March 06, 2013 - More than half of a 1,200-acre gravel mining property in Oxford Township could potentially find new life someday as a public recreational area that would allow users to drive off-road vehicles (ORV), engage in water sports and enjoy other outdoor activities including mountain biking, zip lines and horseback riding.
Officials from Oakland County Parks and Recreation are exploring the possibility of obtaining state grant funds to purchase a significant amount of the Koenig Sand & Gravel property located along Lakeville Rd.
"When you look at the whole county, I can't tell you (of) any particular parcel that has (generated as much) curiosity (as) this site, in part because none of them come even close in terms of size," said Jon Noyes, planning supervisor for the county parks.
"And the diversity (in terms of natural and man-made features) is just amazing," added county Parks and Recreation Executive Officer Dan Stencil.
Koenig's property is bordered by N. Oxford Road to the west, Ray Road to the north, the Addison Township border to the east and Lakeville Road to the south.
Peter Fredericks, one of the Koenig property's owners, has been approached with the idea, but there are no agreements in place or plans in the works.
"He's interested in having a dialogue, but he's not willing to commit to anything, particularly since he's looking at the continued mining of that site for potentially years to come," Noyes said. "We have not begun to negotiate with Mr. Fredericks, but we have begun a dialogue with him to find out what are some of his thoughts, like his interest in continuing to mine (and) wanting to maximize the value of his property."
Ron Davis, director of the Oxford Twp. Parks and Recreation Dept, is certainly open to the idea.
"It's a great opportunity to look at and see what the possibilities could be," he said. "I think it would be great if we can bring more (recreational) opportunities (here) for our people locally and bring more businesses (related to outdoor pursuits) downtown or in the area."
Davis also likes the idea of securing more open space.
"I'd rather see more open space that people can utilize then let's say, strip malls, housing and stuff like that," he said. "If they can preserve hunting and fishing opportunities locally, I think it would be awesome."
Creating a place for
One of the main reasons this site piqued the county's interest is its potential for use by ORV enthusiasts who need public places to ride, but have none in this area.
"When you look at gravel pits, one of the needs that kind of jumps to the forefront is off-road vehicles," Noyes said.
Noyes explained how the majority of the state's ORV license-holders live in southeast Michigan and there are "no legal places to ride," not even in Oakland County.
"We have the largest density of ORV owners in Oakland County," he said. "We have over 11,000 ORV license-holders in Oakland County representing 7,000 households."
Noyes noted that more and more ORVs are being used by people with "mobility challenges" as a way to enjoy the outdoors.
Not only is the absence of ORV riding areas limiting people's ability to pursue their hobby, Noyes indicated it's also creating "a situation in which people break the law."
"They essentially ride where they're not supposed to," he said.
The closest place for them to ride is in Genesee County at a place called the Mounds. It's a 370-acre county-run ORV park located in Mt. Morris. "It's the fourth most visited ORV site in the state, in part because of its proximity," Noyes said. "The majority of ORV owners from southeast Michigan and northern Ohio travel the I-75 corridor. So, the first place they come to is the Mounds."
Forcing ORV owners both in and outside Oakland County to travel to Genesee County or elsewhere in the state has an adverse financial impact on them.
Noyes explained it creates a situation "where a larger and larger percentage" of the a person's spending for their recreational experience is dedicated to "getting from one place to another" as opposed to the actual activity, especially "with the cost of gas and everything else going up."
It also means that Oakland County communities are losing potential revenue from ORV enthusiasts. Surveys of ORV license-holders' spending habits revealed that up to 65 percent of a $500 trip is spent at local destinations on things such as gas, groceries, entertainment and parts for when the vehicles break down, according to Noyes.
"If you look at the number of ORV owners in Oakland County and the fact that there are no legal places to ride, that means those people are taking their money and going elsewhere," he said. "It also means all those people that are traveling the I-75 corridor and coming from Wayne and Washtenaw counties, they're just passing right on through (Oakland County)."
"If we can capture those dollars here locally, that would be awesome," Davis said.
Noyes explained that Oakland County Parks is working with Michigan State University to conduct a "highly-sophisticated user preference survey" of ORV license-holders to determine what type of recreational experiences they're looking for.
"Not all off-road experiences are equal," he said. "It's kind of hard to start with a defined project without knowing what specifically people are looking for. I don't necessarily know what those people are looking for."
"Whatever we create, it's not just serving Oakland County residents," Noyes added.
Other recreational uses
Even though the need for an ORV area is one of the main elements driving the exploration of the Koenig property, if it did become a public recreational area someday, it would not be exclusively dedicated to ORV use.
"We've never had the luxury of creating a park that meets a single need," Noyes said.
The Koenig property has the potential for other recreational uses such as mountain-biking, zip lines, scuba diving, activities involving watercraft, hiking and horseback riding.
Stencil noted there aren't a lot of scuba diving opportunities in southern Michigan.
Noyes was particularly excited about the fact that the Polly Ann Trail runs adjacent to the Koenig property along Lakeville Rd.
"How many of our large recreational areas have direct access to one of the rail trails? Very few," he said.
The Koenig property is also in close proximity to, and therefore has the potential to eventually become connected to and share resources with, other parks such as Addison Oaks County Park and Oakwood Lake Twp. Park.
A mix of public and private use
Noyes made it clear that the county parks system isn't interested in purchasing and converting the entire Koenig property into a public recreation area. "It will not be the whole 1,200 acres," he said, noting "more than half" would have to be purchased "in order to make it viable" as a recreation site.
This would allow mining to continue on the site per Fredericks' wishes. There's been mining there since 1924.
Any private land that's converted into government-owned land, such as parks, would be taken off the tax roll and no longer generate revenue for local entities.
According to the township Treasurer's Office, the Koenig land generated $95,435 in summer and winter property taxes in 2012. Personal property taxes for equipment on the site brought in an additional $4,099.
That's why Noyes said the economic value of the property must be evaluated and maintained wherever it can be.
"What is the tax value of the property as it stands right now, fully private? And then what is the expected tax value if a portion of it went public? There are options for the remaining private portion of that (site) in terms of (changing) either density or configuration so that you minimize any impact to the tax base."
Considering part of the property is located in the township's sewer district and adjacent to a residential area, the Willow Lake subdivision, Noyes indicated it might be better for that area to eventually be developed for residential use.
All of the Koenig site is zoned for future residential use. The vast majority of it is zoned as Suburban Farms 2 (SF-2), which allows for 5-acre minimum lots. A portion of it is zoned for single family homes with 25,000-square-foot minimum lots.
Working with the state
Oakland County Parks is looking at possibly purchasing part of the Koenig site using monies from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Typically, it's the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that owns and operates ORV areas in the state.
Noyes indicated Oakland County Parks has reached out to the DNR "to see if they would ever be interested in acquiring large tracts of land in Oakland County."
"One of the first things they did was point to the state ORV plan," he said. "If you look it up, it says we should have off-road vehicle opportunities in southeast Michigan. It also said the state shouldn't be the one who runs them.
"It didn't necessarily say the state shouldn't be the one who owns them. It says that the state shouldn't run them because there's interest in making sure there's a responsiveness to the local community. Because there are so many more people in southeast Michigan, it's going to be that much more important that you work with multiple user groups and the local municipality."
One of the options that's being explored is having the state acquire the Koenig property and Oakland County Parks operate it through, for example, a 75-year lease from the state. "We already have much closer working relationships with local municipalities (than the state)," Noyes said.
"There's some synergy in terms of management (because) we have our Addison Oaks park right down the road," Stencil noted. "Something that I'm looking at (in terms of) how we manage our park properties and golf courses moving forward (involves) clustering some of the operations. Obviously, because of proximity – (Addison Oaks) is only about 6-7 miles away (from the Koenig property) – we could have staff (and) equipment (shared) between the two parks."
Oakland County Parks was looking at meeting the April 1 deadline to apply for a Trust Fund grant, but then decided to slow things down. Officials didn't want to rush the potential project. They wanted to do things right.
However, the state is very interested in this idea, so it basically extended the deadline for the county agency, allowing it to still apply for 2013 grant funds later this year.
But in order to move forward, Oakland County Parks must hold a public hearing in Oxford – something that will happen in the next few months – and obtain resolutions of support for the application process from both the township board and the county Parks and Recreation Commission.
"By, I would think, early August, we would have to pretty much have this all wrapped up," Stencil said. "We would have to have the hearings, the resolutions and so on."
"We also want to have a much clearer idea (by August) of what specifically it is that we're looking at including (in this project), the number of acres (and) the value," Noyes said. "The amount of money that would be requested of the Trust Fund would have to get fine-tuned. We would have to have an understanding of what our management relationship with the DNR would be so . . . the Trust Fund board would understand exactly what they were funding."
The entire grant process is by no means a speedy thing. "It has to go through an authorization process as well with the (state) legislature, so it's all of a two-year process," Stencil said. "Nothing happens quick."
"That's usually the short end. We've had other projects where essentially this can go on for five or six years or more," Noyes added. "We've had other projects where we had begun the process, been awarded a grant, had the owner feel not comfortable about the potential value that he was going to be offered, cancelled it, waited 15 years, reapplied, got a grant again, waited another six years and finally made a deal. So, some of these things are pretty long-term gigs."
Time for testing and public input
Noyes doesn't mind the lengthy process because it gives plenty of time to test out the site's potential for various activities.
For instance, noise monitoring stations could be set up all around the property, so the impact of ORV use could be measured. Officials could also check to see if Koenig's lakes are deep enough for scuba diving and if they're viable for watercraft use.
"We could test those things out before any grant was awarded, before any grant agreement was signed and certainly before any acquisition was made," Noyes said.
Noyes stressed that "all of this hinges on getting support for the process and not having folks essentially freak out about the potential of what they might see."
"We're not going to shove something down somebody's throat," Stencil added. "We've had a 47-year history of being a good neighbor."
Noyes realizes that some folks will probably "get their hackles up" when they read about the possibility of an ORV area coming to their town. "They'll say, 'What are you bringing into my community? I should be able to say what comes into my community because I don't like those people,'" he said.
"As a planner, that's kind of a hard thing for me to hear because I can't really work with that. If you tell me you don't like somebody, you're not giving me much leeway."
Noyes would rather people tell him they care about the character of their community and they're concerned about issues such as noise, dust, traffic and the impact on local businesses. "Those are all things that we can address," he said.
For those residents who might be concerned about traffic issues, Stencil indicated recreational user access to the Koenig site would probably be from the north, off Ray Rd., as opposed to the south, from Lakeville Rd, which is more heavily traveled. He noted that downtown Oxford's main intersection (Burdick St. and M-24) is not conducive to vehicles pulling trailers to make turns.
In the end, Noyes is really excited about focusing on the process. "We will be prepared to do our homework over the next two years to make sure that this is the best project that the state's ever seen in terms of really making something work," he said.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.