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Webster Township Board Denies Permit Request for Civil War Days at Gordon Hall

The 4-3 vote jeopardizes future events at the historic home and could put a financial strain on the Dexter Area Historical Society.

Plans to bring an annual U.S. Civil War weekend event back to Gordon Hall in Dexter in June are in limbo following a decision by the Webster Township Board of Trustees to deny a festival permit request by the Dexter Area Historical Society (DAHS).

On Tuesday the board voted 4-3 against a motion to approve the permit for Civil War Days citing a potential impact three-day vehicle traffic could have on a parcel of agricultural land near the front field of the Gordon Hall property on Island Lake Road leased by the township.

At issue is whether or not vehicles can park on the property due to a conservation easement (a legally binding agreement that prohibits certain residential or commercial development from taking place on the land) that the historical society sold to Webster Township for $33,000 in 2008.

"We already have reenactors booked and contracts out with vendors due to the fact that we were told in the fall that everything will be worked out," event chairwoman Donna Fisher said. "Now I'm not sure what we're going to do, but I'm pressing ahead. I have no choice."

According to Jim Smith, publicity chairman for Civil War Days, parking for the event this year was designated near the southeast side of the property, which is in Scio Township, but cars still have to drive over a small portion of a hay field in the Webster Township portion to get there.

“There is nothing in the agreement that says we can’t drive across the easement in Webster,” Paul Bishop, chairman of the Gordon Hall management committee said, adding that he plans to seek legal council on the matter.

Last year, the historical society signed a one-time agreement with Webster Township that allowed them to park more than 300 cars near the hay field at various times throughout the three-day event.

"They basically told us to sign the document or don't hold our event," Bishop said.

Bishop said the DAHS signed the agreement under protest only a few days before Civil War Days was scheduled to take place. The contract granted DAHS permission to park cars on the easement area but said “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."

Fisher said she understands the township's concern that vehicles could damage the agriculture use of the land, however there was no damage last year.

"We're good stewards of the land," she said.

Dexter Township resident Carl Lesser, who leases most of the 37 acres that Gordon Hall sits on, said he has no problem allowing Civil War Days to continue.

"I can't believe common sense won't prevail in this matter," Lesser said. "It's a sad situation when people can't come up with a solution. Last year the event went off beautifully and it didn't interfere with the agricultural use of the property. If I couldn't use the land for ag purposes, than I would say Webster has an argument."

"This is just another use for the land and it's necessary for the historical society. If they can't have their events to raise money to pay off the mortgage on Gordon Hall, how can they keep their whole operation solvent?," Lesser said. "I don't know why we're making such an issue out of parking. I suppose they could have a hash bash on the property, as long as everyone got their bag of hash and left without parking on the field."

Civil War Days is one of the largest fundraisers for the DAHS, who bought the mansion in March 2006 for $1.5 million from the University of Michigan. Webster and Scio townships as well as the Village of Dexter contributed to the purchase of the home, which was built by village founder Judge Samuel Dexter.

Since then, the historical society has been holding fundraisers to pay off the mortgage, which is now down to less than $300,000.

"Once the mortgage is paid off, we can start rennovating the mansion and opening the property up to the public more frequently," Fisher said.

John Kingsley, Webster Township supervisor, said the board will continue to work with DAHS members, but said board members want to see the conditions of the easement enforced.

"There is not a single board member who is not in support of the Civil War Days and pulling for its success," he said. "Gordon Hall is the gem of this area, not just Webster Township. We obviously need to discuss the event at another meeting and decide what conditions we would be comfortable issuing the permit."

Fisher said several parking alternatives have been discussed with event coordinators, but none have proven financially viable for the fundraiser.

"We've looked at busing people to the mansion but it is not financially feasible for us, and it will kill our attendance numbers," Fisher said. "A lot of people come for the day, and they can't be tied up waiting for a bus to take them offsite if they need to retrieve something from their car."

Kingsley said he can't promise DAHS members that the board will change their minds, however he feels confident an agreement will be reached prior to the June event.

Elaine Owsley April 21, 2012 at 11:49 AM
A case of petty one-up-manship on the part of the board. The on-going disputes about Gordon Hall and it's surrounding property are just silly.
Jean Kopinski April 21, 2012 at 11:53 AM
I can not believe this... We are arguing over a piece of land. A piece of land that has been plowed, planted, harvested, bulldozed and only the Lord knows what else. You are talking about cars going over this? Mr. Lesser does not seem to be concerned and as a farmer myself I can not believe you are even having this discussion. Does someone profit from Civil War Days not happening? Sounds like a whole lot of politics where it should not be. The Children of Dexter would be missing out on a great display of our United States History... what a shame. All over a car driving on a piece of Dexter's History... Come On People!!! Just food for thought... would the field across the street be usable? I mean would that farmer be willing to donate that space for the weekend? It's closer and not out of the way. POLITICS... that's all it is. This Village and Township is trying to rebuild after a disaster... our children need this.
Jeni Naughton April 21, 2012 at 01:01 PM
Reading this article makes my blood boil! The Dexter Historical Society has been working so hard to restore Gordon Hall to it's original splendor and meets nothing but roadblocks every step of the way. Having visited the beautifully restored historical homes in Greenfield Village most of my life, I was shocked and appalled at the condition of Gordon Hall after my first visit there this Fall. The Dexter Historical Society deserves the support of the community in their efforts of wanting to put a terrific historical landmark in our backyards. If they give up their fundraising and restoration efforts in despair, where does this leave Dexter? C'mon Webster Township, do what's right!
Eleanore Keenan April 21, 2012 at 06:54 PM
I agree with the comments above. FOUR elected officials can BLOCK a fantastic event like this for the whole community? Something is perversely wrong with this picture. Ohhhh - we must protect precious DIRT from car wheels? Talk about priorities being messed up. This event brings people into Dexter which helps all businesses (hear the clink of tases, board members?), and it builds up our community and our all-too-fading appreciation of our country's history. I give thanks for the dedicated volunteers trying to preserve our history. Give the, help, not hinderance! Get off your high horses, you four. Shame on you!
Barbara Read April 21, 2012 at 09:02 PM
Let the people park there.
Valerie April 22, 2012 at 08:31 AM
Four people want to prove that they have the "power" to make things difficult for the Gordon Hall restoration. Try putting your ego aside and do what's right for the people of this community. The Civil War Days is a wonderful learning experience for everyone. Can politics be fair, I wonder.......?

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