Commissioners Approve Property Sale To Land Conservancy
June 8, 2017
Nearly 100 trail users and park supporters clapped and waved green cards of approval Wednesday after Grand Traverse County commissioners voted 6-1 to sell 160 acres of Whitewater Township property to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC).
The supporters – armed with green cards they lifted in the air or waved during discussion to signal support for comments – packed the commission’s meeting hall and overflowed into surrounding hallways to urge commissioners to preserve the property for public recreational use. The property, often referred to the Sand Lakes Road site, is surrounded by 20,000 acres of state forest and is home to multiple trails and trail events, including the Traverse City to Kalkaska trail and the Iceman Cometh Challenge. It provides public access to Bullhead Lake and has long been sought after for acquisition by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to preserve its wildlife habitat, mixed deciduous forest and recreational use.
After county commissioners approved putting the land up for sale to help pay down the county's pension debt, the $250,000 listing inspired a bidding war that landed four offers on commissioners’ desks Wednesday night.
Both GTRLC and a Williamsburg couple, Steven and Jill Thompson, offered $255,000 for the property. The Thompsons requested in their offer the right to sell the southern portion of the property to GTRLC and retain the northern half. Another couple, Tom and Lynda Cosgrove, offered $266,000 for the site, noting their intended use was to “keep the natural beauty of the land with no development.”
A fourth offer, meanwhile, was nearly $100,000 more than the other bids – but raised questions among commissioners about planned uses for the site. Joseph Williams of Cedar offered $352,000 for the property, urging in a letter accompanying his offer to “take into account the long-term value of increased tax revenue generated from the sale of this property to a private citizen, versus selling to a tax-exempt nonprofit entity.” But Williams did not detail his plans for the property, and a representative for the listing real estate firm also stated he didn’t know what was planned for the site.
“I’m just curious as to why someone would come in with this high of an offer,” said Commissioner Bob Johnson. Noting the property’s appraised value was $239,000, Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette asked County Administrator Tom Menzel: “Do you know the answer to the question of why someone would offer ($113,000) more than it is appraised for?"
“You would have to ask them,” Menzel said. “I would have no idea.”
During public comment, residents lined up to encourage commissioners to accept GTRLC’s offer. “I urge you to consider a solution that does not result in losing precious recreational land for public use forever,” said Brenda Earl.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” agreed former TART Trails board president Brian Fisher. “It’s a beautiful area…I think we need to think about the future.” While acknowledging commissioners’ desire to pay down the county’s pension debt, Traverse City resident Eric Drier told the board the sale of “parkland to address an immediate problem like this results in an irrevocable loss, and not one that some future board would be able to correct…I stand here really not for myself, but for future generations.”
Commissioners appeared swayed by the large showing of public support for GTRLC’s offer, as well as a report from county administrators that the Michigan DNR would pay annual property taxes on the parcel once it’s under state control. DNR representatives confirmed to commissioners at the meeting that the DNR pays full property taxes on new land acquisitions. GTRLC Executive Director Glenn Chown also told commissioners his organization would “pay taxes during our period of ownership.”
Commissioner Dan Lathrop said the fact the county could both preserve the site for public use and get it back on the tax rolls sealed his vote. “I like that the DNR is going to pay taxes,” he said. “We have so much land that we’re not paying taxes on. So that makes (turning down a higher bid) a little more palatable for me.”
Johnson said he couldn’t support selling property “right in the middle of state land to a developer to let them start doing something,” even if it made the county more money. “I know we’re in a financial hole right now, but $97,000 – if that breaks us, we’re in a lot more trouble than we think,” Johnson said. “As someone that enjoys the outdoors, too, I don’t see any value to selling to anyone but the conservancy.”
Commissioner Ron Clous was the sole ‘no’ vote on the property sale. He expressed frustration that the county was walking away from the highest bidder, as well as concern the county’s real estate agent wouldn’t want to work with commissioners again. “We ask for a realtor…to get us the best price we can, and we send him down the road,” Clous said. “I never thought we’d be turning down a high bid, but I can see where we’re going to be headed with taking care of our pension…it’s not going to be anywhere profitable.”
But Commissioner Sonny Wheelock said the property’s importance to the public put a burden on commissioners to consider the long-term consequences of its sale. “Our responsibility is not strictly to look at the dollars,” Wheelock said. “We are responsible to look, if we’re going to do something with county-owned property, to make sure it’s the best use for our community. I believe this is a much better option for the community than selling it to a developer.”