City Council Recap: Land Swap Approved on a 4-1 Vote

During a five minute meeting last night, Lowell City Council approved a swap of land with Unity School Investors, LLC. The decision was split 4-1 with Councilmember Cliff Yankovich voting in opposition to the motion.

The action resolves a more than year-long dispute regarding whether a strip of Riverside Park should be given to developers Jerry Zandstra and Todd Schaal in exchange for a section of land adjacent to the former Unity High School bus garage. The duo is planning to convert the former bus garage into condominiums and wanted a seven foot strip of the park so they would have more room for patio space.

The land swap also represents the final step in resolving a lawsuit between the city and the developers. That legal action centered on utility lines buried under 238 High Street, which is also owned by Zandstra and Schaal but is not a part of the condominium project. Those lines were placed on the property by Lowell Light & Power with the permission of Lowell Area Schools, which owned the property at the time, but no formal easement was ever drawn up between the two entities.

Condominium Project Subject to Controversy

The condominium project, known as RiverView Flats, was initially greeted with enthusiasm but soon turned contentious as questions were raised about the scope of the project and the wisdom of swapping a section of Riverside Park.

The relationship between the city and developers soured, and Zandstra and Schaal sent a $1.53 million rent invoice to Lowell Light & Power for the lines buried on 238 High Street. This property is the grassy area to the north of the library. The condo project is located on 219 High Street, which is the site of the former Unity High School building.

In response, the city began proceedings for eminent domain for the section of 238 High Street containing the utility lines, and the developers filed a countersuit against the city. City Manager Mike Burns told Lowell’s First Look last year that the developers did not contest the need for eminent domain but disputed the value of the land. County records indicate the property has a fair market value of $64,400.

While a Planned Unit Development for 219 High Street was approved in September 2019, legal issues regarding 238 High Street have apparently been ongoing since that time. However, nothing is known about the council deliberations on the issue since all conversations have apparently happened in closed session.

Lawsuit Settlement Finalized

At its first meeting of January 2020, Lowell City Council announced the terms of a lawsuit settlement. In exchange for Zandstra and Schaal dropping all legal claims, the city agreed to:

  • Buy 238 High Street for $225,000
  • Vacate the north half of High Street from Monroe Street to the Flat River and give that section of roadway to the developers
  • Swap a 273×7 foot strip of Riverside Park for a 10×50 foot parcel from 219 High Street

Councilmembers approved a resolution to buy 238 High Street and vacate the roadway at its first January meeting. However, the city charter required a 20 day waiting period before the resolution approving the land swap could receive a vote. Last night was the 21st day after the resolution was introduced, and the first opportunity for the council to vote on it.

There were no citizen comments on the matter and no council discussion prior to the vote. It passed by a 4-1 margin.

“I voted no because I don’t like being bullied,” Yankovich said during council comments after the vote.

Councilmember Greg Canfield, who made the motion to approve the resolution, said he thought the condominium project would bring in tax revenue for the city and clean up a blighted property. “It’s unfortunate that it took as long as it did to get settled,” he said.

Councilmember Marty Chambers agreed with Canfield and added: “We did it without any taxpayer dollars to pay attorneys.” This appeared to be a reference to the fact that the settlement was apparently negotiated by two councilmembers without the assistance of an attorney.

In his remarks, Councilmember Jim Salzwedel noted that the process had resulted in a lot of heartache on both sides and was a learning experience.

Mayor Mike DeVore wrapped up the meeting by encouraging people to discover the facts about the situation for themselves. “The key here is to write your own narrative,” he said.

Since Riverside Park was developed using grant money from the Department of Natural Resources, paperwork has been submitted to the state for final approval of the land swap. There was no indication when the state would issue its decision.

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