Webster Township denies permit for Civil War Days, placing Gordon Hall fundraiser in jeopardy
“Without (holding Civil War Days), we’ll default on the mortgage,” said Paul Bishop, the chairman of the finance committee for Gordon Hall. Last year, the event paid for half the historical society's mortgage payment on the home and property.
Re-enactors have already been booked, tents and chairs have already been rented, and preparations are in full swing for the event that’s scheduled for June 8-10 on the Gordon Hall property, which has portions of land in Webster and Scio townships.
“With this vote, it put us in a bind,” said Donna Fisher, chairman of the event, who vowed to move forward, hoping for a positive outcome.
At issue is vehicle parking on a conservation easement that the historical society sold to Webster Township for $33,000. It was the first money the township spent from a half-mill land preservation tax approved by township voters in August 2005.
John Kingsley, Webster Township supervisor, said there was a lengthy discussion about the permit. “Webster Township has very little interest in allowing anything that’s in violation of the easement agreement.”
But, he said, “the township board is supportive of the efforts of the historical society in trying to support Gordon Hall and their fundraising efforts. I’ll, personally, try to work for a resolution of the festival permit in time for the event.”
Fisher and Jim Smith, vice president of the historical society, said they have been meeting with Webster Township officials for months to get another agreement in place.
“The board wants them to be successful. We want them to move forward and be able to pay off the mortgage,” Kingsley said.
The denied permit request included a map that showed the majority of the parking will not be located on the Webster Township portion of the Gordon Hall property.
Smith said they plan to use the southeast side of the property, which is in Scio Township, for parking, but cars still have to drive over a part of the hay field in the Webster Township portion to get there.
“There is nothing in the agreement that says we can’t drive across the (Webster) easement,” Bishop said, adding that he plans to seek the advice of legal counsel in the matter.
When asked if the Scio Township Board had approved the parking on its site of the site, Supervisor Spaulding Clark said Thursday that this was the first time he’d heard of it. He said he’d received a number of emails about the situation that morning.
“The issue hasn’t come to the board,” Clark said.
The historical society purchased the historic 1841 mansion in March 2006 for $1.5 million and saved it from the wrecking ball when the University of Michigan decided to put the home and 37 acres surrounding it on the market.
Webster and Scio townships as well as the Village of Dexter contributed to the purchase of the home. Both Webster and Scio townships have conservation easements on portions of the property.
“We, as a historical society, wanted the townships involved,” Bishop said.
Since then, the historical society has been holding fundraisers to pay off the mortgage, which was $900,000 in 2006 and now stands at less than $300,000.
Civil War Days was first held last year. “The whole community comes together for this,” Fisher said, and the profits are crucial to the historical society, which wants to preserve and restore the historic home and make the property available for the community.
“We’re good stewards of the property,” she said, adding that Civil War Days is an “affordable and educational event” for the whole area. “It’s not like we’re bringing in a carnival and a Ferris wheel or something.”
Last year, the historical society signed a one-time agreement with Webster Township that allowed them to park what was estimated to be 300 to 400 cars on a hay field at various times throughout the three-day event.
In order to hold the event last year, the historical society “signed (an agreement) under protest” Bishop said, just a few days before Civil War Days was scheduled to take place.
In it, the township granted them permission to park cars on the easement area but “the township shall not have waived such parking limitation and shall have the right to require strict compliance ... with parking limitations contained within the easement in the future.”
There was no damage to the property during the event, historical society officials said, and Kingsley agreed.
However, township officials also want to make sure that nothing detrimental happens to the property in the future. Both sides agree that the conservation easement serves as protection for the property’s “natural resource and watershed values, agricultural soils, view sheds and historic structures,” as stated in the conservation easement.
Both Fisher and Smith said they began working with the township last fall to discuss issues involved with the event and both are frustrated that there’s still no agreement.
“Why would we work to restore Gordon Hall if not for people to use it; it's zoned public land,” Fisher asked.
The historical society has a master plan for the site and once the mortgage is paid off, members plan to move forward with restorations on the site that already has a historical designation.
“The main goal has always been and will continue to be, to open Gordon Hall to the public,” a letter from the historical society to the township states.
The historical society wants, among other ideas, to re-establish a connection between Gordon Hall and the Dexter Community Schools and promote the site as a “cultural community as a venue for art shows, antique shows and Civil War re-enactments.”