A battle is brewing over a place known for up close and personal experiences with animals. Deer Forest in Coloma Charter Township is being challenged for allegedly violating zoning laws. People who don't like the man running the park are now asking the board to take away Deer Forest's grandfathered zoning status.
We explained the controversy surrounding the animal park in a special report last month. It's under federal investigation, and the man who took over the park a year ago is accused of mistreating animals in two other states.
The zoning issue went before the township board at Wednesday's regularly scheduled 7 p.m. meeting.
Deer Forest's current zoning status has allowed it to be an animal park in Coloma Township for the last 65 years, but there's concern about what that could mean for the rest of the community.
"Our goal is not to shut down the park," said Mario Palmisano, the man spearheading the effort to get the park's grandfathered zoning status taken away.
Palmisano admits he's attached to Deer Forest. He volunteered there as a kid, then worked there for a time.
"If the township won't repeal the grandfather clause, then there will be no enforcement, and he'll be allowed to continue until hopefully the USDA finally shuts him down," Palmisano said.
The park went downhill over the last several years, changing ownership and management several times. When a man named Jon Stolarz took over Deer Forest in 2013, Palmisano says he made it his mission to get Stolarz out.
"He has had a multi-state criminal past, and he comes up here now without the funds to operate the place and is asking everybody else to bail him out," Palmisano said.
Palmisano runs an anti-Deer Forest Facebook page, highlighting Stolarz' 2013 animal cruelty conviction in Cass County, Ill. and highlights a United States Department of Agriculture investigation of the park, because the man who used to run Deer Forest let it lapse last September.
Palmisano claims the park has made several changes over the years that void the zoning status Deer Forest has had since it opened in 1949.
He recently started an online petition to change it. But some people worry about that petition's implications.
"They have an agenda, and their agenda is to shut the park down," said township resident David Gibson. "They don't care how they go at it."
David and his wife Laura started a second petition Friday to keep the zoning at Deer Forest as is.
"Our concern was that if the board did act upon the original petition it would have far reaching implications and set a precedent where they could just, at any point in time, rezone anybody for any reason," Laura said. "That's not something we would ever want to see."
When WSBT reached out to Stolarz for an interview Wednesday, he replied in a text message, saying, "This is a non-issue. We are 100% compliant on all issues per city officials. This is a hidden agenda by Mario Palmisano, and he is using the media to push the cause."
The 7-member township board met Wednesday night, and the zoning issue was not on the agenda, but Palmisano and some of his supporters brought it up in the public comment portion of the meeting.
Ken Parrigin is the supervisor of the board and says they will need to take a month or so to go over the ordinance and all the points made during the Wednesday's meeting.
He and other board members will likely tour Deer Forest to see if they see the current conditions and check if there are any noticeable violations.
Parrigin says the board will likely discuss this issue at a future meeting.