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County Considers Abandoning Leland

Downtown businesses, neighboring officials oppose move

March 4, 2004 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  County commissioners are seeking solutions to resolve the cramped conditions in their current courthouse in Leland. All proposals would tear down this 1965 one-story structure.

LELAND — A proposal to move the Leelanau County seat out of this tiny northwest Michigan town to a former farm field far from any commercial or community center is sparking opposition from a growing number of village residents and business owners concerned about the economic health of their downtown.

Fueling the debate is the rarity of such moves in Michigan’s history and a state Supreme Court decision made last summer that allows county governments to locate their facilities without regard to a township’s ordinances or master plans. That decision emboldened the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners to renew a push to tear down the outdated courthouse here, which is overcrowded with county administrative offices, and build a new facility far from downtown Leland.

The commissioners’ campaign intensified two weeks ago with their vote to consider a 43-acre parcel of mostly undeveloped land that the county owns in Suttons Bay Township, where the county is building a sheriff’s office and jail, as the site for a new judicial and administrative facility. The commissioners’ 5-to-1 decision is the first step toward putting the issue directly before county residents, who, according to state law, must approve moving the seat in a countywide election. It would be the first time a Michigan county seat has moved in 122 years.

The proposal is raising questions about the cost to the village’s economy and the wider consequences for land, traffic, and the environment in one of Michigan’s fastest-growing counties, whose population increased 27 percent between 1990 and 2000, to 21,119. Opponents assert that the move is unnecessary, would hurt downtown businesses, and violates the conservation-based master plans of the county and Suttons Bay Township, which many local residents, business owners, and township and county officials spent years designing to curb sprawl.

Debating History, State Policy, and Public Opinion
Ironically, Leelanau was the last Michigan county to move its seat, in 1882, when the current courthouse replaced a facility in nearby Northport. Today those resisting the proposed move have the state and public opinion on their side. In November, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm signed an executive directive ordering state agencies to locate their offices in downtowns whenever possible. Gov. Granholm, embracing the recommendations of her Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, also urges local governments to locate their offices in established population centers rather than on greenfield sites. 

Kathryn Eckert, the former state historic preservation officer and a local resident, points out that Leland was built around its original courthouse and that the county seat is something of a social center for the small downtown. Ms. Eckert said she does not think the current building on the site, built in 1965, is worth saving, but its function clearly is.

“It is part of the fabric of the community — you don’t let that fall apart,” said Ms. Eckert, who is the author of Buildings of Michigan. “This is a main industry for Leland and to take the courthouse away is like ripping out the heart of the community.”

Those supporting the move, though, want to rid their village of the old courthouse and the traffic it draws. They say that the 2.5-acre site in Leland is too small and the land too valuable for the county to retain. They add that the new seat would be more centrally located and, because the new county jail and sheriff’s office, known as the Law Enforcement Center, will soon be operating there, efficiency demands the move.

Residents of Leland, an unincorporated village governed by Leland Township, and their neighbors in Suttons Bay Township have heard these arguments before. In 2000 the county said it had to move its jail and sheriff’s office from Leland to an entirely new site because law enforcement operations needed more space and a more centralized location. Suttons Bay Township planning officials strongly resisted the proposal because it violated the township and county master plans. They relented only after the county promised that it would not build any additional facilities there.

Concerns About a Broken Promise and Lost Business
Now Suttons Bay Township officials say that the county’s proposal to move its seat to a spot next door to the enforcement center, which is on a bucolic stretch of M-204 between Leland and the Village of Suttons Bay, betrays that promise and are publicly opposing it.

“We feel strongly that the designation of this site for additional governmental buildings would negatively impact the scenic M-204 corridor, creating unwanted and unnecessary sprawl, including the inevitable commercial development,” the Suttons Bay Township Planning Commission said in a February 12, 2004 letter to the county.

Four downtown Leland business owners, reflecting the sentiments of many village store keepers, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that they oppose moving the county seat out of Leland because it would damage businesses of all sorts, including theirs: A gas station, a grocery story, a restaurant, and a bakery.

“The courthouse is great for our winter economy,” said Skip Telgard, owner of the Bluebird Restaurant and Bar, referring to the nine months each year that Leland is not a tourist town. He added that any traffic the courthouse generates “disappears” in the summer. “It gets buried by the sheer volume of tourists,” he said.

Fifteen members of the Leland Business Association met about the issue last night and voted unanimously to oppose the move and form a subcommittee that will work to keep the county seat downtown.

A Debate About Community
The debate about moving the county seat began a decade ago when officials recognized that the county’s business — registering deeds, collecting taxes, enforcing the law — was outgrowing the courthouse and that it was costing the county money whenever overcrowding forced the sheriff to house a prisoner in another county’s jail.

But County Board Chairman Robert Hawley says the most basic reason it’s time for the county to pull up its Leland stakes is that village residents want it to leave. He and other officials maintain that the Leland Township Planning Commission, which governs the village, consistently blocked county efforts to improve or expand the courthouse. “There is absolutely zero evidence that the people of Leland want us to stay there,” Mr. Hawley said.

But opponents of the move say that the township’s unelected planning commission does not reflect the opinions of most Leland residents, including the elected township trustees.

“Personally, I would like to see the courthouse left in Leland,” said Township Supervisor Harry Larkin, who added that the county should live up to its promise not to move the seat to the enforcement center. “If they gave a promise to Suttons Bay Township — they should keep it.”

Other opponents of the move say that the Leland property’s value — perhaps $1.5 million — makes it worth holding onto.

“Not only does it have historical value,” said Melinda Lautner, the only county commissioner currently opposed to the move, “it is a beautiful piece of property that the county could never replace.”

County Administrator David Gill, who favors moving, admits that the county doesn’t need to sell the Leland parcel. “We have all the money we need right now,” he said, pointing to Leelanau’s operating fund surplus and the $5 million building fund it has already amassed for the approximately $7 million project. And Mr. Hawley agrees that the move would not save much in operating costs and acknowledges that counties routinely separate their offices from their jails and sheriff’s offices.

Opponents also say that keeping county government downtown is more convenient for those doing business with the county.

“The courthouse should be at the center of a community,” said Leland bakery owner and former county commissioner Bob Pisor, who advocates replacing the old building with a stately new one in the same location. “In Leland, you can walk from the courthouse and have a sandwich, visit an art gallery and a museum, go to the best library in the county, and pick up your mail at the post office — all without having to get in your car.”

Would “No” Mean “No”?
The commissioners will determine both the date and official language for the ballot proposal next month. While they have largely determined what a “yes” vote would mean, commissioners are still debating whether “no” would mean building a new structure on the Leland property, looking for another new site, or even employing a sleight of hand that would keep enough offices in Leland to legally maintain it as the county seat but move most services to Suttons Bay Township. 

County Commissioner Jean Watkoski is pressing her colleagues to avoid that strategy. “It’s crucial that when we go to voters,” Ms. Watkoski said, “that we show where we are specifically going to build on that site, how much it will cost, and what the second option will be if it is voted down. They should know what will happen as a result of this vote.”

But Mr. Hawley insisted that interpreting a “no” vote should fall to the next board of commissioners, while Mr. Gill said that keeping the legal seat — basically the offices of its elected county officials — in Leland but moving most offices next door to the enforcement center is under consideration: “If this vote doesn’t fly, we’re going back to the drawing board.”

Mr. Pisor said that the discussion has gone on long enough: “The impact of the courthouse leaving Leland is almost inconceivable. Here it is part of the community. What they’re talking about doing is hiding it on a hill in the middle of nowhere. It’s ludicrous.”

Jim Lively is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s planner and the director of the Leelanau Smart Growth Coalition. You can reach him at jim@mlui.org.

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