Of Annexations and Betrayals

Once upon a time... Early last year, residents of Towar Gardens became aware of an impending pool development by the City of East Lansing (EL)on their border and within the Charter Township of Meridian. This project, which has come to be known as "the EL Family Aquatic Center", was seen as a threat to the quiet lifestyle that has developed in our community over the past 50+ years of its existence.

As the scope of this project was revealed over the course of the summer, our concern turned to alarm. We realized we were looking at a complex that would bring thousands of visitors per week to the water park along with hundreds more for evening and weekend softball games at the softball complex that shares the facility. Given the inadequate parking that these 2 facilities will share and the traffic conditions that will develop on Abbott/Chandler Road as EL's sprawl begins in earnest, we began to realize that our quiet, residential neighborhood was about to be changed forever.

So, we fought it. We were nearly successful in defeating the bond proposal that funded the water park and, had it not been for the votes of MSU students, who won't actually be in town when the water park is open, we would have prevailed against the bond proposal. But that was not to be. So, we turned our attention to ensuring that the impact on area residents and their families would be minimized. We worked through our local government (Meridian Township) during the staff review of the site plan for the softball complex. The final site plan review included stipulations intended to protect the Towar families: a tall wooden fence along the development's southern border, limitations on lighting and noise, and a prohibition against alcohol (common to all Meridian Township parks) among others. None of these was unreasonable; they are exactly the kinds of things that a developer OUGHT to be doing to protect neighboring residential areas.

As plans for the water park itself unfolded, we actively sought in good faith to work with the City of EL, putting together a group of 6 neighborhood leaders willing to sit down with EL officials to go over our concerns and find common ground. Time and again, we were rebuffed and the City officials never did meet with this small working group as we had hoped. Despite this, they stated and restated to us and the press that they would work with our neighborhood to make sure our concerns were addressed. Instead, they called a "Public Forum" which was simply a rehash of a similar public forum which had already been held to air our concerns. As with any large meeting, a great deal was discussed but nothing was actually accomplished and no commitments were ever made by EL officials. In fact, notification of this forum was sent to a seemingly random number of households in Towar and was sent out only 1-2 days before it happened; hardly what one would call a reasonable notification of such an important meeting. Ironically, this meeting was never discussed with neighborhood leaders ahead of time, including the manager, Geri Snell, of the facility in Towar where it was to be held.

Fortunately, a resident of Towar, Diane McLeod, was invited to be on a "planning committee" for the water park. Throughout the planning of the development, Diane continuously reiterated the concerns of neighbors: parking overflow into Towar, noise, lighting, hours of operation, policing and security, etc. She was told, as were neighbors present at the most recent informational meeting about the water park, that all our concerns would be addressed in the Special Use Permit (SUP) process at the Township (public hearings are a feature of the SUP process). In other words, they were not willing to commit to any particular items. They were leaving it up to our Township to ensure that our interests were protected. Hardly the approach one would expect from a government that wanted to be a "good neighbor" as EL repeatedly said it wanted to be.

And this week, the final political shoe dropped: EL announced its intention to annex the property. The success of the annexation is virtually assured since there are no residents of Meridian Township that actually live within the borders of the area being annexed. If a vote happens, it will only be by EL residents. Towar and Meridian Township are powerless to do anything about it.

You really have to hand it to EL City officials. They are nothing if not politically savvy. Annexing this property negates the requirement for a SUP, removes any of the stipulations placed in the site plan approval for the softball complex and effectively removes Towar residents' last avenue to address their concerns. If we have concerns now, we must take them to a government body that does not see us as constituents and which has, over and over again, shown a callous lack of interest in addressing our concerns. Every one of our concerns has been met with a fight and antagonism and the response that our Township would take care of that for us. Even the announcement of the annexation itself was done with complete disregard for neighborly courtesy: Nobody in Towar or at the Township level, including our representative to the pool committee, was notified that this was coming. In fact, when asked POINT BLANK at a the last Public forum if annexation was likely, Mayor Mark Meadows assured us this wasn't being considered or discussed.

The rationale behind the annexation is easy to see. The only surprising thing is that they waited so long to do it. Annexation benefits EL in the following ways:

1) Stops the "flack being flung over their northern border" (quote: Fred Bauries) They don't have to listen to us anymore because there isn't a thing we can do about it and we're not EL voters.

2) Allows the ball players to drink alcohol in the park. This is clearly a major driving force behind this decision. We have discovered that some softball groups have refused to participate at this facility if alcohol was not allowed.*

3) Prevents Towar residents from having any recourse, except to the City of EL, if they have concerns. Who do we call if there is a problem? Meridian Township? Nope, not their jurisdiction. EL? Yeah, right...

4) Allows for quick movement, without the need to address wetlands destruction issues, build a fence to shield local homes from the noise and lighting, limit operational hours, or do any other of the reasonable requests we've made to minimize the impact on area families.

(*You really have to wonder about the presence of alcohol in a facility that also is the home of a water park intended for families with small children. Especially since the traffic from the softball fields will pass through the congested parking lot near the water park as it exits the facility. Iam continuously amazed at the way EL residents bemoan the use of alcohol on the one hand and seemingly encourage it on the Duplicity seems to be the hallmark of these discussions; opinions about a particular topic shift all over depending on whose interests are being served.)

So, now we get to see EL for what it really is. Certainly not a good neighbor. Certainly not courteous or sensitive to the needs of non-EL residents on your borders. Certainly not honest or courteous or trustworthy. No, EL is essentially an imperialistic city who has run out of room. They will do whatever they can to secure developable land, even if it includes running over those who stand in their way. Even a well-established neighborhood with a rich, 50+ year history, families and a strong sense of community.

Congratulations, East Lansing. You've taken the low moral ground, planted your flag and built a pool on it. That's a great way to attract families and build a community that people are proud of. Perhaps the reason you have so much difficulty with riots and destruction in your city is because of (the) fine example of caring for others set by your your leaders. I wish you luck. You are going to need it.

Chris Savage

Towar Gardens