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A Lesson from Acme

Foggy fine print can impede a clear vision

April 27, 2006 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In 1999, residents of Acme Township, just northeast of Traverse City, joined their local government in updating their community’s master plan. The final document included a visionary plan for building, from scratch, a brand-new town center “like Suttons Bay or Elk Rapids.” Citizens clearly wanted the township to redirect much of the commercial and residential development foreseen in its previous master plan to a new town center, thereby protecting the district’s main highways, productive farms, and rolling hills from sprawling development.

Acme’s updated master plan has an entire chapter about the town center, with pages of print describing what it should be. But the description did not include exact details about scale, size, and amounts of retail and residential space, inadvertently leaving the door ajar for interpretation. Sure enough, a team of developers soon showed up, proposing what they claimed was a town center. But most residents saw “The Village at Grand Traverse” for what it was—a regional shopping mall far too large to qualify as a town center—and roundly rejected it.

The proposal has since triggered lawsuits, countersuits, appeals, a complete turnover in the elected township board, a public referendum, and lots of acrimony. Acme’s lesson to other communities: Those who would manage the growth that is surely coming their way must clearly state size limits on stores, housing, other buildings, streets, and parking lots.Without them, deep pockets and clever legal strategies could also be coming their way.

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