Family faces emotional and financial hardship to defend their 70-year-old property against Kalamazoo County takeover

Throughout the past four years, sisters Jayne (Johnson) Engels and Judy (Johnson) Heeter, along with their eight siblings, have spent much of their retirement savings defending their family legacy from the clutches of Kalamazoo County.

After years of court battles and several attempts to take the family’s slice of land in the northeast corner of the county’s Prairie View Park, which has been family owned for over 70 years, the county has caused an exorbitant strain on the family – financially and emotionally.

Since 2017, county officials have been harassing the family regarding their pie-shaped property, which has 142 feet of shoreline on Gourdneck Lake, located in an area of the park rarely used by visitors and seldomly maintained by the county. The county threatened to take the gate keys from the family, change the gate lock, condemn their property and issue Eminent Domain in order for them to take their property without any cause or reasoning.

The family sued the county and won in court in 2017.

Two years later, after learning the last living member of the original signors, Edmund Talanda Sr., had died, the county pounced on the family again, claiming “first right to purchase,” per its interpretation of the agreement between the original family owners and the county when the park opened in 1963. However, the property has never been sold outside the family. The two family groups that currently own the property, the Johnson family and the Talanda family, are all bloodline heirs of the original owners.

“We own this property and we have paid taxes on this property since the 40s,” said Jayne. “We were there before the park property was there. We are tax-paying citizens and are good stewards and neighbors to the park.

“The county members make it look like we’re squatting on their land and that we’re not in agreement with the 1963 agreement, which is not true,” she added. “Our parents never intended to sell this property, they intended for it to be passed down to generations.”

In 2019, The Talanda and Johnson families jointly filed a second lawsuit against the county to prohibit the county from an unconstitutional taking of property, and for violating the Open Meetings Act – in its move to condemn the land, which would allow the county to assert control over the property, and allow the cottage and its land to be used by the general public. Family members have been left out of any county-level conversations relating to their property.

Kalamazoo County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Talanda/Johnson family in the 2019 lawsuit, stating the county repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act.

Now, in 2021, the county continues to use taxpayer dollars in its legal pursuit to take control of a “pinkie-nail” sliver of property that has been in the Talanda/Johnson family since 1949 – 14 years before Prairie View Park opened. An upcoming court hearing is scheduled for April 23.

“People in our community – people we don’t even know – come up to us every day and tell us they are appalled the county is trying to take our family property, and using taxpayer money to do so,” Jayne said. “They want to know what they can do to help. To those who support our fight to save our property, we encourage you to use your voice and call your county commissioner.”

As young children, Jayne and Judy remember joining their siblings and cousins at the family cottage, aptly nicknamed, “Happy Land,” all summer long. In those days, they were usually dressed in nothing but bathing suits as they swam, held underwater somersault contests, made mud pies, played games, water skied and tubed, jam piled on the rope swing before jumping into the water, and caught toads hopping around the water’s edge until the dinner bell rang. In the evenings, the entire family gathered around the bonfire to make s’mores and share stories and laughter for hours. Then they’d get up and do it all over again the next day.

“It was such a fantastic way to bond with our aunts, uncles and cousins and to grow up playing and swimming all summer long,” Jayne recalled, noting Happy Land has been the sentimental home for numerous celebratory events, including wedding proposals, anniversaries, birthdays and holiday gatherings. “We would have never known many of our extended family without this cottage. We go there to celebrate. We go there to mourn. We go there to make memories and have our kids and our kids’ kids make memories.”

“We’ve had a lot of fun memories growing up out there and we have so many more to make,” said Judy. “To put a price on that – it’s priceless. It’s absolutely priceless.”

Now in their 60s, and a majority retired and on a limited income, the siblings and cousins are spending their “golden years” in daily turmoil from the emotional stress and financial burden of court hearings and legal fees to protect their family land. Some of the siblings have had to bow out due to the hardship and expense, adding to the financial and emotional strain for the remaining siblings.

“These are supposed to be our best years,” said Judy. “We never dreamed of spending our retirement money and committing so much time to save our cottage. But we’ll fight until the end to hold on to it.”

Surrounded by Prairie View Park’s 210 acres to the south, east and west, the Talanda/Johnson property is far away from the park’s main amenities. A rarely used and maintained bathroom, drinking fountain and picnic table are the only park facilities in vicinity of the family property.

“The county doesn’t keep up with that side of the property – they don’t utilize their whole property,” said Judy. “We’re not in the middle of the park, and we’re the furthermost away from the gate.”

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