On any given day at the Grand Traverse Commons, a wide variety of users can be seen enjoying the trail network that crisscrosses the wooded property. Hikers, bikers, dog walkers, trail runners, sledders, snowshoers, and cross-country, back-country, and downhill skiers are just some of the groups that utilize the site.
But an oft-overlooked deed restriction on 100 acres in the heart of the trail system – called the Commons 100 – prohibits all of those uses, except for hiking and cross-country skiing. Local leaders are now working to lift the deed restriction, aiming to ensure a variety of groups can continue to use the property and opening the door to future trail development at the Commons.
Gabe Schneider, principal at Northern Strategies 360 and a TART Trails ambassador, says awareness of the deed restriction surfaced a few years ago at a meeting devoted to trail use at the Commons. “We were talking about all the different uses there, and how do we set up the trails in a manner that everyone can enjoy,” Schneider says. “Out of that, people were starting to brainstorm improvements, and that’s where we ran across this problem with the deed restriction.”
When the state of Michigan conveyed the Commons 100 property to Garfield Township in 1993, it included a clause in the deed that states: “Land so conveyed shall be used solely and exclusively for the public purposes of hiking and cross-country skiing trails only.” It further adds that ski rental facilities, concession stands, bathroom or seasonal facilities, or “any other structure or improvement that may disturb or affect soils” are all prohibited. If the property is used for any purpose other than hiking or cross-country skiing, the clause warns, the title to the property “shall revert immediately to the state of Michigan.”
Schneider says the deed restriction was added to prevent erosion and soil damage on the trails. A push by some community members to sell the undeveloped land to fund restoration of historic Commons buildings also prompted the clause’s inclusion, to ensure the property couldn’t be sold off and developed. But while hikers and cross-country skiers are the only users legally allowed on the trails, it’s clear from photos stretching back to the late 1980s and continuing through today that many other groups – particularly bicyclists – have long frequented the property. To date, those illegal uses haven’t triggered the state to take back the land – but it remains a potential threat, as well an impediment to desired projects like developing dedicated cycling trails on the property.
With little formal trail management or infrastructure in place, all of the uses at the Commons – including allowed hiking – have contributed to deteriorating soil conditions, Schneider says. That’s one of the reasons local leaders hope to lift the deed restriction: to develop more formal trail infrastructure that better accommodates a variety of uses and provides for regular care and maintenance of the trails. “I don’t know that the state anticipated the damage that would be done just by social hiking alone,” Schneider says. “I’d say it would be a less of an impact on soil in the future with (the deed restriction) removed, because then people could invest time and money into making the trails sustainable. There’s more damage done if you don’t do anything than if it’s properly managed.”
The Grand Traverse Commons Joint Planning Commission – a joint body of Garfield Township and Traverse City representatives who oversee the Commons – will meet Wednesday at 5:15pm at the Governmental Center to discuss next steps. Lifting the deed restriction will require the approval of the state legislature through a conveyance bill that will transfer the Commons 100 property back to the state, which would clean up the title language and transfer it back to Garfield Township with the deed restriction removed. Schneider says he’s spoken with state agencies as well as local representatives including State Representative Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) and State Senator Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) about introducing and approving legislation to lift the deed restriction; all have indicated their willingness to support the change, he says.
Though trail planning at the Commons has primarily focused on the potential development of dedicated biking trails, lifting the deed restriction has implications for a variety of other user groups. For one, even residents walking their dogs or snowshoeing on the trails right now are considered illegal users. “If we don’t change the agreement, there should be enforcement, because otherwise we’re in violation of the deed restriction,” says Traverse City Planning Director Russ Soyring, staff liaison for the Joint Planning Commission. Conflicts between trail users could also be resolved by separating out some uses with different dedicated trails. Soyring says he’s heard complaints from hikers about cyclists coming through the trails at high speeds; providing bikers with their own dedicated trails could eliminate those encounters.
Schneider also believes the change will make it easier for leaders to oversee the property going forward. The deed restriction doesn’t apply “to all of the Commons, just 100 acres smack in the middle of it,” he says. “They’re basically managing a large piece of property with one portion in the middle having to be managed differently. As a land manager, that’s very hard to do.”