Traverse City News and Events

Not So Fast: Keystone Property Sale Blocked

June 14, 2017

Grand Traverse County Parks & Recreation commissioners are blocking the sale of 30 acres of county property at the corner of Keystone and Birmley roads – a move County Administrator Tom Menzel blasted Tuesday as “short-sighted" and "unprofessional."

Parks & Recreation commissioners voted Thursday to rescind a previous resolution of support authorizing the county to sell vacant recreational property next to the Keystone Soccer Complex (pictured). Commissioners stated that when they initially approved selling the property in November, they expected the parcel would fetch a price tag of at least $1 million.

“We wanted to help the county out,” said Parks and Recreation Vice President Rodetta Harrand, referencing the county’s desire to sell unused properties to pay down its projected $60-million pension debt. “But we had certainly a different idea as to (its value).”

County officials listed the property for sale in January for $525,000. The listing attracted a $400,000 offer from Petoskey business owner Robert Drost, who said he planned to open a new landscaping company on the property. Before county commissioners would approve the sale, they asked for further legal review of the site; that review revealed the need to shrink the sellable acreage from 36 to under 30 acres in order to maintain public access to the adjacent county soccer fields.

While a formal revised offer has yet to come before county commissioners, Drost’s bid is expected to drop to the $350,000 range because of the reduced parcel size, according to several county officials.

During discussion Thursday about Parks and Recreation’s strategic plan, County Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette – who sits on the board – pointed out references in the plan to a potential future partnership with Traverse Bay Area Youth Soccer (TBAYS). The partnership calls for the addition of more soccer fields at Keystone and the development of a recreational structure. Gore Follette questioned whether Parks and Recreation commissioners wanted to continue to support selling the vacant Keystone property when it could instead be used for county recreational purposes.

“I’m concerned because of course we have a potential buyer for the property, but I’ve personally been…putting the skids on (it),” she told the board. “The price that we’re looking at selling it for frankly is not a lot, and if we realistically in the foreseeable future…could do something (recreationally), I would really hate to see that property go.” Adding that county commissioners are set to discuss potential property sales June 21, Gore Follette told the Parks and Recreation board: “If this body were to take a position, I think it would be helpful.”

Shortly thereafter, Parks and Recreation commissioners unanimously voted to rescind their support for the property sale. Commissioner Andy Marek called the sale “a bad, bad deal” for county residents, saying that selling off a large, potentially revenue-generating parks parcel “for a very little amount of money…doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Not just a symbolic vote, Parks and Recreation’s decision blocks the county from selling the Keystone property, putting the parcel back under the parks department’s stewardship. Though he called the vote “an unusual situation,” County Prosecuting Attorney Bob Cooney says Parks and Recreation is set up under its own statute within Michigan law and that commissioners “do have that ability” to rescind their support for a parks property sale, blocking it from proceeding.

But county commissioners also have override power in such decisions, Cooney says. If three commissioners request in writing that the Parks and Recreation decision be added to a commission agenda for review, it will be; a simple majority of four commissioners could vote to overturn the decision. “Now it would be up to the board of commissioners to decide if they want to revisit it,” Cooney says.

County Commissioner Ron Clous, who has been an outspoken proponent of exploring county property sales to pay down the county’s pension debt, says the Parks and Recreation’s vote came as a “surprise” to him and that he wants commissioners to review it.

“There is frustration, but as I’m learning, it’s government,” says Clous. “Government can’t make a decision and stay with a decision and live with it.” He says he’s at “a loss for words” over Gore Follette’s “making an issue out of selling property for less than market value, or making the assumption that we are” after the board accepted a below-market bid for 160 acres of Whitewater Township property last week. “I’d like to see this brought back up to the commissioners, and I would sign to get it on the agenda,” he says.

Meanwhile, Menzel blasted the decision in a lengthy memo to county commissioners Tuesday, saying Parks and Recreation commissioners “removed or severely damaged one of the few options we have left to raise money to work ourselves out of the heavy debt situation we are in without asking the poor taxpayer for more money.” Discussion or a potential vote on the Keystone property was not a listed item on the Parks and Recreation agenda Thursday – a fact Menzel said led to county “administration and (a) majority of the board of commissioners being blind-sided by this action and not being given the opportunity to share with the park board some of the consequences of their actions.”

“The actions taken by the park board on this issue and the unprofessional way it was done is personally very disappointing to me,” Menzel wrote. He said that while county commissioners could overturn the decision, “the damage has been done” in terms of buyers trusting or wanting to work with Grand Traverse County. Menzel said “short-sighted games and a lack of desire to collaboratively work together to solve serious problems facing this county” continue to act as barriers to the county reducing its pension debt.

“(Parks and Recreation commissioners) just did not take time to consider all the ramifications their actions could have on the county as a whole,” Menzel concluded. “They need to remember if the county has serious financial problems, they do as well. After all, they are a part of the county."

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