I spoke recently with Kyle O’Grady, whose family is developing “The 81 on East Bay,” an 81-acre parcel which borders Boursaw Road on the Old Mission Peninsula and consists of 41 single-family homes on half-acre lots, 2500 feet of shoreline on East Bay, and more than 54 acres of open space.
The development has been fraught with challenges, including legal battles, lengthy delays, and contentious public hearings where Old Mission Peninsula residents and environmental leaders voiced concerns.
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First approved by the previous Peninsula Township Board in August 2015, “The 81 on East Bay” landed in court later that year to battle a lawsuit filed by Preserve Old Mission, a nonprofit founded by neighboring Old Mission Peninsula resident Jim Komendera, concerned over the breadth of the development on pristine woodlands, shore frontage, open fields and rolling hillsides.
Fast forward to December 2017, and the current Peninsula Township Board once again approved the development by a narrow vote of four to three. This approval came with a set of conditions, including air monitoring to ensure that the possibly chemical-laden dust from farming activities decades prior didn’t drift onto neighboring properties.
Although the developers – which include Kyle O’Grady, his parents Kevin and Vicki, and his brother Kevin, under their company Insight Building Company – have moved equipment onto the land and begun moving dirt and removing trees, The 81’s troubles aren’t quite over just yet. Read on for Kyle’s thoughts on backroom deals, being the villain, and why they’re suing Peninsula Township.
Jane Boursaw: I see you’ve started working on the property. Can you give us an update on how things are going?
Kyle O’Grady: We’re excited that the Township Board decided to approve it for the second time. It may look a little different on the outside to some people, but it’s just a small family company, Insight Building Company, my dad, my mom, me and my brother. We also have one office manager downstate, and a project manager who does odds and ends. We’ve owned the property for four years, and we’ve been trying to get a start on it for three years. It’s been very time consuming, unfortunately, and a struggle. We had hoped to get the ball rolling quite some time ago, but [the Township’s] attorney has put in writing that we can start on the trees. So we have the equipment out there, and we’ve started trimming and removing some of the trees, and starting some of the land balancing.
Jane: Prior to owning this property, did you live in northern Michigan?
Kyle: My Dad got his start with his Grandpa down in the metro Detroit area, and we started coming up here in the summers. Our Grandpa took us on a tour of Traverse City, and like everybody else, we just fell in love with the area. We have a lot of family here. My brother and I both played lacrosse in high school, and we had some tournaments out at the Keystone Field. I graduated from Albion College a year ago.
Jane: And you have an office in Clarkston, right?
Kyle: Yeah, we started in Clarkston, and moved up here six years ago. My Dad and Mom actually found [The 81] property on Realtor.com, came out and walked it, and just fell in love. They had a vision, and we’ve been trying to bring that to fruition.
Jane: And you also have an office in Traverse City now?
Kyle: Yeah, we have our office now on Munson Avenue. Basically, we’re moving most of our business up here, although we’re not physically moving much, since it’s a small company. But we wrapped up a development downstate, and like a lot of other people who’ve come up here, it’s like, wait, where do I want to be? Do I want to go back there, or do I want to stay here? Most of our efforts are focused up here now.
Jane: Do you have other projects you’re working on?
Kyle: We’re working on a few different projects, and we’re meeting with different marketing companies and newspapers, and getting the ball rolling on The 81. I’m living up here full-time now. My parents have been here for six years, but I was bouncing in and out during summer. Now that the weather’s turned, I couldn’t be happier.
Jane: Right, the snow’s finally gone. For now.
Kyle: I know. Not too long ago, I was driving around and it was 81 degrees, and I look over and there’s a four-foot pile of snow.
Jane: Our crazy northern Michigan weather. So, are you a Realtor then? Is that sort of your part in the family business?
Kyle: Yeah. Obviously, I grew up in the development industry, but after I graduated from college, I was like, what the heck am I going to do? I just tried to find my own lane and do my own thing, while working with the family. I got my Real Estate License right after my 22nd birthday this past September. I talked to a few different brokers in the area, and ended up having a good connection with the Brick family. I placed my license with Re/Max Bayshore Properties on October 31st.
Jane: Well, the Bricks have been around a long time. They’re definitely a good family to get in with.
Kyle: Yeah, it was just a great fit. I’m super happy to be with them.
Jane: Did your family anticipate what a struggle it would be when you first started looking at The 81 property? People out here are really passionate about preserving the land.
Kyle: It definitely didn’t run its course as we expected, but from day one, ever since we came up here and fell in love with the property, we’ve had a great passion for bringing a community to the Peninsula. We were excited to make that opportunity available for 41 additional people. When we first got into it, the idea wasn’t, oh another development on the Peninsula. The idea was, look at this land. What can we do on our end to fit this land the best way possible?
Jane: And it could have been more homes, if the second plan, the use-by-right plat subdivision plan, had gone through. It could have been 53 homes instead of 41.
Kyle: Right, we could have done a lot more homes. I think any big corporation that doesn’t really care about a community, they just look at the numbers, and more homes, more numbers, right? They would have come in with a bulldozer, leveled it, put the houses in, put it in the MLS, and sold it. But like I said, my Dad’s been doing this his whole life. He started when he was in high school and worked with his Grandpa. He knew that this one wasn’t like other communities. This one had to be special, and sacrificing a few homes was certainly something that he was willing to do to make something truly beautiful, that we could all be proud of.
Jane: There was a lot of talk about the [Grand Traverse Regional Land] Conservancy throughout the process. Did you ever consider approaching the Conservancy and working with them on your open space?
Kyle: We were preserving a lot of the land by putting a special use permit together versus the use-by-right. I guess that was our way of having that Conservancy mindset, and preserving over half of the development as open space. Then over time, it turned into more of the Conservancy working with the Township behind-the-scenes, without even contacting us or having our wishes and thoughts in mind. If it had started off differently at the beginning, instead of, hey let’s try this and let’s try this, and if there was no delay and the township was courteous to our requests, I think it could have turned out differently.
Jane: As I understand it, you’re currently suing Peninsula Township? Can you tell me anything about that?
Kyle: Sure. It’s a bummer that the first time we’re talking about this, it’s about lawsuits. But it is what it is. What’s occurring is, over time as this has gone on, we did our due diligence and research, and we’ve come to discover things – emails from township representatives and the former township attorney – that led us to this point in time. Basically, we got their emails through FOIA requests, and a few of them were pretty damning. We have emails from the former township attorney [Jim Young] saying that the zoning ordinance had never been applied this way. But he’s talking to what are supposed to be third-party neutral experts, saying, hey, make sure you put this in your report, and make sure you have a focus on this.
Jane: So you didn’t know any of this was happening?
Kyle: Right. And after our research and our FOIA requests, we discovered that the former Township attorney [Jim Young] was working with the Conservancy to put together a letter to send to us, saying basically, ‘If you don’t touch your land, you’ll walk away clean. It will be donated, and everything will be good.’ We also have an email from Glen Chown [executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy], as he’s working with Jim Young, saying, “Alright, I’m about to send this to him. We’ll see how stubborn and bullheaded Mr. O’Grady is.” There was a story in the paper stating that the Conservancy only works with willing landowners. That’s contradictory. And we have emails admitting that the Township attorney was trying to interpret something that he says, in his own words, has never been interpreted that way before, being the zoning ordinance, about the soils. Basically, he’s writing expert reports for the experts, admitting that it’s never been interpreted this way before, but it’s crucial that we do on this project.
Jane: So, you’re suing the Township?
Kyle: Yeah. Basically, we as a family are still waiting for the damages of being held up for three years. We’re a small business. Essentially, the wishes and the desires of a few individuals to preserve this land and work illegally to do so, have cost us three years of business, and have shut our business down for three years. We’re just looking for justice. We never wanted any of this. We came to this beautiful spot with an idea in mind to preserve as much land as we can. We’ve all been excited. I actually made the logo for the The 81 development when I was a senior in high school. So it’s been quite some time. We’re just looking for a judge to have a fair look at it, look at the evidence, and put together what was going on here. We find that it’s pretty obvious. Obviously, those that are being accused are going to say it differently, but it is what it is. The evidence speaks for itself.
Jane: You’re suing the township for damages then, correct?
Kyle: We are. One of our cases states that the second approval of the Township has conditions that have never been done before. We’re appealing that decision, requesting that we be treated like every other development. That we can proceed with our county permits and requirements, just as others have done, instead of having air monitoring, which has never been done on the Peninsula. And we’re suing Jim Young, the former Township attorney, personally, for civil extortion and gross negligence, working and conspiring with individuals to extort our property and unwillingly purchase the property from us.
Jane: I wanted to ask you about the soil testing. You probably know that this land was in my husband’s family. It was their family farm, and they sold it decades ago, in the 1960s. But the land – and all of the land farmed on the Old Mission Peninsula back then – had some pretty toxic chemicals sprayed on it. We’re talking DDT, parathion, lead arsenate … a lot of those chemicals are banned now, but I’ve got pictures of crop dusters flying over the orchard right next to our house in Old Mission back in the 1950s. Those chemicals are in the soil basically forever. Can you see where that would be a concern for at least some of the nearby residents?
Kyle: Well, I guess I would refer to the precedence and what’s been done before. That should be how things operate, but we’re being dragged through the mud. Look at Vineyard Ridge with the same exact agricultural soils. They got approved without all of these regulations, just as everyone else has been. You drive past it, and you can see that they did their tree removal and their land balancing, etc. They had no requirements of air monitoring or anything of that nature. So, we’d already been approved one time by the Board with a slight remand, and then it turned into something that broke precedence on the Peninsula. As that’s happening, Vineyard Ridge gets approved. We actually have an email from the night of the approval from the engineer, I believe it was Mansfield [Land Use Consultants of Traverse City], asking if they had a BEA [Baseline Environmental Assessment] report. It says right in the email, not that it pertains to tonight’s meeting. It was never a factor in their approval, just as it has never been in the past.
Jane: What’s the status of your lawsuit right now? Can you say, or is it still working its way through the system?
Kyle: It’s going through the system. The attorneys are handling it between them. But basically, all we want is to develop our land, just as Ken Schmidt [Vineyard Ridge developer] did, just as everybody else that purchased residential zoned property has done. Each day that goes by, it’s just another day tacked on to what we’ve been waiting to do, and what we’ve been stopped from doing.
Jane: So the Township, the Conservancy, and Jim Young personally, they’re all folded into the same lawsuit?
Kyle: Same lawsuit, yeah, but separate entities.
Jane: Are you also involved in a lawsuit with Preserve Old Mission?
Kyle: No, we are not. Preserve Old Mission is suing the Township for approving the development for a second time. There’s not a lot of legs on that court case, from the mouth of Rob Manigold [Peninsula Township Supervisor] himself. But we’ve had enough of trying to be silent. A few months ago, my father and I went into the Township offices and had a nice conversation with Rob and Brad [Bickle, Peninsula Township Treasurer]. They said it’s a bummer what’s happening. They say that they’re doing everything they can to get our project off the ground. It meets all the requirements. Rob actually mentioned that some things were handled improperly during the approval process. I think he may have been referring to the former Township Board. And the former Township attorney actually said that some things were possibly even illegal. I can’t make that up. That’s what really gives us the backing that what has happened here is wrong. It’s unfortunate, and we’re just hoping to move forward as soon as possible.
Jane: You feel that the conditions that were placed on the 81 approval are too restrictive.
Kyle: Right. We call it a denial in disguise, because no matter what we do, we’re going to be targeted. Even though we have our approval, they’re trying to monitor dust and do this and do that, which is ultimately unrealistic, being that it’s never been done before … somebody wants to say that a speck of dust landed a few inches off the site. Given the approval right now, they’re trying to say that they would have authority to stop progress. We just want to develop our land following the precedent of what’s been done in the past.
Jane: Do you have a target date of when you would like people to actually be living in homes on The 81?
Kyle: Yeah, May of 2016. We’d like to have people living there two years ago. Like I said, it’s a bummer that our first conversation has to be about things that have taken a negative toll on my family, but it is what it is. The people who don’t want us here aren’t going to want to see it, and they don’t care what we have to say. But, as time goes on, how long can you go without a voice? We had to speak up. We should have spoken up a long time ago. But, I think when people see a logo and a company, they can’t really put a family behind that. It’s hard to be empathetic with something that people see as a company versus a family.
Jane: Yeah, for sure.
Kyle: I wish we would have put our name, personally, on different documents and different approvals and different requests. Because, at the end of the day, we’re just a family of four trying to run our business.
Jane: Developers on the Old Mission Peninsula, no matter who they are, usually end up being the bad guy. But what do you want to say to Old Mission Peninsula residents? What is your message that you want to get out there?
Kyle: First, it’s important to note that we are Old Mission Peninsula residents, too. Everybody comes at a different time, but we all stay for the same reasons – because we love the Peninsula. It’s important to realize that we’re not some multi-state corporation.
Jane: I think people can appreciate that.
Kyle: Our project has a vision that Peninsula residents can be proud of. What we’ve done is something that we want the community to share and cherish. Although it may not have gotten off on the right foot, I think over time, as our project continues and residents see the management and thought that we put into it, they’ll see that we want it to be an asset to the community. I want Peninsula residents to be proud of it. We came in and eliminated some of our numbers to make a more beautiful product and take the natural characteristics into place. At the end of the day, we’re a family of the Peninsula. We want to walk around and not be …
Jane: …the villain.
Kyle: Thank you. Because we’re not. We’re a family of four. We have family up here. We have a 98-year-old Grandpa who lives on the Peninsula. He’s the one who brought us up here. I hope people can feel a little more empathy towards somebody’s family and see what three years of delays and negative press can do.
Jane: It’s been a challenging time, for sure.
Kyle: I just want it to be as positive as we can moving forward. We don’t want to go backwards. We didn’t want what happened to have happened. If we would have gotten approved, just like Ken Schmidt did, with no delay and no ridiculous regulations, I think we’d have already had the property developed, with more families enjoying this place that we call home.
Jane: One other thing that came up through the process is that this development is sort of far out from town for a lot of people. Do you have a good feeling that you’re going to be able to sell all the homes and get people in there? Is there already some interest?
Kyle: Yeah, there’s definitely interest from people that we’ve talked to. At the end of the day, it’s going to be a beautiful development, some true up-north living, and a great asset to the community.
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb