Webster Gives Ground for Civil War Days

But no lee-way granted on adherence to conservation easement

At a special meeting held on April 24, 2012, the Webster Township board of trustees voted unanimously to approve a festival permit for the Dexter Area Historical Society’s Civil Wars Days to be held this year at historic Gordon Hall on June 8-10.

Webster greenbelt properties

The pink arrow marks the location of the Gordon Hall property, where Civil War Days will be held on June 8-10, 2012. Green blocks are properties protected in part through the city of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program. The green line with red dots is the Ann Arbor greenbelt program boundary for eligible properties. As the map shows, several protected properties lie within Webster Township. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

Host for the re-enactor units will be the 4th Michigan Regiment, Company A, led by captain Russ Paul. Also expected at Gordon Hall for Civil War Days this year are the following units: 17th Michigan, Company E; 21st Michigan, Company H; U.S.S. Michigan Marine Guard Battery B; 1st Michigan Light Artillery; and the Confederate Bledsoe’s Battery.

The decision to grant a festival permit came after the board had turned down the permit at its previous meeting on April 17 by a 4-3 vote. The resolutions considered by the board at its two recent meetings differed in a significant way. The resolution rejected at the April 17 meeting stated that the festival would be granted “… with egress and ingress over Webster Township grounds and conservation easement with no parking on Webster Township grounds only Scio Township.”

The resolution ultimately approved by the board stepped back from trying to describe how parking on and crossing of the property would be handled, and instead simply stipulated that the DAHS had to comply with the conservation easement on the property.

Dan Ezekiel, chair of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt advisory commission, attended the April 24 meeting and addressed the township board on the commission’s behalf. Although the Gordon Hall property lies outside the Ann Arbor greenbelt boundaries, the city of Ann Arbor and Webster Township have partnered on a number of other conservation easements in their collaborative effort to preserve open space. He wanted to encourage the board to defend the easement on the Gordon Hall property and not set a precedent that violating a conservation easement is acceptable.

After the meeting, Ezekiel indicated in conversation that he was, in fact, a history buff and was hoping to attend the Civil War Days – he hoped not as a picketer. 

Land Preservation Background

By way of background, a “conservation easement” is a way for a municipality to preserve land without purchasing it and becoming the owner of the land. A conservation easement is a legally enforceable agreement – between a landowner and a government agency or a land trust – for the purpose of conservation.

Voters in several local municipalities – including the city of Ann Arbor, Webster Township and Scio Township – have approved millages to fund the purchase of development rights (PDR). PDR is a common mechanism for protecting undeveloped land by letting owners keep their property for farming or other specified uses but preventing its development. Development is prevented through  a conservation easement.

A conservation easement restricts real estate development, commercial and industrial use, and certain other activities on a property to a level agreed to in the terms of the easement. In the case of the conservation easement on the Gordon Hall property, different parties have different perspectives on what’s allowed under terms of the easement.

Among land preservationists, it’s assumed that there might eventually be violations to terms of the easements. But if those violations happen, they’re more likely to occur when the property changes hands. So, as a part of every land preservation deal, Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program sets aside funds in an endowment, which will be used to cover expenses to monitor and enforce the greenbelt’s conservations easement – by legal action, if necessary. The Ann Arbor greenbelt’s endowment fund stands at roughly $445,500.

The Gordon Hall Civil War Days festival permit is an issue that piqued the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission’s interest last year. From The Chronicle’s coverage of the commission’s Dec. 14, 2011 meeting:

In addition to serving on Ann Arbor’s GAC, Tom Bloomer serves on the Webster Township farmland and open space preservation board. At [the Dec. 14, 2011] GAC meeting, he reported on a situation that’s arisen in Webster Township, which has implications for Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program.

Webster Township’s land preservation program was created in 2005. One of its first actions was to preserve land that includes the historic Gordon Hall, he said. The Dexter Area Historical Society had purchased the land and Gordon Hall from the University of Michigan about 10 years ago, and subsequently sold the development rights to Scio and Webster townships, through conservation easements to those townships.

Last summer, Bloomer said, the society approached Webster Township with a proposal to hold a Civil War re-enactment on the site. The event didn’t conflict with terms of the conservation easement, he said, but the society also wanted permission for spectator parking – and that did conflict with the easement. The township eventually agreed to a one-year exception to allow parking for several hundred vehicles, with the understanding that an exception wouldn’t be granted again, Bloomer said. It was fortunate that there was no rain during the event, so minimum damage was caused to the land.

However, the historic society now wants to amend the conservation easement so that parking for this kind of event would be allowed, Bloomer told GAC. The township’s farmland and open space preservation board has recommended denying that request, he said. The decision will ultimately be made by the Webster Township board of trustees, but the preservation board is looking for support from other land preservation entities – like GAC – before the township trustees vote.

The decision will impact more than just this piece of land, Bloomer said. It will affect Webster Township’s reputation as a conservator of land, and whether it can be trusted by its partners, including Ann Arbor, to adequately protect land in perpetuity.

The following month, at the commission’s Jan. 5, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor GAC passed a resolution encouraging the township board to strictly enforce all of its conservation easements. [.pdf of resolution]

Minutes of the Webster Township farmland and open space preservation board also reflect discussion of the issue. There’s an apparent disagreement about the interpretation of the Gordon Hall conservation easement – between the legal counsel for the open space preservation board and the legal counsel for the township. From the minutes of the April 9, 2012 meeting:

Old Business
A. DAHS easement parking.
[John] Westman reported that he still has not received, in writing, any information from the Township Attorney regarding parking on DAHS easement. Discussion took place regarding this issue. [Tom] Bloomer questioned why Township is not going on the advice of the Land Use Attorney, who is specialized in this area, but instead with the advice of the Township Attorney. Westman will let PDR Board Members know when this issue is on the agenda for the Township Board Meeting. Westman encouraged others to attend the Board meeting to express their concerns.

The wording of the resolution that the Webster Township board initially rejected appeared to try to give an interpretation to the conservation easement, or perhaps even implied a one-time amendment to the easement: “… with egress and ingress over Webster Township grounds and conservation easement with no parking on Webster Township grounds only Scio Township.”

The resolution considered and approved by the board at its most recent meeting did not try to characterize the specific logistical arrangements of crossing and parking, but rather required conformance with the easement: “… with the stipulation that they are in full compliance with the conservation easement.”

Initial Public Commentary

As required by the Michigan Open Meetings Act, the Webster Township board provided time for the public to address the body during its April 24 meeting.

Dan Ezekiel introduced himself as the chair of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. He noted that Gordon Hall lies outside the boundaries of the Ann Arbor greenbelt area. So Ann Arbor does not have any direct interest in the conservation easement on the property, he said. He wanted to speak in general about the importance of maintaining easements, and if necessary enforcing them.

Dan Ezekiel of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. In the background is Webster Township trustee Gary Koch.

Dan Ezekiel of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. In the background is Webster Township trustee Gary Koch.

Ezekiel told the board that the Ann Arbor greenbelt commission is very appreciative of the work that Webster Township has done to preserve open space. He said he is proud of the support that the Ann Arbor greenbelt had been able to give to the township. Working together, he said, Ann Arbor and Webster Township have secured conservation easements on several properties since 2005 – for example, the Bloomer and Nixon farms, the Webster Church property, as well as the Cares, Smyth and Merkel farms. All of those easements were funded partly by the city Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, he said.

Ezekiel said the city and the township were working together to preserve the vibrant agricultural industry and the rural quality of the township, to prevent suburban sprawl, strip malls and manufactured home parks. He said he’s proud of the trust that’s grown up between the city and the township. Working together toward a common goal has built a reservoir of trust and goodwill, he said. Tom Bloomer serves on both Ann Arbor’s greenbelt advisory commission as well as the Webster Township farmland and open space preservation board, so he’s a good communication conduit between the city and the township, Ezekiel said. He noted that Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commissioner Liz Rother was also in attendance, as was Ginny Trocchio, the Conservation Fund staff member who supports the Ann Arbor greenbelt program.

Ezekiel told the board that trust between municipalities isn’t always the norm. Whenever Webster Township has told Ann Arbor it needs help in preserving a property, he said, the Ann Arbor GAC has always acted quickly, because GAC knows that the township has gone through a fair process to select the property and had made clear to a property owner who was selling a conservation easement what rights they were giving up. The process is transparent and everything is above board, he continued. Because of that, the public can trust the process. It would be tragic if anything were to break up the high level of trust between the township and the city, he said. Ann Arbor as well as the federal government have invested millions of dollars in conservation easements in Webster Township. So the city trusted the township to enforce those easements – otherwise those millions of dollars are worthless paper.

The industry standard is that any amendments to easements should enhance, not degrade, the conservation of the land. It’s only with great caution that any amendments at all should be made, Ezekiel said. Typically amendments to conservation easements are only for resolving ambiguity, he said.

Ezekiel noted that the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission had passed a resolution at its Jan. 5, 2012 meeting expressing the basic points he’d just reviewed. He thanked the township board for standing up for the Gordon Hall conservation easement the previous week.

Ray Tell told the board of trustees he hadn’t intended to speak, but hearing Ann Arbor’s concern about the greenbelt program had led him to want to address the trustees. He pointed out that at one time, the previous owner of Gordon Hall – the University of Michigan – had been planning to sell the land to develop condos. In that context, he did not believe that a once-a-year crossing of the land, or even parking on it, is all that big a deal. In the overall scope of things, he said, condos had been prevented from being built there.

The festival helps provide revenue to the nonprofit Dexter Area Historical Society, so that the organization can pay the mortgage on the Gordon Hall property, which it purchased from UM, Tell said. It’s worth reconsidering the issue even if for no other reason than to allow the historical society to pay off its debt. The historical society shouldn’t have to come before the board every year for permission, and he suggested that something along the lines of a 100-year agreement could be worked out.

Township Board Deliberations

Charles Estleman asked if there’d been any changes since the board’s meeting the previous week.

John Kingsley, who presided over the meeting as township supervisor, indicated he was aware of one contact, and he’d had discussions about the possibility of busing being provided [to mitigate the need for visitors to park on the property].

Webster Township supervisor John Kingsley and township clerk Mary Dee Heller.

Webster Township supervisor John Kingsley and township clerk Mary Dee Heller.

But nothing has been determined about whether that can happen. He said he’d also heard there’d been a contact made by a land preservation board member that there might be some private resources available for shuttle services. But as for the board’s decision-making that night, they’d have to assume those services are not available. So if the board chooses to grant a festival permit, he said, there may or may not be shuttle service available – he hoped there would be.

Richard Kleinschmidt then made a motion to approve a festival permit for the Dexter Area Historical Society for Civil War Days held on June 8-10, 2012, with the stipulation that they are in full compliance with the conservation easement.

Estleman asked what would happen if DAHS turned out not to be in compliance.

Kingsley recalled that at the board’s meeting the previous week, when the permit had been voted down, they had discussed the possibility of citing and fining the DAHS for any easement violations. But he felt that is not going to be a realistic option. The motion is specific about the time limit – it’s for this year only. So the DAHS would need to come back next year for another permit. He hoped the board can continue the ongoing dialogue they’ve had with DAHS over the past 8-9 months.

Kingsley felt that the details can get worked out so the same situation doesn’t arise every year. He noted that the board does not grant any other organization permits for multiple years – they’re all annual permits. Basically, he said, DAHS needs to abide by the provisions of the easement, and if not, the board would be able to consider that with the request for next year’s permit. He reiterated that he did not feel that citing and fining ($500 per day) was a realistic option for dealing with the situation.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the granting of the festival permit to DAHS, with the stipulation that the conservation easement be adhered to.

Concluding Public Commentary

Donna Fisher of the Dexter Area Historical Society addressed the board briefly at the conclusion of the meeting, thanking the trustees. She said she wanted to get started early on the issue for next year so that it could get resolved.

Civil War Re-enactors

In a phone interview with The Chronicle, Russ Paul, who captains the Michigan 4th Regiment, Company A re-enactors, explained that the Gordon Hall event on June 8-10 will not include an attempt to re-enact one of the battles from the Civil War.

He pointed out that to do that, you’d need to have sufficient numbers of soldiers on the Confederate side as well. This year, the second year of Civil War Days at Gordon Hall, a Confederate cannon crew will make up the Confederate participation – Bledsoe’s Battery.

Other Union units expected this year include: 17th Michigan, Company E; 21st Michigan, Company H;  U.S.S. Michigan Marine Guard Battery B; and the 1st Michigan Light Artillery.

Responding to a question from The Chronicle about authenticity, Paul said that Civil War re-enactors have varying standards for authenticity. He characterized his unit as fairly middle of the road in that regard. While they’re not among the most extreme hard-core re-enactors, he said, visitors to their camp during Civil War Days won’t see any modern artifacts like pop cans or plastic coolers.

On the issue of authenticity, Paul summed up by saying that to him, it’s less important for a guy to have a museum-quality blue coat than to know something about soldiering.

Other Civil War Resources

For readers who are looking forward to Civil War Days at Gordon Hall and want to prep by doing some background reading, the University of Michigan libraries offer two possibilities.

Surgeon writing to Buell family

From the Buell Family papers held by the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Dr. Samuel Mills wrote to the parents of Franklin M. Buell on July 24, 1863 from the headquarters of the 4th Michigan at Camp Thomas at Winchester, Tennessee: “It is my unpleasant duty to inform you that your son Frank M., died at the hospital in this camp, at 3 o’clock a.m. this day;” (Image links to Bentley Library collection.)

The Bentley Historical Library at UM offers an online exhibit on the Civil War. It includes photographs of life in camp.

The Bentley’s collection also includes letters, among them one written by the camp surgeon to the parents of a soldier who died while under his care.

The William L. Clements Library also houses an extensive Civil War collection. Last year, an exhibit called “Opening Guns: The First Year of Civil War” ran from Feb. 28–June 3, 2011.

The exhibit consisted of written narratives by soldiers and civilians who experienced the war.

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