ELK RAPIDS — A title search conducted as part of negotiations to renew a library building lease, has dredged up a long-forgotten deed — and in the process, put into question ownership of two community landmarks.
The Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor and the Island House, which together anchor the Village of Elk Rapids, may actually be partly owned by Elk Rapids Township, officials said.
“We just got an update to the title work that shows that, in 1960, the village deeded an undivided one-half interest in the property to the township,” attorney Scott Hogan said, of the Island House. “We’ve gone to the title company and said, ‘Are you sure of this information?’”
They were absolutely positive.
And staff with Riverside Title, Inc. provided the newly-discovered documents, which were made public during a Elk Rapids District Library Board meeting Thursday.
“I’m dumbfounded,” said Library Director Nannette Miller. “All these years we have been under the assumption that the village owns it and we have behaved accordingly. I am very interested in what this is going to mean for our current lease.”
For now, lease negotiations should be put on hold, Hogan advised.
And some local officials say ripples caused by the 1960 deed may extend into the harbor.
“Who owns what, that’s the real question,” said Dick Hults, who, as an Elk Rapids township trustee, a library board trustee, and chair of the library’s building committee, skippered the effort to assure a clean title.
Navigating the property’s ownership history was not easy, he said.
Documents show philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick deeded Island House to the Village of Elk Rapids in 1948.
In 1960, however, a deed was recorded giving half of the Island House property — which the library has leased since 1949 — to the township.
The 1960 deed, dated May 9, references results of an election in the village that same year, as the impetus for the ownership change.
McCormick must have been informed of this because in 1961, she submitted a notarized affidavit stating she had no objection to the change as long as the building was used for a library or community center.
Also in 1961, the state’s Department of Conservation deeded a “parcel of filled bottomland” to the village, which has since become the popular 213-slip marina, fuel dock and boat launch, within a short walk of the downtown business district.
In 1979, Elk Rapids Township held its own election, records show, and a ballot proposal asking voters whether they supported transferring their share of “Island Property” back to the village — along with their half of the cost for upkeep — passed 97-34.
This decision by the voters, however, was never recorded in a new deed, records show, making the 1960 deed the last one filed.
And the description of the Island House property, as shared jointly by the village and the township on the 1960 deed, is strikingly similar to the description of the property deeded to the village by the Department of Conservation in 1961.
Both reference Lot 4, Section 20 and Lot 1 Section 20, documents show.
Whether that means Elk Rapids Township also owns half the harbor is unclear, officials said.
“Everyone is in shock right now,” said Diane Richter, a former chair of the Parks & Recreation Commission, who frequently comments at public library and council meetings.
“What disturbs me the most is that the record-keeping has been so poor,” Richter said. “Expanding the library has been talked about since at least 2014. Why didn’t the village do a title search then?”
A 2015 legal opinion from attorney Scott Howard, to then-Elk Rapids Assistant Village Manager Michael Spence, shows a title search was recommended.
“Based on the documentation and regulations that I have reviewed, there is not any prohibition on adding to the historic Island Home,” Howard wrote, in the legal opinion, dated Oct. 13, 2015.
“I would recommend that the Library contact the State Historic Preservation Office and also consider reviewing the title history for the Island Property.”
Library President Tom Stephenson, who took office earlier this year, commended building committee members Hults, Liz Atkinson and Chuck Schuler, for their efforts — a distinct change from the conflicts which have previously marred the board’s communication style.
In the past 18 months, a complaint about the capital campaign was filed with the state’s Attorney General’s office; former president, Barb Johnson, was asked to resign, refused and remains on the board; the library director was suspended by Johnson and Schuler without approval from the personnel committee, which later determined the director had done nothing wrong; and a financial review by a Certified Public Accountant hired by the board in December has yet to be completed.
Under Stephenson’s leadership, board members have made verbal commitments to improve transparency.
Hults said hosting building committee meetings in public, taking minutes, inviting public comment and making meeting documents publicly available is a good start.
“We are doing things now they way they should have been done all along,” Hults said.
The board agreed to put lease negotiations on hold for the time being, and Hults and Elk Rapids Township Supervisor Dorance Amos were scheduled to meet Friday to discuss how to proceed in light of the discovery.
Complicating matters further are two utility easements, dated 2008 and 2011, also recently discovered, documents show.
Village President Jim Janisse did not return a call seeking comment.