TRAVERSE CITY — A simmering zoning dispute between Acme Township and Traverse City Horse Shows has those counting on the festival grounds’ 2022 season spooked.
Acme Supervisor Doug White said the township board gave a deadline to the event grounds owners to meet certain conditions in their amended special use permit. The owners have until June to comply with a handful of requirements, including adding parking.
That comes after the township gave notice that the owners had expanded considerably without amending their previous special use permit, according to a release from the township. That was in spring 2021, and in September the township attorney notified the owners they needed to comply by the start of the 2022 show season.
Township trustees approved an amended special use permit in April, meeting minutes show.
White said the township gave Traverse City Horse Shows time to come into compliance, and that was a major factor behind township trustees setting the deadline in April.
“We want the horse show to be successful ... Acme Township has been working with the horse show since last spring to identify and resolve a long list of violations,” he said.
But time is almost up — Traverse City Horse Show’s website gives June 8 as the start of the Traverse City Spring Horse Show.
Phone and email messages to Morrissey Management Group, which owns Traverse City Horse Shows, weren’t returned by Friday.
If the owners of the grounds that host the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival don’t meet the deadline, the township could send a cease-and-desist letter, White said. Trustees also discussed asking a court for an injunction to stop the horse shows.
For Heather Irvine, the loss of a season at Traverse City Horse Shows would be devastating, she said. The trainer and owner of Hillside Farm in Bloomfield Hills said she spends four months each year in Acme working with her clients who ride in the shows.
“It’ll be a financial hardship for me and probably a financial hardship and a disappointment for some of my clients or all my clients if they can’t come, because they’ve reserved houses and made reservation for hotel rooms,” she said.
But lost deposits aren’t the only ripple effect. Irvine said she brings 10 to 15 employees every season, and they would struggle to find other work should the shows be canceled. Others after the same jobs arranged theirs up to a year in advance, she said.
These events have become an international draw, including for riders at the top of their sport, Irvine said — thousands attend, and a recent study estimated the financial impact in the low hundreds of millions, as previously reported.
Irvine said she knows people in Texas on a waitlist to get in. Her friend, another rider and trainer from the Lone Star State, has been coming to Flintfields for years.
Peter Pletcher, of Magnolia, Texas, said the uncertainty is a huge cause for concern. He and his 10 employees enjoy themselves at nearby Turtle Creek Casino and various restaurants during what’s typically a six-week stay. He not only participates in the shows but his clients do as well, and altogether they bring in 30 or so horses.
“Everybody comes and everybody makes it like their summer vacation,” he said.
That includes signing up their kids for sailing and sports lessons, and so forth, he said.
Festival regulars are also buying homes, land or both nearby, Irvine said. She bought a house in the area and knows others who have done the same.
Adding more parking for the event grounds’ expansion was among the steps owners must take before the season starts, according to the release. Others included modifying fire access routes and stormwater controls, keeping nearby roads free of dust and adding to the permit the show arenas, tent areas and other additions already in place.
White said the township recently got a request to waive some of those conditions, but he’s unaware of any work the owners have done to come into compliance on any of them.
Irvine said she had huge respect for the owners, calling it one of the best-run in her view.
“I know the people personally here and I really respect them,” she said. “They know what they’re doing and they put on a high-quality event.”
A zoning dispute seemed like a crazy reason to Pletcher to possibly derail the shows, especially given the economic impact, he said.
Both he and Irvine said they’re not familiar with the details of the dispute, and they both agreed that everyone should follow the rules.
White acknowledged the horse shows are a huge economic boon. But the size of the organization doesn’t factor into it.
“We’re not asking Traverse City Horse Shows to do anything different from any other property or developer,” he said. “The township ordinances must be observed and followed.”
Future conditions in the permit allow up to four more barns, pedestrian crosswalks and other possible expansions — those aren’t required prior to the 2022 season, documents show.