Council OKs appraisal in first step for land deal

NEGAUNEE — The Negaunee City Council took a small step toward its economic development goals at its regular meeting Thursday by approving the first step in a proposed land swap with a local developer.

The council approved a request to allow VBS LLC, a company representing Porter Limited Inc., to conduct an appraisal on a 35.5-acre city-owned parcel near Malton Road in conjunction with an appraisal of a 10-acre parcel owned by Porter near the Iron Ore Heritage Trail to facilitate a possible exchange.

VBS wants to acquire the city-owned property in order to access a third parcel for development, Interim City Manager Gerald Koski said.

“The reason for the request is, VBS LLC owns land right now on the south side of the railroad tracks that is landlocked by city property and he has no access right now to develop that property,” Koski said. “So, his interest right now is to acquire that one odd piece of property that we own so he can build that road off of Malton Road, and he won’t have to build it through city property, it will be their property.”

VBS initiated the property exchange in early May, Koski said, and expressed a willingness to compensate the city for any difference in the value of the parcels up to $10,000, minus the appraisal.

“He came across with the proposal and asked that it be brought to the council. The difference in size is going to mean a difference in money,” Koski said. “He’s willing to foot the bill to get the appraisals done and then the council can re-address the issue and bring it to the planning commission. You know, if we want to entertain this request, the first step in the process is to see what those two properties would be valued at.”

The letter states that the parcel owned by the city has approximately 20 acres that have been impacted by underground mining and also notes that the property owned by VBS has been utilized by the city as a recreation area for years.

“We could not find a recorded legal access of easement in favor of the city of Negaunee over our properties to the said 35 acres, but of course we have allowed the city to come and go as they please, as we do with other public and recreational groups that travel through the property,” the letter states. “With that being said, we feel it is a fair and useful trade for each of our purposes.”

Planning Commissioner Jon Becker spoke out against the swap during public comment.

“As a member of the planning commission to make sure that you are informed that the planning commission has memorialized in their minutes their recommendation against the proposed land swap that’s on your agenda,” Becker said. “We have recommended that you consider an outright sale of the property after a proper evaluation has been done, and that you would need to involve the planning commission in your communications for any of these type of land sales that you would pursue.”

Councilman Nick Visser, who made the motion to move forward with the appraisal process, said the transaction would benefit the city.

“This is what we wanted, … people to buy, trade, or get some property on the tax rolls,” Visser said. “It’s just sitting there doing nothing, and it’s been sitting there for a long time. If this is something that could have been done years ago, I am not sure of the background on this, but in my opinion, it should have been done years ago.”

VBS LLC made a similar request in 2013, which the city council at that time declined to consider, according to the Sept. 12, 2013, meeting minutes.

During the 2013 meeting, a motion was made and unanimously carried “to send a letter to Mr. Don Schinella, VBS LLC, that the city is not interested in this land swap now or in the near future as it is not an equitable swap,” the minutes state.

Several members of the current council were supportive of giving permission to conduct the appraisals, with the stipulation that once they are completed the matter should go before the planning commission and the parks and recreation committee.

Councilman Toby Smith said he would like proper procedure to be followed.

“So, that brings me to the question: What is the proper process here? It seems like we are circumventing our planning commission,” Smith said. “I understand the development side of it. Does trading one piece of property for another benefit the city? Does this piece of property do the city any good for city operations, or is it just another piece of property that the city will be sitting on in 50 years?”

Councilman Jason Wallner said input from the planning commission is important before considering the swap.

“I guess I would just like to know the background on this. If there was a recommendation made by the planning commission, why?” Wallner said.

Mayor Don Gladwell said councils have not included the planning commission in key land sales in the past, but that practice should change.

“That’s pretty much the way it’s always been done, and that’s not right. This council pretty much made it clear a year ago that these requests need to go to the planning commission and the parks and rec for that matter,” Gladwell said. “It does involve their property that they are using as a rec area right now.”

Visser said he supports the idea of gaining the appraisals and getting the recommendation of the planning commission to start the process.

“Ultimately, I want to move forward. We said we want to sell stuff; let’s start doing something,” Visser said. “If this is going to be the typical bureaucracy doing a roundabout and not getting things accomplished again, that’s why people don’t want to come forward and develop. Doing anything is hard — developing is hard. If you get the roundabout in government, that is what deters people from investing.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.