Ambitious new wellness resort proposed, sparks debate in Elmwood Township

A long-dormant section of the Timberlee area of Elmwood Township could soon be home to a new resort focused on wellness. The development would bring a hotel, residences, spa services, a restaurant and bar and other amenities to one of Leelanau County’s most desirable hills. But a small but vocal group of local residents believes the project – especially its private road connection – would have a huge negative impact on nearby homeowners and therefore should not be allowed to go forward as planned. The fate of the project could be decided at a special meeting of the Elmwood Township Planning Commission on Wednesday, January 18.

Wellevity’s developers are seeking a special use permit (SUP) to develop 100 undeveloped acres on top of the Timberlee property, which is zoned as a “rural resort” district. Wellevity is described in the municipality’s application materials as “a full-service health resort that will address the core components of health, wellness and well-being to create an environment for self-care and healing.” The facility will reportedly offer “all aspects of holistic wellness in one location,” including exercise classes, spa services, guided meditation, yoga, health shops and more.

“You no longer have to go to a gym, a specialty grocery store and a spa to achieve balance,” Wellevity explains in its SUP application. “[Wellevity] is a place for learning, support, relaxation, connection with nature, movement and calm. Our goal is to create a place where the community can gather with friends and family and make healthy decisions together.”

If approved, Wellevity will have several hospital-related components and amenities, all of which are owned and operated by the facility. These components include a spa and fitness center, a “meditation dome,” a retail store, a restaurant and bar, a multi-use event space, a greenhouse, outdoor pavilions for weddings and other celebrations, cabins and cottages available for rent, a kids’ club and a main lodge with hotel rooms.

Although the property would offer accommodation – according to the municipality’s materials, there are 30 guest rooms between the lodge and spa buildings and 20 cabins and cottages with a total of 58 rooms – Wellevity’s application repeatedly stresses that the concept is more “community center” than hotel. Most of the proposed amenities and services – from spa services to fitness classes and food service – would be open to everyone, not just overnight guests, and the property’s trails and outdoor recreation areas would even be open for anyone to use at any time, free of charge. According to the SUP application, outdoor recreation on the property includes hiking, running, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, foraging, bird watching, stargazing and more.

Among the paid services planned to be offered are fitness classes with certified personal trainers, “medically and scientifically based” spa treatments such as lymphatic massage, red light therapy and movement therapy, cooking classes, guided meditation, yoga and HIIT classes, VO2 max testing, body composition scans, mobility assessments and much more. The retail section, open to the public, would “primarily support local farmers and local products” with an assortment of “ingredients and products tailored for health purposes.” An on-site kids’ club would give guests a place to leave their children “for a day of adventure and connection,” with a program that has a “strong outdoor focus” and a focus on “health principles.”

Finally, Wellevity plans to offer versatile indoor and outdoor spaces for corporate conventions, retreats, classes, family reunions, weddings and other events. The application materials note that musical options “such as DJs, acoustic or amplified bands may be offered in these spaces,” but that Wellevity always “intends to maintain a peaceful and quiet environment on campus” and that it would adapt its outdoor music hours to other locations in Elmwood Township.

Although the developer behind the project is not locally based – Wellevity, LLC lists an address in Columbus, Ohio, in its application – the application repeatedly emphasizes the developer’s desire to minimize impacts on the environment and on nearby property owners. The developers say they were attracted to northern Michigan with this resort concept because of the area’s “overall natural beauty,” that they are working with an environmental consultant “to advise us on conservation design and habitat preservation/restoration,” and that every design choice will be made “with sustainability and conservation in mind.”

Despite these statements, Wellevity has received backlash from some homeowners who live near the site. On December 20, the Elmwood Township Planning Commission held a public hearing on the project, and several homeowners were on hand to express their disapproval.

Residents raised a variety of issues – ranging from questions about the planned two-year, single-phase expansion process to concerns about how much light and noise the facility would generate once it’s built – but most of the comments centered on the issue of access. Under the plans, Wellevity would force visitors to access the property by crossing a pair of private roads: Cottonwood Drive and Timberwoods Drive. Residents repeatedly described both roads as narrow, winding corridors that become icy and treacherous during the winter months and that see heavy foot traffic from city residents throughout the year.

At the December 20 public hearing, Ansel Bowden, who described himself as “a resident who lives on Timberwood Drive,” suggested that developers should be required to build an access road to public Fouch Road instead of “routing all this traffic through an area that takes five minutes to drive through.”

“Both in the morning and in the evening I cross pedestrians on my way to and from work,” Bowden said. “Because there are no sidewalks, pedestrians walk in the middle of the road. All the residents are used to it: we slow down, we’re careful … My concern is that at some point it’s inevitable that there will be an accident [because of the increased traffic on this road], whether it’s a human or a dog.”

Bowden also expressed concern about the already deteriorating private roads and questioned whether Wellevity would pay its fair share to maintain or improve the infrastructure going forward, given that the roads are not the responsibility of Leelanau County.

At the hearing, Marc S. McKellar, an attorney from Kuhn Rogers in Traverse City who is representing Wellevity, assured that his client has “every intention” of respecting the nearby homeowners and their property rights, roads, safety and quality of life. “I haven’t come across a developer who is actually that well-informed about what’s best for the project area, the environment and the neighborhood,” he said.

Wellevity has yet to receive SUP approval to move forward. The Planning Commission voted in December to postpone discussion until they could review a wealth of materials recently received from Wellevity in more detail. The discussion will be taken up at a special Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday, January 18 at 7:00 pm.

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