Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ira Township Dispute 2010 - 2012

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

Shortly after receiving ownership of the 38.5-acre Gerrits Sanctuary in July 2009, located along the east side of the City of New Baltimore in Ira Township, Saint Clair County, the TLC was forced to defend the tax-exempt status of the property. While the TLC was aware that the parcel was landlocked, and that a City of New Baltimore storm sewer pump station with a complicated easement history was located on the north end of the property, we were surprised at the extent to which Ira Township officials tried to use all of this against the TLC. They apparently wanted that land and seemed to be using property taxes and convoluted allegations about potential storm sewer fees to pressure us into selling the property.

Normally, non-profit land conservancies like the TLC are exempt from paying property taxes. However, we still pay special assessments for roads, utilities, drains, and other so-called improvements. A somewhat obscure provision in the Michigan General Property Tax Act can be interpreted as requiring public access to lands which are exempted from property tax, but the logic can be very subjective and not typically used to deny tax exemption.

The TLC allows public access on all of its preserves, and we wanted public access to the Gerrits Sanctuary. It just wasn’t going to be easy given the surrounding ownership. We would have been working on it whether Ira Township pressured us or not. In the meantime though, we had an informal access agreement with the adjacent modular park through a private road so that anyone could enter the sanctuary with prior notice from the TLC.

Regarding the storm sewer pump station, despite the legal history, it was fine with us, and we never had any intention of trying to bill the City of New Baltimore for it, nor did we think we had any right to do so. To us, it was no different than any other easement on a property, whether for a road, electrical line, water line, sewer line, county drain, and so on.

Starting in 2010, the TLC was paying Ira Township about $3,000 per year in property taxes for the Gerrits Sanctuary. This was a lot of money for a conservancy that just formed in late 2008 and had few members. For 3 years, 2010 through 2012, we attended the Ira Township Board of Review to make our case, to no avail. With the help of our attorney, Tim Lozen of Port Huron, we filed an appeal petition with the Michigan Tax Tribunal in July 2010. We didn’t get a hearing until June of 2012. During that two-year wait, we met with Ira Township and the City of New Baltimore to try to resolve the public access issue and alleviate all of their concerns. We made numerous phone calls and sent several e-mails to the Township, the City, their attorneys, their engineers, and others. We drafted a legal agreement between all parties, and even pursued a land addition to the north end of the sanctuary that would have given us legal public access. But, we were ultimately met with resistance and false encouragement followed by indifference.

To add insult to injury, in 2010, Ira Township acquired an adjacent parcel as so-called “park land” which has public access. So, not only did Ira Township allow a landlocked parcel to be created in the first place, and use that against the TLC to collect property taxes, but then they were unwilling to provide public access through their adjacent “park” and were completely disinterested in working with the TLC to develop their land as a “park”. It was puzzling to say the least.

The Gerrits Sanctuary and so-called Ira Township "park". 2010 aerial photograph.

Finally, on June 27, 2012, we had our Michigan Tax Tribunal hearing but we still had to wait until October 30, 2012 to find out that the TLC prevailed. The State of Michigan recognized that the TLC fulfilled its obligations as a tax-exempt charitable non-profit organization, that the general public was able to access and benefit from the Gerrits Sanctuary, despite the land-locked condition, and the issue of the storm sewer pump station had absolutely no bearing on anything. What a relief, but also what a waste of our time and energy. Those curious about the ultimate purpose of all this trouble ought to direct their questions to Ira Township Supervisor Bob McCoy and former Saint Clair County Commissioner Wally Evans, who also was on the Ira Township Board of Review. It’s still a mystery to us.

Not long before our Tax Tribunal hearing, we had also sued the adjoining landowner to the north of the Gerrits Sanctuary for an “easement of necessity” in order to provide legal public access to the sanctuary. The TLC is not in the habit of suing people, but the owner to the north, a residential developer, was mostly responsible for leaving our parcel landlocked and for the storm sewer pump station which was supposed to be only a “temporary” structure, not a permanent structure for “temporary” service. We were soon granted our easement, and now the public can legally access the Gerrits Sanctuary from Sienna Oaks Drive, a public road to the north.

The TLC is very thankful to attorney Tim Lozen for his work and generosity in this matter. We also thank Jeremy Emmi, former executive director of the Michigan Nature Association , and Julie Stoneman, executive director of Heart of the Lakes for their valuable guidance.