ACME -- Meijer Inc. is taking another stab at building in Acme Township, five years after the Grand Rapids retailer and a development partner waged a zoning battle with local officials. Meijer this week submitted an updated development application to the township for a superstore along M-72 on property owned by The Village at Grand Traverse, its partner in a bitter fight with Acme officials.
Meijer's plan includes a general merchandise and grocery store with a garden center, but not a gas station and convenience store. Meijer would be the initial occupant on The Village's property, and consume about 21 acres on the 181-acre site.
Acme Supervisor Wayne Kladder believes The Village, with Meijer as an anchor, could help inject new life into the township.
"If it's done well, and done how the master plan calls for, we will have a great community center down here ... we think when we have this great place, people will come," Kladder said.
Meijer officials did not return calls for comment on Wednesday.
Acme Township Manager Sharon Vreeland said representatives from The Village approached Acme officials "about a month ago" and asked how to jump-start the project.
Township officials asked for updated traffic and market studies as part of the reapplication. Officials are reviewing the documentation, and the township planning commission is expected to decide whether to restart its review process at its Sept. 28 meeting, Vreeland said.
"We're in the process of checking whether everything on our check list has been provided," she said.
Zoning dispute prompts lawsuits
The Village's plans initially called for more than 800,000-square feet of commercial space with two major anchor stores, including Meijer. Other retail shops, restaurants and theaters were planned, along with up to 410 housing units, a five-story, 250-room hotel and government office center.
The Village project stalled by December 2004, when township planners tabled the plans after Concerned Citizens of Acme Township sued the township to halt a development it said failed to conform with the township's master plan and site zoning.
CCAT's suit came after a lame duck Acme Township board approved The Village's plan. Acme's new township board, whose members ousted the pro-development board in the August 2004 primary election, sided with CCAT on the lawsuit.
Meijer and The Village, though, entered the suit in support of the previous board's decision, and subsequently targeted some Acme board and planning commissioners with personal lawsuits.
By late 2007, Meijer and several Acme officials agreed to settle the suits. Acme Treasurer Bill Boltres, however, struck back at Meijer and accused the retailer of malicious prosecution in its suit against him.
A mediation panel in late 2007 recommended Meijer pay Boltres $3 million in damages. Meijer settled with Boltres for an undisclosed amount in December '07, after Boltres' attorney scheduled depositions for top Meijer officials.
Boltres' suit uncovered the fact that Meijer illegally funded elections in Acme in 2005 and 2007. Meijer in 2008 agreed to pay the Michigan Secretary of State $190,000 in fines and costs for violating the state's campaign finance law.
Several Acme officials then asked 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers to allow them to resume lawsuits against Meijer, and Rodgers agreed.
This spring, Meijer paid those officials $1.5 million to drop their suits. Meijer subsequently paid CCAT $75,000 to close the loop on any additional lawsuits.
'We can look at it objectively'
Acme Trustee Frank Zarafonitis, one of the officials who split Meijer's $1.5 million settlement this year, said Meijer likely wants to lock down a store in the area before Wal-Mart enters the picture.
"I don't think it's a surprise ... I figured they'd come back," he said.
Zarafonitis is confident township officials can review Meijer's proposal with open minds.
"I believe we can; they have a right to build," he said. "I totally believe as a board we can look at it objectively."
Planning Commissioner Robert Carstens, who also received a settlement, wouldn't say much about Meijer's updated application.
"I'm hopeful that good things will happen for Meijer, and good things will happen for our community," he said.
Denny Rohn, CCAT president, said opinions are likely to be split forever.
"I think there are people who will always want a Meijer, no matter what Meijer did to this community," she said.
Among them is Ed Dietz of Acme.
He and his wife, Hannah, are anxious for a new Meijer store close to home.
"I'm very pleased. I hope it goes through. I'm tired of driving across town to get good veggies," Dietz said. "Frankly, I don't see any down side."
M-72 is a business street and there's no reason to keep Meijer from building a store there, he said.
Rohn said Meijer and its partner will determine the debate tone for the latest project application. "It's really up to them at this point on how they intend to behave," she said of Meijer and The Village.
Traverse City attorney Chris Bzdok's firm represents Acme in zoning matters, but he declined to comment on the merits of the new proposal.
"I don't think the legal department ought to comment on an application we haven't reviewed. We'll need to read it and digest it and give our opinion directly to (Acme officials)," Bzdok said.