HomeTop StoriesSettlement agreement does not end Sunkissed Hills controversy

Settlement agreement does not end Sunkissed Hills controversy

May 18—FRANKFORT — Residents continue to raise concerns about a development in Crystal Lake where past missteps have led to civil lawsuits and allegations of violations of the Open Meetings Act.

Sunkissed Hills is a project of Terra Innovations, a Maryland-based real estate company with projects in Florida, Maryland, Montana and Michigan, founded by its president, Billy Becker, according to a company website.

Located between Mollineaux Road, a state public boat ramp, and part of the Betsie Valley Trail, the project includes eight five-bedroom, 4,400-square-foot vacation homes located side by side on a steep slope on the south side of Crystal Lake.

Residents previously complained about clear-cutting that left the property vulnerable to leaching, confusing changes to septic plans, a private access road they say was built without a permit and allegations of ongoing wetland problems.

“This community has been concerned about the Sunkissed Hills project for years,” Anne Noah of Benzonia recently told the council.

“Failure to inform interested parties, who have been faithful participants in the meetings and key informants for hired and elected officials, was negligent,” Noah said.

Some of Noah’s written comments were read at the township’s regular meeting last week, and while others told the Record-Eagle they shared her concerns, they declined to speak on the record.

“We are trying to keep the discussion civil, working with our elected officials and not against them,” one man said.

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A phone number for project manager Jon Gallagher was out of service and he did not return a call seeking comment through an attorney who previously represented the LLC.

Disagreements between elected and appointed officials and Sunkissed Hills LLC were aired in court this spring when Sunkissed Hills accused officials of changing the requirements for a private access road after approving a site plan.

However, officials said in court documents that their approval was conditional and that use of the road was prohibited until the developer met those conditions.

A settlement agreement signed in March by Judge David A. Thompson required Sunkissed Hills to make specified improvements and pay defendants $2,632.45 for engineering costs.

These improvements include installing guardrail fencing on steep portions of the road and revegetating clear-cut areas by planting trees and other plants by July 1, according to the settlement agreement.

Officials agreed to let the private road serve all eight homes, plus seven additional homes on an adjacent property also owned by Sunkissed Hills LLC.

There’s no sign of new construction so far, and while a real estate website shows at least two of the $1.4 million homes under contract, all eight appeared to be vacant as of last week.

The minutes show the lawsuit and development were discussed at a special meeting of the city council on March 7, but Noah said that meeting is another issue.

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She said proper care was not taken to ensure the meeting was held on the same day. Court records show the settlement agreement was filed with the court and never posted on the city’s website, as the Open Meetings Act requires.

Noah and others have also questioned how Jason Barnard can serve as both Benzonia’s township supervisor and zoning administrator for the West Benzie Joint Planning Commission, which serves Benzonia and Platte townships.

The fact that one person fills both roles is a conflict of interest, critics say, adding that it may have contributed to previous enforcement problems at the site.

Barnard did not return a call seeking comment, although he previously told the Record-Eagle that allowing the complex project had been a learning experience.

He also maintained his role as supervisor, improved his work on zoning and would not change any actions.

“And I fully support that statement,” Barnard said earlier.

“It was always understood that if a situation arose that would create a conflict between offices, I would recuse myself – and that has not happened once in more than six years of serving in these dual roles,” Barnard said.

This two-job controversy came up again recently, when Benzonia Township board members voted unanimously to transfer $4,000 from the general fund to ease a joint planning commission payroll shortfall, and Barnard did not abstain from the vote .

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Noah said she and other residents have urged Benzonia board members to join their counterparts in Platte Township in hiring a zoning administrator who is not also an elected official.

Leaders of a local nonprofit, the Crystal Lake & Watershed Association, have tried to build goodwill with the developer and city officials, though they recently expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of public input in the settlement agreement.

“The negotiations took place extrajudicially,” the association said in an email to members and supporters. “CLWA was disappointed that it did not have an opportunity to raise its concerns…during a public review of the proposed settlement.”

Sue Brown, president of the association, could not be reached for comment but did say in a letter published in the Record-Patriot this spring that the organization believed Sunkissed Hills LLC’s claims in the lawsuit were without merit.

The minutes show that city officials have held seven special meetings since late January to discuss various topics, such as the annual budget and the development of Sunkissed Hills.

The announcements of these special meetings have also been posted outside the town hall door, but not on the municipality’s website, as required by the OMA.

The administrators of the municipality of Benzonia continued the discussion during a regular meeting last week about updating the municipality’s website to better communicate with residents.

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