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‘It will be a real jewel for Sparta’: Developer hoping to build 70 homes in open lot facing pushback

Referendum vote to decide the lot's future is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 3.
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Posted at 1:00 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 17:15:59-04

SPARTA, Mich. — The 70 acres off of Alpine Avenue is land that developer John Bitely has had his eye on for years.

“This is an area that’s been master-planned for homes for over 17 years,” Bitely said during an interview with FOX 17 last Wednesday morning.

Bitely, who owns South Sparta, LLC and Sable Homes, wants to build 70 houses on the open land.

“This is probably what I would call move-up housing. It’s not entry level but it’s also not McMansions either,” Bitely said. “With the size of the lots, we will see three-stall garages and nice 1,600-square-foot ranches to 2,000–2,200-square-foot two-stories, [with] three to four bedrooms, and two and a half baths.”

So, a few years ago Bitely got to work first getting approval from local officials.

“We did two years of approvals with the township planning commission,” he said. “Every item had been vetted whether it was lot size, whether it's the health department through Kent County, whether it’s road traffic or size of the lots. The opposition says there’s no sidewalk but there’s a pedestrian trail. There’s a paved bike-and-walk trail that’s part of the road system.”

Bitely said he wants to do this because the housing shortage in Sparta is severe.

Amber Lewis agreed. She’s an independent contractor/real estate agent, and she said there are only eight homes available for purchase in Sparta.

“It is incredibly low. Who wins the lottery in this housing shortage? Do you know what I mean? Of eight, who gets those eight?” Lewis said during an interview last Wednesday afternoon. “So, building these 70 homes is going to give a lot of people opportunity to live the American Dream, and I would love to welcome them here to Sparta.”

The housing shortage is not only felt in Sparta but also throughout the state, said Bob Filka, head of the Home Builders Association.

“Housing in our state has been so under-produced for the last decade,” Filka said during a Zoom interview last Wednesday afternoon. “In Michigan alone, we’re almost 150,000 homes less than what we really need as a state over the last 10 years.”

Bitely said he began construction months ago. However, a referendum stopped it.

“There’s just nothing for sale in a lot of these areas, and we’re trying to provide that, and yet we’re being held back,” Bitely said. “And, it’s not necessarily the businesses or the schools or the infrastructures or even water and septics and stuff because this is very sandy, gravelly soil. It works great for septics.”

He said what’s stopping the development are residents who don’t want to see it happen, the not-in-my-backyard group.

“I’m not against them doing a country development out there, but what I’m concerned about is the density of it,” said resident Ken Hammerlind. “I would like a country development, not another sardine subdivision is what they want to put up there right now.”

Hammerlind, who’s lived in Sparta for over 60 years, said there are no sidewalks, the lots are too small, the septics will be in people's backyards and the wells will be above ground.

Moreover, Hammerlind is also concerned about parking, he said.

“I own a snowplow business, and the thing about that is where are you going to put the snow for these roads because you can’t park on the roads?” Hammerlind said. “Let’s say if you have a Christmas party, what are you going to do? Talk to 10 of your neighbors so they can park in your driveways.”

Hammerlind reiterated that it’s not the development that concerns him and others; it’s the density.

He said many in Sparta feel the same way he does.

“The people that are going to profit from this isn’t going to be the community,” Hammerlind said. “It’s going to be your people like your banks, your realtors, your developers, and all that stuff.”

Lewis disagreed.

“I feel like this is a huge benefit for our schools, the library, the fire department and all of the local businesses that have popped up within the past year during COVID,” she said.

Lewis said the money will go to those services.

However, she believes the businesses, old and new, are going to attract potential buyers to the area.

That's something Filka said he’d like to see.

“If we are to want young people, people growing families in our state, if we want that type of environment in our state, we need more housing,” Filka said. “To oppose developments like this across the state is simply going to push people further and further away.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 3, a vote will be held that’ll decide the future of the 70 acres on Alpine.

Over the last few weeks, residents have posted signs in their yards, some for the development and others against it.

The debate has intensified so much in Sparta that police reports have been filed about people removing signs — for the development — off of their properties. FOX 17 submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to see the incident report. However, the police said via email it's under investigation so they declined to release it.

Regardless, Bitely believes the vote next week will be in his favor.

“It’s very well thought out,” Bitely said about the development. “I am very hopeful that we get to build this and win this election. It will be a real jewel for Sparta if we get it in place.”

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