COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON
The Lockport Township Board deliberates on a proposed Public Act 425 agreement between their township and Park Township during their meeting Monday.
COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON
Tom Lowry makes his case to the Lockport Township Board during their public hearing on the proposed 425 agreement Monday.
Pictured is the 38-acre property in Lockport Township, owned by Tom Lowry, in which a Public Act 425 agreement was approved this week to transfer the property from Lockport to Park Township for the purpose of housing development and an upcoming sewer/wastewater treatment project in Park Township.
By Robert Tomlinson
LOCKPORT TWP. — A land transfer approved this week by two local townships is raising questions about the logistics and feasibility of a proposed sewage treatment plant project, about a proposed housing development on the land, and about a part of the reason one of the townships may have had behind the agreement.
During Lockport Township and Park Township’s meetings this week, the two townships agreed to a Public Act 425 jurisdiction transfer of a 38-acre piece of land in Lockport Township owned by Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry, located on Buckhorn Road north of the Armstrong Park Sports Complex and south of Lovers Lane.
The agreement would transfer jurisdiction of the property from Lockport Township to Park Township for 15 years with a 15-year renewal afterwards, with the land transferring back to Lockport at the end of the time period. As part of the agreement, Lockport Township would pay to Park 0.5 mills of Lockport’s operating millage rate on the property yearly.
Lockport’s board voted unanimously in favor of the agreement on Monday, while Park Township’s board gave a 3-2 vote of approval Wednesday, both following public hearings at their respective monthly meetings. In Park Township, Trustee Tom Springer and Treasurer Cindy Fenwick dissented in their vote. The agreement will go into effect 30 days after approval by both parties.
Public Act 425 agreements, according to state law, allow two or more local units of government to transfer property conditionally by written agreement between the local units of government for the purpose of economic development projects.
According to the agreement, obtained by the Commercial-News, the main objective for the agreement is to have area for a housing development in order to offset expected industrial and commercial wastewater with residential wastewater as part of a proposed sewage treatment facility and plant in Park Township, which is expected to be located along the U.S. 131 corridor.
The proposed sewer project is currently in its infant stages, with a feasibility study still in the works by Scotts, Mich.-based South County Sewer and Water Authority, looking to see if it’s feasible to bring sewer and water service along the U.S. 131 corridor, which could help bring more businesses into the area, including a proposed sports complex and a possible expansion of the Heimbach Road industrial park. A wastewater treatment plant is proposed to be set up in Park Township as part of any project if it goes forward.
Lockport, Fabius and Park Townships, as well as Pavilion Township, Brady Township and Schoolcraft Township in Kalamazoo County, signed on last year to assist in funding the study. It is not known when the study would be done by.
While the 425 agreement specifically lists the proposed sewer project as the main impetus behind the agreement, there may be another reason why the agreement was proposed in the first place: as a tactic to prevent the City of Three Rivers from doing a 425 proposal of their own with the land.
Lockport Township Supervisor Mark Major, in response to a public comment during the township’s Monday’s meeting, said the reason the property was, in the commenter’s words, “chosen” to do a 425 agreement was because of the possibility of the City of Three Rivers wanting to propose an agreement of their own for the property. Such a proposal was presented in writing to the township board during the meeting by Lowry himself, and was confirmed by Trustee Christy Trammell to have been submitted prior to Monday’s meeting as well.
“Why did we pick it? … Because we don’t want it annexed into the city, and that was the threat. So, there you have it,” Major said.
Major expanded on that point in an interview following the meeting, claiming that actions Lowry had done in recent months were part of the reason the 425 was proposed in the first place.
“Tom started approaching board members at their business workplaces at the end of last year about either 425’ing and if we don’t agree to that, they were going to annex. So, he kinda made the threat there,” Major said. “As a board, members that were approached brought it to the attention of the other board members what Tom wanted to do, and we approached our lawyers to see what we could do, and they came up with this idea.
“He was talking to everybody behind the scenes as a private individual, but that’s not approaching our board.”
Lowry partially confirmed Major’s story in an interview Tuesday, saying he did approach two board members, Trammell and Trustee Rick Daniels, meeting Trammell at the Three Rivers Area Chamber of Commerce, where she is the president and CEO, but didn’t meet Daniels at his workplace, because he is retired. Lowry claimed that what he talked with them about weren’t “threats.”
“I didn’t threaten them, I said it’s preferable to have a 425. Then they ask what happens if not, and I said, well, I don’t want to do it, but I believe in the project, I want it to help benefit the [Three Rivers] Promise, so I would consider annexation,” Lowry said.
The project in question, Lowry explained to both townships during their respective public hearings, is to develop houses on the land, which he has owned since 2021 according to tax records. Any profits from the project, he said, would go to the Three Rivers Promise. However, he contended in his objection to the townships’ 425 proposal that because the treatment plant in Park Township would be “years” away, it would make more sense to hook up to the city of Three Rivers’ systems to have those services in place.
“Under the Park Township agreement, no sewer service is currently available at all. In fact, it would be a minimum of three to five years out,” Lowry said to Lockport Township Monday. “The study’s not done, you haven’t had your public hearings on the study, and you have no money set aside for it. I would say three to five years would be a kind timeframe – it would be much longer than that – before Park Township could ever go into the sewer business. I don’t want to wait five years or longer. It would make more sense for you to consider a 425 with the city, because right now, right today, all the services I need – water, sewer, and storm sewer – are there and near my property.”
The point that water was not at the property already was disputed later by Major during the meeting, saying that “water runs under the ground there already.” Following the meeting, he said there’s not much stopping Lowry from building houses on the property, he would “have to put septic in,” with Lockport water.
In addition, Lowry said going into a 425 would also give the area access to fire, rescue and ambulance service, a point that was disputed by both township board members and public comments at both meetings.
Major said after Monday’s Lockport meeting that having the agreement in place would prevent any future agreements from taking place on the property.
“If there’s an agreement on the property, no other agreement can be made for that property. No 425 and no annexation can happen to that property while it’s under agreement,” Major said.
Lowry also aired his grievances about the process during both meetings, saying nobody from Lockport Township or Park Township ever contacted him about the proposal, and that his calls to both Major and the Lockport Township Hall – the only phone line at the hall is to the township’s water department, according to township officials – went unanswered. He also noted he never received notification about the hearing until he saw the public hearing notice in a recent edition of the Commercial-News.
Public comments at both meetings were mostly in favor of going through with the 425, with some praise for both Lockport and Park for coming together on the agreement. Some of the most pointed comments included scathing words for Lowry and the city as a whole for their actions regarding Lockport Township land in the past, most notably the controversy surrounding the Armstrong Park Sports Complex several years back, as well as a failed industrial park project near the Dr. Haines Municipal Airport. One commenter during the Lockport meeting estimated that the township has “lost” 1,000 acres to the city over the years, a figure Major echoed and agreed with, and that any 425 agreement with the city would be a “kiss of death” for the township.
Zoning Administrator Doug Kuhlman, in his comments to the board following public comment, agreed that a 425 would be a “kiss of death” to the township, just as Lowry, in Kuhlman’s words, “believes” that a franchise agreement, an alternative type of agreement to a 425, would be the same to the city. He mentioned franchise agreements working out well in Mendon, White Pigeon and Mottville Township, and how “everybody gets something out of the deal” when it comes to franchise agreements.
Other public comments wondered what was stopping Lowry from building on the property already if he wanted to build housing, due to housing shortages in the county and the water already available in the area.
Some public comments at both meetings questioned some of the language in the agreement. To that, Seth Koches, a lawyer from Bauckham Sparks, Lockport Township’s law firm who is handling the 425, said during Wednesday’s Park Township meeting would be “cleaned up” prior to the agreement being signed.
One of the commenters at both meetings, Eric Shafer, asked questions about some of the logistics surrounding both the feasibility study and the potential plant itself. One of his questions was about if the Portage River was going to be used as an exit point, which was confirmed by both Lockport and Park Township officials to not be the case.
Prior to Lockport’s vote, Trustee Donna Grubbs said she believed the agreement would allow for growth in both Lockport and Park townships.
“I think it strengthens both of our townships. I don’t think it prohibits in any way any projected projects being done to that property,” Grubbs said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before sewer needs to happen, and I think that’s going to be regulated by the state, the health department, by all those other people, and they’re going to make us do sewer.”
Overall, Major said while the township doesn’t want to lose more land to the city again, the future economic benefit of having the sewer would be a big deal for both townships, and that the township is being “proactive” in getting sewer in the area.
“We’re trying to get this before we need it. We’re trying to get it to build out the 131 corridor,” Major said. “I work in a sewer system, I see the benefits of it, I understand it costs money, but so does pumping your septic tank and maintaining that.”
At Park Township’s meeting Wednesday, most of the same public comments were shared about the issue at hand during its public hearing, while at least one trustee, Springer, believed that while the sewer system would be a positive for both townships, it was too soon to make a decision about the 425 when a feasibility study has not been completed.
“If that feasibility study has information that can inform a good decision on this or not … it just seems like I want to know all of that before I vote,” Springer said. “I just don’t feel I have enough information to make a sound decision on it.”
Koches said there is a clause in the 425 agreement that if there is no development or improvement of any kind on the property within six years from the date of the agreement, and no proposed development is in progress, the property would automatically revery back to Lockport Township, and the agreement would be terminated.
Trustee Mike Kinne said, from his standpoint, the proposal is a “business decision” to “try to get as much property as we can” to make the sewer/treatment plant project as feasible as possible.
“Where we’re lacking some residential, this is an opportunity,” Kinne said. “Our main focus has been 131, but 131 by itself isn’t feasible. It won’t work; we need residential, and this is an opportunity, along with some other things – and again, we’re waiting for the feasibility study of how much residential is needed to move forward – but this is just going to help that case. If there’s 30 acres, and just randomly, Tom can put a house on every 2 acres, that’s 60 houses. That’s going to help. Why wouldn’t we want to deliver sewer to that area and grab those houses?”
Park Township Supervisor Ed English agreed with Kinne that it was a “business decision” from Park Township’s perspective.
“I have nothing in the game between the city and Lockport. Park’s not in the middle of that, that’s not why we’re doing this,” English said. “I would love to see 200 more acres out in that industrial park that somebody wants to build if we can get sewer. I’m all for that. We can keep all the industry and stuff down that 131 corridor like it’s designed for, that’s what I want to do. This would help us. It’s a strictly business thing, it’s nothing personal with Tom. I’ve known Tom forever, I don’t harbor any hard feelings, I want to do this as a business deal.”
Prior to the Park Township vote, Lowry pleaded with their board to reconsider the 425, bringing up a possibility that he may not decide to build if the agreement goes through.
“If this is truly a business decision, what if I told you tonight that I’m not going to develop? What’s the point of a 425 then if there’s going to be no houses on those 38 acres, why do you feel the urgency to sign a 425 with Lockport?” Lowry said. “You said it’s not personal, I’ll take that at face value, but Lockport I don’t trust, and they have it in for me. But if I told you there was going to be zero houses now, how could you make a business decision that says you need to sign this? I’m the only property that’s talked about; why not look at Tamarac or the other clusters of residential?”
“That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at it; if that industrial park, if we can get 200 more acres there, that sewer system will be there for Tamarac. Someday they’re going to need it,” Park Township Supervisor Ed English responded.
“But why the urgency to stop me or to hurt me before you have the feasibility study,” Lowry replied.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, Tom,” English replied. “If this sewer thing doesn’t go through, this whole thing’s going to fall apart anyway.”
“But then there’s a 425 in place – and it’s obvious what the law firm’s tactic is – if you tie my property in a 425, I’m prevented from annexing by state law,” Lowry responded. “If you guys tie up my property tonight, or in 30 days, and you don’t do the sewer, I’m screwed.”
It is unclear what happens next with the situation, whether or not the project will go through or if it will end up in court, but Lowry made it clear where he stood to Lockport’s board.
“Your actions in conjunction with that law firm have motivated me more than you will ever, ever hope,” Lowry said.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.