TRAVERSE CITY — Fern and Doug Spence gambled $48,000 to discover resentment still runs deep from a bitter, six-year-old lawsuit that pitted neighbors, developers and city officials against each other.
The Spences signed a purchase agreement for a lot on Wayne Street that has been used as an old farm trail and more recently as a shortcut to Hickory Meadows Park and the Willow Hill School. They want to created a dedicated, non-motorized trail across the property, but they need the city to remove a deed restriction banning the creation of a pedestrian trail over a portion of the property.
Fern Spence said she was encouraged when Mayor Michael Estes said in April he saw no reason for the city commission not to consider creation of a pedestrian trail across the property.
"Doug and I went ahead and bought it because we held onto the promise of Mayor Estes that the city commission would consider it," Fern Spence said. "But the city won't even consider it."
The Spence's proposal never made it past city staff. City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht told commissioners the trail has "no benefit" for the city and would invite litigation. Trible-Laught said she had already been visited by an attorney for the neighbors who indicated any action by the city regarding the parcel would invite another lawsuit.
"My neighbors and I believe the trail would be very disruptive to the homeowners whose yards adjoin that lot," said neighbor Mary T. Joseph, who leads opposition to the trail. "It would be disruptive to our privacy."
The controversy dates as far back as 2005 when the city planner granted a permit to Incochee Woods developers Bob Brick and Ted Lockwood to build an access road at 1430 Wayne St. The then-new, high-end housing development sprouted on a farm in Garfield Township with access through 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. The Ramsdell Street entrance was gated and the city purchased 1430 Wayne St. for the inflated price of $127,000.
The city sold the lot for $40,000 in 2010 and added a deed restriction that prohibited any pedestrian path from crossing a highway easement the city still controls.
The deed restriction was not part of the settlement agreement, which only banned use of the property for a motorized road.
Trible-Laucht, who was not available to comment, told city commissioners there was still room for a pedestrian path without crossing the city's highway easement.
Fern Spence said she wants to grant the property to TART or a public agency in the hopes they can help defer some of the expense but they won't touch it as long as the deed restriction remains.
Doug Spence said he's a little surprised by the opposition to a trail from a city that wants to increase walkability.
"It's definitely a throwback," Doug Spence said. "I was eight years on the TART Trails board and you heard a lot of lore about the fights TART had to go through in the beginning.
"These are some of those same arguments," he said.
Doug Spence cites studies that show trails are safe and increase property values.
Mary Joseph said she has first-hand experience of how disruptive the trail can be. Early morning users wake her family and recently a loud drunk woke them in the middle of the night.
Joseph said there is already a trail created by Incochee Woods to connect with the school and the park. In interviews and a letter to the city commission, she notes the trail would mainly benefit a group of township homeowners, and the city would lose the property from its tax rolls.
Fern Spence said her proposed trail connection would be safer and she's not giving up.
Estes said Spence can bypass city staff and write to him or another commissioner directly. That commissioner can then request the issue go before the entire commission.
The issue isn’t dead, Estes said.
“If I don’t respond, then there’s an issue,” Estes said.
Fern Spence said she plans to wait until they complete the purchase and a new city commission takes office in November.