KALAMAZOO COUNTY, Mich. — The battle between two West Michigan families and Kalamazoo County continues over a sliver of property in Prairie View County Park that has been in the families' names for over 50 years.
The cottage is located about a mile from the park's entrance at the very back on Gourdneck Lake.
The Johnson/Talanda property is just a sliver on the northeast side.
"This family owns this property. They will fight to maintain ownership of it despite Kalamazoo’s efforts to take it from them unlawfully," said Randall Levine, a managing partner at Levine & Levine.
It is just a little over a month until the Johnson and Talanda families open their cottage up for the summer like they've been doing for around 70 years.
"There is three generations now who have enjoyed it. Their memories exist there. They have grown up there. This is a place that brings the family together. We need these kinds of places in our communities," said Levine.
Jayne Engels, previously Johnson, allowed us onto their property but didn't speak to us due to their ongoing case with Kalamazoo County.
Randall Levine, the families' attorney said the two families are again having to fight this year to keep their property.
This comes after Kalamazoo County has already attempted to fight for the property two additional times and lost in court, once in 2017 and once in 2019, continuing to use taxpayers dollars to do so.
"These families have tried to sit down with Kalamazoo County for the last five years. We were close. We had a lawsuit pending in Kalamazoo County circuit court. At that time, both parties, Kalamazoo County and the Johnson and Talanda families agreed to dismiss all of the claims including this claim that the county is now making," said Levine.
The claim is regarding an agreement made between the county and the original owners back in 1963 that gave the county "first right of purchase".
After the last original owner passed on two years ago, the county moved to possess the property.
Kalamazoo County released a statement in regards to the ongoing dispute:
In 1962, the year the County acquired Prairie View County Parks, the County filed a condemnation action in Circuit Court to obtain the only private property remaining. But rather than litigate the value of the cottage, the then owners, consisting of five related couples including the Talandas and Johnsons, offered to settle the matter by giving the County the “First Option to Purchase” if the County would agree to voluntarily withdraw its condemnation action and allow the five couples to use the cottage but only during their lifetimes. The County accepted the offer made by the five couples, including the Talandas and the Johnsons, and the Agreement was placed on the Circuit Court record in 1963 in settlement of the litigation. The County abided by the terms of the Agreement for 58+ years until the last remaining owner passed away.
The Talandas remained so grateful for the County’s 1963 Agreement they placed their intent to honor the Agreement in their Trust in an effort to avoid denial and/or misrepresentations regarding the 1962 Agreement by the Johnson heirs.
The residents of Kalamazoo County gave up 58 years of park development and use of the waterfront property in exchange for the right of “First Option to Purchase” operational, if not before, upon the death of the last survivor of the five couples who signed the 1963 Agreement. Many of the heirs openly express appreciation to the County and acknowledge and support their parents’ 1963 Agreement with the County and their Trust Statement. Because the remaining heirs do not want to give up the cottage, they deny the terms of the 1963 Agreement and the right of the County to purchase the cottage. Thus, litigation to enforce the 1963 Agreement is unavoidable to ensure that the County receives the benefit of the bargain reached between the parties in 1963. It would have been much less costly for the County to reject the offer made by the Talandas and Johnsons and pay the 1963 fair market value of the cottage than the current 2021 value of the property. Regardless, the County lived up to its end of the bargain offered by the 1963 owners and is now entitled to the benefit of the bargain.
The dispute the heirs have is not with the County, but rather, with their parents’ decision to negotiate the terms of the settlement in 1963. On the other hand, the decision to give the County the right of the “First Option to Purchase” upon the death of the last survivor resulted in approximately 60 years of future use of the cottage for the families of the five couples.
Randall Levine said because there was never any sale of the property to the children, and that the Johnson and Talanda families are bloodline heirs, the agreement doesn't stand.
"People have a constitutional right not to have the government to take from them what is theirs without due process. That means they have to pay fair market value. The county doesn’t want to do that. Instead they are trying to do end run around condemnation law, and by doing so trample on the rights of these families," said Levine.
A hearing is scheduled for April 23 in Kent County where a judge will listen to arguments from both sides and determine the fate of the property.