By Vanessa McCray

TRAVERSE CITY "" A local attorney advised the city to hold a public vote on a contentious downtown project or else end up in court.

Attorney Grant Parsons penned a letter last week to City Manager Richard Lewis asking the city to "voluntarily submit" to a vote on developer Federated Properties' use of public dollars for parking in a project at 145 W. Front St.

Parsons argued the city must obey a charter section he said requires votes on publicly funded projects.

The 1969 charter amendment spawned heated debate on its intent and validity. City attorney W. Peter Doren contends the charter section does not apply to Federated's plans, and the city hired a downstate law firm that offered a similar opinion.

But Parsons said the charter section's intent is "clear," and the city must take the issue to the ballot box or be taken to court.

"If the city doesn't back off for one reason or another, we are pretty convinced that we are going to stop it legally," he said.

Parsons represents project opponents Jim Carruthers and former city Mayor Margaret Dodd. They also plan to submit a petition to force a vote on the project, a tactic that could avoid a lawsuit, Parsons said.

City voters last year rejected a bond of up to $16 million to build the deck, but the city paid Federated more than $150,000 last fall to cover some design work. The Grand Traverse County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority later agreed to use $5.49 million in state brownfield funds to pay for and own public parking at the site. The city is negotiating to run the deck and chip in $330,000 for equipment.

Dodd said the appointed brownfield group facilitated the project "against the wishes of the people of Traverse City," and residents must vote on the project if the city spends funds.

"This, I think, is a way to kind of address the concerns of a large portion of Traverse City taxpayers who want to be able to have a say," she said.

Doren believes a court would uphold his charter interpretation that a vote is not needed, but he heralded a potential lawsuit as a "good opportunity" to resolve the lingering question.

"In this case, it is not going to go away. It is an important decision," he said. "We have to find a door to the courtroom and ask one of our circuit court judges ... to make a call on this."

Doren said commissioners "conceivably" could reject his opinion and call for an election without a judge's ruling.

Parsons' letter also asserts the project violates the city's master plan and permit standards. Federated discussed building changes that would require amending its permit. That public process has not begun.

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