Turning land along Allen County's only natural lake a nature preserve deemed a 'win-win'



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FORT WAYNE, Indiana — A plan to transform Allen County's only natural lake from a rustic backwater into an upscale residential and recreational oasis has taken a U-turn — and nature lovers, at least, should be pleased.

"The economy went south, and development came to a screeching halt," said Moosehead Enterprises' Mike Stafford, who with business partner Larry Smith seven years ago was marketing 160 acres at Lake Everett in western Allen County for $1.9 million in hopes of making the area "really nice," as Smith told me at the time. "But we both kind of grew weary, and I'm a nature lover."

And as a result, the hoped-for $1.9 million deal has turned into a deeply discounted sale of 107 acres of the original site to the ACRES Land Trust, which owns 90 preserves containing nearly 5,500 acres, almost all of them in northeast Indiana.

"It's a win-win," said ACRES Project Manager Shane Perfect, who said the group's latest acquisition will be unique among its holdings, containing a bog, a variety of plants and wildlife and about 500 feet of lakefront. A few trails will be created and one dilapidated cabin will be razed, but otherwise the land will remain in its natural state and will soon be opened to the public.

"We're very grateful (to Stafford and Miller). We're keeping a large parcel intact," said Perfect, who noted that funding has also been pledged by the Bicentennial Nature Trust, Indiana Heritage Trust and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' Division of Nature Preserves.

Perfect declined to reveal the sales price, but documents in the Allen County Assessor's office indicates ACRES paid $395,000.

As I wrote in 2007, it's not the outcome the would-be developers originally had in mind.

The 45-acre Lake Everett located north of Arcola just five miles or so from Fort Wayne, their vision seemed logical enough: Sooner or later, the lake — which is home to cabins and homes of wildly differing condition and value — would develop into a convenient retreat from city residents who want a real lake but don't want to drive an hour or more to enjoy one.

Moosehead's original parcel contained 15 rental cabins, 22 undeveloped lots and 2,200 feet of lake frontage, and Miller said at the time they planned to spend up to $30,000 to renovate or remove many of the buildings, some of which are in poor condition and date back to World War II.

"We don't want Fort Wayne coming out here. That's why we keep it trashy," one resident told me years ago.

The lake itself has had issues, too. The state DNR has in the past expressed concerns that shad and other "junk" fish were crowding out game fish.

But keeping new homes and septic systems off those 107 acres at least won't add to any existing environmental issues. And with the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District regularly considering extension of sewers to the area, leaking septic tanks and the problems they can cause may become a thing of the past.

That may, in fact, at long last make Lake Everett attractive to developers. So, ironically enough, may ACRES' acquisition of those 107 permanently pristine acres.

As Perfect conceded, a lakefront lot next to an area off-limits to development could become more desirable and valuable. And Moosehead did keep possession of 53 acres and plenty of access to the Lake, which was named for Charles Everett, who in the late 19th century hoped to turn what was then Hull's Lake into an amusement park.

That never happened, obviously, but despite the sale to ACRES — or maybe because of it — much of the outcome Smith hoped for seven years ago may be realized, after all.

"Five or 10 years from now I'd like to see a lot of the woods remaining ... but a few new places, too," he told me. "We'd like it to be a cleaner, more wholesome family atmosphere. Right now, time seems to have forgotten it, (but) there should be room for both."

As Perfect said: a win-win.


Information from: The News-Sentinel, http://www.news-sentinel.com/ns

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