Grand Traverse County Commissioners Vote To Give Twin Lakes Park To Long Lake Township
By Beth Milligan | March 17, 2022
Grand Traverse County commissioners voted 4-2 Wednesday – with Commissioners Betsy Coffia and Brad Jewett opposed and Bryce Hundley abstaining – to give away the county-owned Twin Lakes Park to Long Lake Township. The decision came over opposition from county parks staff and Twin Lakes tenant Child and Family Services, whose representatives worried their YouthWork program based at the park will eventually be evicted from the site.
Commissioner Rob Hentschel, Penny Morris, Darryl Nelson, and Ron Clous voted to approve a motion made by Clous to direct County Administrator Nate Alger to “transfer the Twin Lakes parks program and associated properties, along with all buildings, fixtures, and equipment exclusive to that park” from the county to Long Lake Township. As part of the deal, the county would also transfer the lease agreement for a cell tower on the property over to the township – estimated to generate close to $900,000 in revenue over 70 years – and pay just over $31,000 annually for the next four years to the township to assist in covering park maintenance costs.
County Parks and Recreation commissioners voted unanimously in December to turn down a request from Long Lake Township to take over Twin Lakes, continuing to operate it instead as a county park with the caveat that county commissioners – who have ultimate say over property transfers – could separately take up the proposal. County commissioners discussed the proposal in January and directed staff to explore options for the property. That was the only meeting the commission had before Wednesday’s second discussion, when a vote was taken to transfer the site. The proposal has been bandied about in the past, however, with Township Supervisor Ron Lemcool previously telling The Ticker the township wants to upgrade park facilities, including potentially adding bike trails, increasing rental usage of Gilbert Lodge, and opening up public access to the back portion of the property. The heirs of the families who donated Twin Lakes to Grand Traverse County “have no objection to this transfer and are very supportive,” Lemcool said.
A majority of commissioners were also supportive, with Hentschel pointing to figures provided by County Finance Director Dean Bott showing the park has lost an average of $45,702 annually since 2016. “It costs money,” Hentschel said of operating Twin Lakes. By transferring the park to Long Lake Township – which would be required to continue operating it as a park under the proposed agreement, with Grand Traverse County getting the first right of refusal if the township ever decides to get rid of the property – Hentschel said the county had the opportunity to continue making the same park available for public use “for less money.”
However, other commissioners – along with parks staff and tenants – strenuously opposed the transfer. Alger acknowledged that new incoming Parks and Recreation Director John Chase, who starts in his role in April, was not “necessarily on board for the disposal.” He added commissioners were “not going to hear a unanimous voice from county staff on this issue,” though said he personally believed there were “advantages and disadvantages” to the transfer. Parks and Recreation Office Manager and Interim Director Ryan Walsh said giving the park away was a “big mismanagement of county resources,” adding it could also put the upcoming summer camp season in jeopardy, as Long Lake Township will now have to try and secure its own camp license since the county’s is non-transferable. Coffia pointed out that the pandemic slowed down rental revenues at the park and staff have been working toward revving back up and making Twin Lakes fiscally sustainable, though she noted parks are a public resource and not “supposed to make a profit.” Twin Lakes is the only park the county owns “that can be used for year-round rentals,” Coffia said, expressing concerns its loss would hurt Parks and Recreation’s long-term stability. Walsh also said he was “worried about the future of our department” in light of the vote.
Hundley abstained from the vote because of his employment with Child and Family Services, which just signed a three-year lease to host its YouthWork program at Twin Lakes. After YouthWork representatives expressed fears the property transfer would lead to them being kicked out of the park, Morris and Nelson both said they were committed to the nonprofit and making sure its lease was honored. “I absolutely believe in YouthWork,” Morris said. Nelson also said “YouthWork is an amazing program” and that he wouldn’t “stand for breaking an agreement Grand Traverse County made with a nonprofit.” At Coffia’s request, commissioners agreed to include language in the motion requiring Long Lake Township to honor YouthWork’s three-year lease as part of the transfer agreement. While YouthWork Director Bill Watson said he was grateful the organization wouldn’t be kicked out before their busy summer season this year, he said conversations with Lemcool convinced him the organization wouldn’t be able to stay in the park long-term and that the transfer amounted to an eventual “eviction” for the nonprofit. “In my opinion, this was just a done deal,” he said of the commission vote.
Several county commission candidates weighed in after the vote expressing disappointment in the decision. City Commissioner Ashlea Walter, who’s running for county District 3, called it a “very bad deal for the county.” Tom Mair, also running in District 3, said he was worried “the county will unload more parkland” and eventually “dismantle the current parks system.” He pointed out that in the City of Traverse City, any disposal of parkland is required to go to a public vote. Amanda Scott, running in District 6, wrote on her campaign Facebook page: “Your board of commissioners just gave away an incredible county asset. This is devastating and beyond irresponsible, though not all that surprising. Twin Lakes is a gem and was one of our greatest county parks/assets. The policy passed today leaves other county parks and properties open to the same fate.”
Wednesday’s vote was only made possible because commissioners voted 5-2 – with Coffia and Hundley opposed – right before the Twin Lakes discussion to amend the county’s property disposal policy. Commissioners added language stating the disposal policy does not apply to county-owned property being transferred to another governmental entity. Because of that language update, staff didn’t have to go through the normal steps the county would take before selling or transferring properties, such as having commissioners first declare the property surplus, getting a professional appraisal, investigating mineral rights, and ensuring that the disposal process includes a “competitive, open, and transparent process.” Instead, commissioners could vote immediately on making a transfer to Long Lake Township, with staff to bring back a final legal agreement for commission approval at a future meeting.Comment