EAGLE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – At the heart of the Clinton County Eagle Township Megasite development project is approximately 1200 acres of land that was bequeathed to Michigan State University by David Morris, a university alumnus and farmer of Morris Farms, who died in 2009.
Morris had trust documents drawn up and endowments set up for his land and its eventual sale. A FOIA request by Michigan News Source recently resulted in obtaining additional documents not previously provided by MSU including the crop lease for Clark Farms, operated by Jake Clark, who is currently leasing and farming a large portion of the Morris land.
The Megasite development in question is formerly referred to as the MMIC (Michigan Manufacturing Innovation Campus) and it’s being supported and collaborated on by Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan State University, LEAP (Lansing Economic Area Partnership), the MEDC (Michigan Economic Development Corporation) and most of the Eagle Township board members.
In opposition to the project are community members who live in the area and have concerns about the transparency of the project, the environment, water usage, traffic and many other issues – and who have expressed that they don’t want a multi-billion dollar Megasite in their neighborhood. Those members have voiced their opposition at local board meetings and to the media, started the Stop the Megasite Facebook page and they have a recall election in the works for Eagle Township Supervisor, Patti Jo Schafer, over the signing of non-disclosure agreements concerning the Megasite.
There are also those who are upset that the Morris land might be used for something other than an agricultural purpose. In the endowments that Davis Morris created, it says that they were established so that “others might have the privilege to learn of the opportunities in agriculture that Mr. and Mrs. Morris enjoyed.” Having someone buy the agricultural land to turn it into a EV battery or semiconductor chip Megasite doesn’t sit well with many who knew David Morris and his wife and their dedication to agricultural endeavors.
Dave Morris’ daughter, Patty Morris Raymond, says about MSU’s plans to sell the property to someone who wants to use it for something other than for agricultural use, “It’s a “punch in the gut.” She talked with Michigan Farm News about the property and said, “Nobody’s happy about it,. MSU made some promises to my dad that they knew they were never going to keep, which isn’t cool. He put his trust in them, and they couldn’t wait 25 years to leave it as farmland.”
MSU Interim president Teresa K. Woodruff, explained the Morris bequeath of land in a column in Michigan Farm News at the end of January. She said, “In 2005, Mr. Morris made the decision to donate a significant land holding that he and his wife farmed to Michigan State University. His expressed expectation was that the land would eventually be sold and that 55% of the proceeds from the sale would fund four endowments within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and therefore benefit agricultural research, education and outreach in perpetuity. Mr. Morris was clear in his wish that this gift to MSU would support the college’s causes closest to his heart, and we will honor that wish. The remaining 45% of the funds will benefit Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids, as Mr. Morris stipulated.”
Woodruff went on to say, “The four endowments that bear Betty and David Morris’ names will support Michigan agriculture for generations to come through programming in communities, agriculture and natural resources; through college discretionary funding; through livestock research; and through a named chair in state and local government finance and policy. Those endowments reflect the Morris’ life’s work and Mr. Morris’ enduring commitment to advancing that work as their family’s legacy.”
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She also admitted that the Morris property is under a 25-year crop lease to Clark Farms that won’t expire until 2031 and that if the university sells the property, the crop lease will transfer to its new owner who will “work in partnership with the leaseholder to determine the future of that arrangement.” She added, “Until there is an end-user identified for the land, Clark Farms can continue to farm it.”
This information was verified by the documents provided in the FOIA, including the memorandum of understanding and the crop lease with Clark Farms. Although Clark Farms can break the lease early, the landlord of the property can only break the lease if the tenant fails to pay rent (or other charges) when due – or defaults on any of their obligations under the lease. The Lease Possession paragraph of the crop lease says, “As long as the Tenant pays the rent as specified in this Lease and performs all of the Tenant’s obligations under this Lease, the Tenant may peacefully and quietly hold and enjoy the Premises for the Term.”
The memorandum of understanding between the MSU Board of Trustees and the Clark Retirement Community says that MSU will manage the leasing and sales of the property and act as landlord under the crop lease “unless earlier terminated by the tenant as allowed by the crop lease.”
Once the lease expires or is earlier terminated by the tenant, the memorandum says that MSU can sell the property after a “commercially reasonable time.”
In an option agreement provided as the result of a FOIA by the Mackinac Center, it says in the agreement between the MSU Board of Trustees and PG&W LLC (a subsidiary of LEAP with funds being spent on MEDC’s behalf), the buyer assumes “all easements, rights, appurtenances, and all existing encumbrances, including rights of tenants and licensees.” Additionally, under “crop compensation” it says “A large portion of the Premises is currently leased to a farming tenant. Buyer is solely responsible for any crop loss or damage on the Premises resulting from its activities, and any costs associated with the early termination of crop leases caused by Buyer’s exercise of the option. Buyer acknowledges that the Seller is not terminating any existing leases.”
It appears, both in public statements and legal documents, that MSU doesn’t intend to do anything to try to break the crop lease – which means a new “owner” would be the one negotiating any early termination of the lease after the crop lease is transferred to them.
However, MSU has said that they do intend to sell the property. In a letter to Eagle Township officials, MSU Executive Vice President for Administration & Chief Information Officer, Melissa Woo, and Senior Vice President for Government Relations, Kathleen M. Wilbur, said that it was Morris’ expressed expectation that the land would eventually be sold. They said,“The eventual sale of this property stands to bring hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good-paying jobs to Eagle Township and our region, boosting the local tax revenue and strengthening the vibrancy of our collective economy.”
At this time, it has not been reported that PG&W currently has a buyer for the proposed development which would move them to exercise their exclusive option to purchase the land from MSU.