(Editor’s Note: Grant Parsons reflects on the contents of an old cork board in his office and two judges who helped to preserve the rural quality of the Old Mission Peninsula. -jb)
Last week I started cleaning out my law office, but I was waylaid by an old cork bulletin board behind my door. It was covered with layers of age-yellowed papers, photos, memorabilia. The edges were curled, the ink faded, some torn or indecipherable, some just plain silly, like the Dove chocolate wrapper (“Your future will be …”).
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Some scraps were pure gold, like the 1982 note from Ramsey Clark when I worked on the Liuzzo trial; a 1999 photo of Dean, Tim, and me; a 2011 Grant Wood-type photo of two parents mourning at their son’s grave; a 1989 hand-written letter from my mom (“Dear Grant, your father and I are concerned about large scale nuclear waste dumping and hope you will do something about it…” onto which I had pinned a photocopy of my cheeky response, “Mom, got it, it’s on my to-do list for Monday…”).
So many stories on that cork board. I’m a sucker for a story. I’m the world’s dawdliest cleaner-outer-thrower-away.
Two of the cork board papers especially grabbed my attention. One was a note pinned to a Court Opinion; the other was an email pinned to a Judgment Order. I pulled the pins out, smoothed the curled edges of the papers, and lost myself in the memories – one from 1990 and the other from 1998. Both gave me a weird sense of deja vu.
The 1990 paper was a decision by Judge Mort Forster in the case “Protect the Peninsula v Peninsula Township Board, File No. 88-6390-NZ.” Forster issued a landmark precedent that recognized the legal authority of Old Mission residents – residents, not just the government – over land use policy. The case involved a proposed 440-acre development eight miles out on the Peninsula. There had been years of public meetings, revision after revision, zoning amendment, a referendum election, a Special Use Permit (SUP), a lawsuit, and finally a trial.
Protect the Peninsula hired an expert named Robert Hotaling, known as “the godfather of Michigan township zoning,” to analyze the development, which he viewed as “leapfrog development” that the township’s infrastructure would not support. After a referendum rejecting the development, the developer submitted an SUP application, which wasn’t subject to referendum. PTP argued in court the SUP was an illegal attempt to evade the will of the people.
Judge Forster agreed with PTP: “The Court does agree with the Plaintiff that based on the undisputed history of this proposed development, the township zoning authorities are trying to circumvent the wishes and desires of an overwhelming majority of the electorate and avoid another referendum on the project by utilizing the Special Use procedure … based on the present record in this case and the lack of legal authority to the contrary, the Court finds that the solution to this issue does not rest with the Court but remains with the electorate and their power to amend the ordinance and elect the people who they feel should administer the ordinance.”
It was a clear precedent that recognized the “vox populi,” the public’s voice, in land use policy. Judge Forster cited the long history of the resident’s land use activities shaping Old Mission Peninsula. He reviewed it all – PTP’s surveys, elections, townhall meetings, past correspondence – and he threw out the SUP.
Taped to the 1990 Opinion was a note I sent Forster after he retired. I told him he should be recognized for preserving the most beautiful place on earth. I kept his note back, in which he said it brought tears to his eyes to be remembered that way.
There was a second paper, the 1998 Consent Judgment signed by Judge Phil Rodgers, who is generally viewed as the best judge in Grand Traverse County history. He got the township, the winery, and PTP to agree to settle their differences over winery operations. That landmark case, “Chateau Operations, LTD., a Michigan corporation, and Robert P. Begin v Peninsula Township File No. 98-017195-CZ,” involved questions about winery operations at Chateau Chantal: events, music, food and alcohol service.
Rodgers convinced the parties to sign a binding, permanent agreement recognizing the township’s authority to limit activities of winery guests, restrict tasting, music, and limit food service – “only cheese, fruit, bread, or crackers provided at no cost to the persons tasting wine.”
After Judge Rodgers retired, I wrote him an email expressing thoughts similar to what I’d told Judge Forster. Once again, a judge had resolved a lawsuit and saved the Peninsula. He emailed me a gracious reply.
It is now 2023. For the past two years, the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP) lawsuit has raged. Neighbors have asked me the same question repeatedly: “What’s going on, wasn’t this settled long ago?” I say the only thing I can say, “Yes, this was settled long ago.”
Two judges devoted part of their legal careers to resolving the Peninsula’s land use policy. Forster and Rodgers helped preserve – maybe the better term is helped create – what is now recognized as one of the most beautiful agricultural communities in the United States.
Sitting in my quiet office, I threw the papers in the wastebasket. I sat looking at that wastebasket, wondering about it all. I retrieved a scrap and read my own thoughts from long ago, when I was young and believed in simple, straightforward truths, and two judges agreed:
“You were a hell of a good judge and a visionary. This City – and the entire region – is what it is because you took the time to take little people seriously and uphold what other judges would have considered generic nonsense, the right to vote and shape the community. I want you to know I think you set a standard for citizen suits that has carried forward to this day. I wish you well, and I hope you are enjoying your time, and I want you to know I remember you well.”
There are times during this WOMP lawsuit when I have wondered, “Was it worth it? Is it worth it?” Scraps of paper reminded me: The Peninsula was worth it. The Peninsula still is worth it.