TRAVERSE CITY — Fern Spence watches joggers and neighbors traverse a historic farm trail across wooded, scenic private property on the city’s west side.
She wants to find a way to turn a private stretch into a public recreation area, and plans to test the wind to determine how much, if any, resentment lingers from a bitter, six-year-old lawsuit that pitted neighbors, developers and city officials against each other.
Spence and some supporters want to obtain a private lot on Wayne Street for TART Trails Inc. to create a dedicated pedestrian walkway that leads to the city’s Hickory Meadows park.
But that lot was the focal point of an acrimonious lawsuit between Incochee Woods developers, neighborhood residents, and the city when it was used as a private road access to the development. The city settled the suit in 2007.
”Everybody tiptoes around this when I bring this up,” Spence said. “They tell me it can’t be used as a pedestrian access because of the settlement. I think they are all wrong.”
The controversy began in 2006 when the city planner granted a permit to Incochee Woods developers Bob Brick and Ted Lockwood to build an access road at 1430 Wayne Street. The then-new, high-end housing development sprouted on a farm previously owned by the Olseon family. All but the lot at 1430 Wayne was in Garfield Township. Access was from Wayne and Ramsdell streets, as well as from M-72.
Neighbors complained about their residential street being used to access a township development. Former Traverse City Manager Richard Lewis issued an executive order and revoked the road permit while residents on Ramsdell Street clamored for the city to dead-end their street at the city limit. Lawsuits followed.
The parties settled in 2007 at the urging of the city’s insurance company. The developers received $75,000 and were reimbursed for utility easements they’d granted the city. Developers then put a gate across the Ramsdell Street entrance, and the developers and city purchased 1430 Wayne Street for $127,000.
Lewis told the Record-Eagle in 2007 the city would be able to resell the oddly shaped, 0.72-acre lot and recoup its money.
Turns out the lot wasn’t so desirable because the city already had inserted water mains and other underground utilities through the lot’s midsection. City commissioners discovered the problem when they tried to sell the property in 2008. They received one offer for $2,000.
A year later, city officials again tried to sell and again failed, and by then had over $145,000 invested in the property. The property finally sold in 2010 for $40,000 after a resident determined the property would hold a tiny house, though to date nothing has been built there.
The plot is back on the market, and Spence wants to lead a fundraising campaign through TART to buy it. TART asked the city in 2007 for a trail easement on the property, but Lewis declined to take the request to the city commission.
”It was ludicrous,” Spence said. “It’s an historic farm trail, the public (is) using it now, not just our subdivision. People from Ramsdell and Cherokee (Street) and the Incochee Apartments walk through our subdivision all the time.”
Incochee Woods trails are open to the public, according to the developments master deed, Spence said. Brick and Lockwood are fine with a public pedestrian trail.
”Ted and I have always been supportive of connectivity and neighborhood links,” Brick said. “We have no say in this seemingly reasonable request. It’s up to the city, but I don’t think they want to open this can of worms.”
Spence said city staffers told her the settlement forbids any link between Incochee Woods and 1430 Wayne Street, and Lockwood told her the city prohibits such a tie-in. The document clearly prohibits vehicle traffic, but Spence can’t find anything that indicates it bars a pedestrian link. She’s asked a lawyer to scrutinize the paperwork.
”We’ll pursue it as long as we know people aren’t going to take us to court and try to to sue us,” Spence said.
Spence may find an ally on the city commission. Mayor Michael Estes called the would-be trail a “wonderful idea” and said he would support amending the settlement to make it happen.
”How would having this trail not be in the public good,” Estes said. “If all the parties are willing, why wouldn’t the city sign off?”