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HARRISON – During the first public comment period of the Jan. 16 Clare County Board of Commissioners meeting, the Board was addressed by Sheridan Township resident Terressa Carson, who voiced strong concern about the long-running parking problem at the Colonville Country Store. She challenged the frugality and appropriateness of not only the posting of multiple no parking signs and the installation of a traffic control curb, but also what she perceived to be actions based on a personal agenda by Commissioner Leonard Strouse. Carson first had it clarified that Mark Fitzpatrick is actually the commissioner who represents her, on the north side of Colonville Road, and Strouse represents the portion of Sheridan Township south of the road.
“Subject: ‘Colonville Junk Store Crap Parking,’” Carson said. “How is that a way to address the road commission, representing our township? And you say in this email ‘Thank you for almost no action and continued prosperity. If illegal payments are being paid, there’s a word for that.’ Were you saying that somebody is bribing the road commission not to do what you want them to do?”
Strouse responded, “No,” and that [a person involved] had been bragging of being “above legal action down there.” When asked if it had been his intent to pressure the road commission to put in the curb, Strouse replied that he had nothing to do with it and had known nothing about it.
“The curb, that was their decision,” Strouse said. “The no parking signs, that was a directive from the state police.”
Carson then questioned why there were 18 no parking signs in roughly a eighth-mile stretch, and also asked what it cost to install them.
“How much did it cost us as a township and as a county to put in 18 No Parking signs on a country road in front of an Amish shop because somebody doesn’t like the parking there?” she asked.
Strouse said that, in his defense as road commissioner and county commissioner, he has received more than 60 complaints over the years regarding that parking situation from drivers by and neighboring residents and the community, and questioned what kind of elected official would he be if he couldn’t take their voices forward?
“None of those names have I ever given up and I never will,” he said. “I’ve been accused in the paper of writing 17 letters to the road commission; I wrote two letters to them. I represent people and I took their complaints forward.”
Carson responded by listing dates of letters received by the road commission, as supplied by that office.
“April 26, April 29, July 19 and July 27,” she said. “.”
Strouse responded that he would have to see them, and that he has only two on his records at home, and that he only remembers sending those two.
Carson then questioned a comment in a Strouse letter which spoke of a lack of law enforcement regarding the parking.
Undersheriff Dwayne Miedzianowski explained that signage is up to the road commission, but that the Sheriff Department does handle enforcement of signage compliance. He also said his department had been waiting to hear what the MSP Traffic Services Unit to do its study and make recommendation.
“There’s been a lot of things said about us as well,” he said. “I can tell you, no, we do not go sit there at the corner and wait for somebody to park there. We will not do that; we don’t have the time or staff to do that. If we get a complaint, we will go, and we’ve told the deputies to use discretion, like we do anywhere else. We never told them to write, or not write a ticket. If it’s a blatant violation and they’re in the roadway beyond the fog line, I would assume they’re probably going to write a ticket.”
Miedzianowski said that his department has talked with the road commission and told them that if a complaint call comes in, to instruct the caller to call Central Dispatch.
“If we get a call, we will respond,” he said.
Carson then questioned the alarm raised by Strouse that someone would inevitably be killed because of the hazardous parking situation. She suggested that cars sliding off the road and hitting the no parking signs was more of a hazard than just sliding into the ditch.
“You still have cars that pull between the signs and park,” she said. “You didn’t do anything to make anything better.”
She then suggested it may have been better to institute a reduced speed area.
At that point, Board Chairperson Jack Kleinhardt interrupted to inquire what was Carson’s intent.
“Is it to embarrass Mr. Strouse?” he said. “The decisions that were made down there were made by the state police, by the engineering company that the road commission hired to take a look at this.”
He went on to say that he, too, received complaints and that he also refuses to divulge the names of those who bring complaints so those people do not become a target for simply doing what should be done.
“There was a congestion problem down there, not all the time, but some of the time,” Kleinhardt said. “Something had to be done. We tried to work with Mr. Hochstetler to allow parallel parking, but he didn’t want anything to do with that. He went off on some names, he was called some names, I was called some names – and just doing my job. If people don’t want me to do my job and do the right thing … then find somebody else to sit here and do this job.
“Simple as that. Nothing against the Amish, I like the Amish, I work with the Amish. It has nothing to do with that. It was just a case of congestion that was getting worse, not better. It’s not discrimination, it was just a safety issue.”
Fitzpatrick said the business is a country store and the fact that it is owned by Amish is irrelevant, and that every business is welcome. He said that his background in building and construction, as well as working at the road commission in Gladwin informs him as to who the responsible party is in this situation.
“It’s not the public’s responsibility to provide parking for a private business,” Fitzpatrick said. “That being said, the road commission has jurisdiction from the center of the road to 33 feet out in that situation. When they, hopefully, got permission from the road commission to put pavement and concrete in there, that’s fine. At that point in time the road commission could have said yes or no. I’m assuming they were asked and they said, yes.”
Fitzpatrick said that would come with some provisions, one of which would be no parking along a 55 mph road. He noted the building sits legally on the edge of the right-of-way, and that when it was built Sheridan Township had no setback requirement. A 20-foot setback is now in place.
“When that pavement and concrete was put in there it should have been with the caveat that ‘You do not park there,’” He said. “You can pave it, you can make it look nice – no different than doing a ditch enclosure in front of people’s homes. From this point in time, it seems like this has festered … into everybody’s against him.
“But there’s businesses all over this community that pay big money for parking ... that’s part of the process for designing and planning for a business or a building.”
Fitzpatrick said the store building was built legally, but the problem with parking along the road should never have been allowed from the beginning.
“These parking spots mean money to him,” Fitzpatrick said. “To the community, it means safety. The vast majority of people who drive down Colonville Road have nothing against the store, but they don’t shop there. So it becomes a safety hazard for them just to travel down the road to go to town. Why should they have to slow down to 25 mph to provide parking for him to put dollars in his pocket? That is a private business. It’s not the public’s responsibility to provide parking or have to spend money for safety.”
Fitzpatrick said if more parking is needed, the business owner needs to figure that out.
“I have a problem with him putting that on the community, and now, because it’s festered so long and we spent $30,000-$40,000 on curb – I agree, it’s appalling. We shouldn’t have to pay for that; $30,000 in gravel in my township would be tremendous. That money should have never been spent by anybody. It didn’t have to be spent, because people shouldn’t be parking there.”
Carson reiterated her question as to whether something else could have been done, rather than spending money on a curb and all the no parking signs.
Kleinhardt said that years ago, he had asked the state police to look into it a traffic control order to regulate speed.
“They said ‘No, we don’t put speed limits in to accommodate private businesses,” he said. “I can’t set a speed limit; we can’t set a speed limit; Dwayne can’t set speed limits.”
He said the traffic division of the Michigan State Police sets speed limits as well as no parking.
“Just because there hadn’t been an accident there up to that point was not justification to do nothing,” Kleinhardt said.
Fitzpatrick said that was exactly what he had been driving at.
“I’ve been approached by people many times by people saying ‘Show me there’s been a problem,’’ he said. “You wouldn’t put in a four-way intersection and leave out the stop signs, and say we’re not going to put up a stop sign until there’s an accident there. There has to be a reasonable perception of safety, and the public should have reasonable cause to be able to drive down that road and go through there reasonably safe. If something changes, whatever it is, that changes that safety then it needs to be addressed. The parking there was changing the safety – luckily nobody has been hurt. I hope nobody ever is hurt … there is reasonable cause for safety concern there. You have to be proactive about this and not wait till there’s an accident.”
Fitzpatrick said this circumstance is a “teachable moment” and that when these sorts of issues arise, they need to be dealt with upfront and not allowed to fester – as has the current problem for some many years. He also pointed out that the problem was not caused by any of the commissioners, but rather by the people who were parking there and the people who were allowing the parking there.
“It should have been dealt with right in the beginning,” he said. “End it right there, and we wouldn’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars and have all these emails. We’re wasting valuable time on something that’s a non-issue, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t park in the road right-of-way – that’s it.”