Donors want park property returned
Family distressed by city’s decisions
By Angie Landsverk
The family that donated 22 acres to the city of Waupaca for the creation of the Oz Natural Area wants the property back.
Kari Esbensen and Russ Butkiewicz, along with daughters Hannah and Sophia, attended the Sept. 5 Waupaca Common Council meeting and made their desire known during the public input portion of the agenda.
The family said their memorial donation has resulted in distress and pain for them.
In the late 1990s, the couple donated the land that became the Oz Natural Area to the Waupaca Parks Foundation, with the intent that it be transferred to the city.
Butkiewicz said when they transferred the property in 1997, their hope was it would be managed wisely.
“Unfortunately, there’s been many violations of the restrictive covenants that we placed on the property at the time of the transfer,” he said.
Their primary focus was to protect the biological diversity of the site, and restrictive covenants outlined their goals.
Development and improvements on the property were to be limited to interpretive signs, a wetland boardwalk, restroom facilities, a parking area, an amphitheater, shelter, trail system, benches and other items approved by the Management Committee consistent with ecological and environmental education purposes.
Esbensen said these covenants were omitted on an appraisal and on the title insurance.
Butkiewicz said they know their request to have the property returned to them is not an everyday request, and he told the council members a historical summary will be included in the Sept. 19 council packet.
As their daughter Hannah spoke, she said the week marked the 20th anniversary of her grandfather’s death.
Esbensen and Butkiewicz donated the land to the city in memory of Esbensen’s father, Dr. Victor Esbensen, and Nancy Salan, who with her husband, Dr. Jerry Salan, welcomed them into the community.
Hannah said her parents also sought to protect the founding segment of the River Ridge Trail with their donation.
“Unfortunately, their memorial donation has resulted in immense pain,” she said.
In 2004, her parents went into mediation with the city and decided to give the city a second chance, Hannah said.
Unanswered questions regarding the property weighed heavily on her parents during the last 15 years, she said.
In 2015, construction of an open air shelter was underway in the natural area, and there was a plan to build an education center there as well as part of of an eco-park project.
Butkiewicz and Esbensen expressed concerns about how the buildings could impact the natural area’s environment.
The common council decided to move the project to city-owned property by the East Gate Subdivision.
Sophia said her parents had high hopes for the natural area.
“The only way we can move forward is if we solve the issues from the past,” she said.
Sophia said she and her sisters, Hannah and Maleva, are committed stewards of the land and vow to manage it as their parents wish.
The topic of returning the property to the family will be on the agenda when the council meets on Tuesday, Sept. 19.
After the family members spoke on Sept. 5, Mayor Brian Smith said he was not sure why they were at the meeting as it had already been agreed upon to put the item on the Sept. 19 agenda.
He said after many years of talking to the couple, the city is trying to do what is best for them and the city.
Smith compared the situation to a divorce and said he would not argue every point they made.
He cautioned the council that it was only hearing one side.
“The ultimate goal is they want to have the Oz property back in their name,” Smith said. “A lot of this is stuff we’ve been discussing for some time.”
The mayor said City Attorney John Hart agreed to look at some options.
“This is something we are taking seriously,” Smith said.
He said the city understands the family is hurting and feels an injustice was done to them.
“We want to do what is best for them and the property,” Smith said.