to terms that he had initiated construction while unknowingly forgoing proper procedure.

“If there’s an apology to be had, I’d be more than happy to give it to you,” he said. “I guess I can plead ignorance, not knowing or realizing that I had to come up in front of you.”

Craycraft had begun digging the foundation for a $160,000 memorial at Belding Veterans Park, located on city property, the morning of Sept. 14.

However, city officials were unaware construction was taking place.

City Manager and Zoning Administrator Bruce Brown said city officials had shown unofficial favor with the concept of creating the monument, giving permission for Craycraft to have trees at the site removed; however, no authorization was given past that point.

“I don’t think this was a malicious act on his part, I think it was a misunderstanding as to what was required,” Brown said.

After inspecting the site and discovering a possible conflict with the Fred Meijer Flat River Valley Rail Trail right-of-way owned by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Brown issued a stop work order to halt further construction.

Craycraft claims that when he received approval to build the World War II Freedom Wall and surrounding park in 2012, that authorized him to continue with his future additions to the park.

“I know I’ve had a tremendous amount of communication with the city council, with the mayor — there’s been no rub whatsoever there,” he said. “When we got the clearance for the tree (removal), I thought everything was good from there there.”

However, Planning Commission Chairman Gary Knowlton said that is not the case.

“There are procedures that the city of Belding uses to ensure quality development, and these procedures provide for fair and impartial review of all applications … to make sure that development is up to required standards,” he said. “These procedures are provided in our city of Belding building codes and in our zoning ordinance.”

Knowlton said Craycraft has failed to follow the procedures put in place and informed him he would need to submit a site plan review during a pre-application conference to move forward.

Dave Austin, an engineering consultant with Williams & Works, explains details of where the future Vietnam War Memorial will stand in relation to city property and a Department of Natural Resources easement during Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

Easement OKs building

Mayor Ron Gunderson expressed his shock and frustration in dealing with the situation over the past week, and invited engineering consultant Dave Austin of Williams & Works, the company hired to create the 2.28-mile rail trail through Belding, to explain the situation to members of the commission.

According to Austin, an easement agreement actually gives permission for land within the DNR right-of-way to be used for the purpose of a war memorial.

Austin said in 2012, the city “had the foresight” to express a desire to expand the Veterans Memorial Park in the future, and negotiated with the Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail Group, which originally purchased the rail corridor in Belding. But that right-of-way along the trail, which abuts the boundaries of city property and the Veterans Park located near the Pere Marquette Depot, was eventually turned over to the DNR.

Aware that the park would eventually be expanded, Austin said Williams & Works drafted a documented easement specifically for the purpose of installing a war memorial. That easement was developed and delivered to the city for execution in March 2012; however, as of Tuesday evening, Austin said a signed copy of the easement could not be located at the city or county level.

Belding Planning Commission Chairman Gary Knowlton speaks on the subject of following proper procedure in building a Vietnam War Memorial on city property during Tuesday’s meeting.

Austin began searching for the signed agreement on Monday, but with City Clerk Kareen Thomas on vacation, searching for it has been difficult. Austin confirmed that Craycraft’s excavation has stayed within city property and the easement area, meeting the requirements for a new monument to be constructed.

However, Austin said although Craycraft is within the boundaries, that did not give him the green light to begin excavation.

“Even though there is an easement in place, anytime that you would like to do construction, you need to contact us, show us your plans, meet, and agree on a project,” he said.

Austin said the current officials with the DNR that have jurisdiction in Belding were not involved with the project in 2012 and were currently unaware of the easement; however, he added that they would be happy to cooperate with the city.

City on his side

Knowlton said prior to Tuesday’s meeting, the only information he was aware of concerning the Vietnam memorial construction was from what he had read on the front page of Saturday’s Daily News.

Concerned with Craycraft’s previous comments about the “city playing games with him” and possibly attempting to halt the wall from being built, Knowlton firmly expressed displeasure with those comments.

Belding Mayor Pro Tem and Planning Commissioner Tom Jones requests that the commission work to help expedite the process for Denny Craycraft to move forward with building the Vietnam War memorial prior to colder temperatures making it too difficult to pour the concrete foundation.

“To be really honest with you, I didn’t like what I read,” he said. “I would like to assure you that nobody is playing games with you. I can’t speak for all the commissioners, but there’s nobody against what you are trying to do. It’s going to be a beautiful, poignant monument for our city.”

Knowlton said if there’s any blame to be shared, it should fall on Craycraft’s own shoulders.

“From my perspective, you have perhaps made progress, but you certainly did not dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s as you stated,” he said. “If you are upset, then you should be upset with yourself for not following clearly outlined procedures that have been in place for over 20 years.”

With three members of the city council in the room, Knowlton scolded Craycraft for insinuating that anyone at the city level would oppose him with the intent not to see the monument built.

“Pillars will be placed (with the monument) honoring veterans who were killed in the Vietnam war, I implore you not to stain those white pillars with the blood of the living brave, those courageous civil servants who step forward in public service and become pillars of our community and ensure that democratic processes are followed,” he said.
Craycraft apologized to Gunderson.

“Ron, if I caused you problems in the past week, I apologize to you, I hope you’ll accept it because we’ve had a good relationship and I want to keep it that way,” he said.

Belding Mayor Ron Gunderson expresses his frustration over trying to find a solution to Denny Craycraft building the Vietnam War memorial while following proper procedure within the city’s zoning ordinances during Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

Request to expedite

Mayor Pro Tem and Commissioner Tom Jones requested the commission and city manager work closely with Craycraft to help expedite the process.

According to Knowlton, the official application for site plan review must be submitted 21 days prior to the next scheduled planning commission meeting.

The process would also include submission of additional fees, a completed application form, 15 copies of the site plan and a legal description of the subject property.

“If some of these materials are not submitted, the decision will be delayed until they are,” Knowlton said. “Chapter 16 of our zoning ordinance lists the specific information that is necessary.”

Jones said Craycraft, having apologized, should not be penalized by incoming autumn cold temperatures that would prevent him from pouring the foundation of the monument.

“Mr. Craycraft did apologize for jumping the gun, and we are moving into non-construction weather … I would like to see our committee and city manager do everything it can to expedite this process,” Jones said. “I appreciate our rules and the 21-day period … but, to me, this is different from someone wanting to build a new house or a hotel.

Mistakes were made, whether it was Mr. Craycraft not anticipating or us not explaining the things that needed to be done, I think we need to expedite this with him as quickly as possible so he can get this construction done.

Knowlton said several of the requirements can be waived, and implored Craycraft to work closely with Brown to achieve that.

“Certainly, I would be willing to facilitate a special meeting if that is required,” he said. “You’ll find that this planning commission will be eager to work with you. We’re looking forward to it.”

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