In 2015, Jen and Charlie House moved from Milan to Dexter. Jen, thirty-eight, says Milan lacked a sense of community and a vibrant downtown. In Dexter, she “feels like I’m living in a Norman Rockwell painting,” with the Monument Park ice skating rink in the winter and “streets of glowing luminary bags in everyone’s yards on Christmas Eve.”
House is one of many newcomers. From 2000 to 2010, Dexter’s population increased by 74 percent, from 2,338 to 4,067. By 2015, it boasted 4,911 residents.
Most cities welcome growth–and the influx of young new residents and businesses it brings. The challenge is ensuring that new neighborhoods and businesses don’t compromise the quaint, small-town feel that draws people. Like other desirable cities, Dexter is grappling with how to grow responsibly, in a way that avoids the fate of Detroit’s many sprawling, vanilla-looking suburbs. Opinions on how to do that differ.
Much of Dexter’s growth has been fueled by three subdivisions built in the late 1990s: Huron Farms, Dexter Crossing, and West Ridge–the community that Dexter mayor Shawn Keough calls home. “A lot of the reason people like Dexter is that it’s a small town. We’ve had very well managed growth. We have taken our time,” says Keough, who served seven years as village president before winning election in 2014 as the new city’s first mayor.
Dexter’s recent debate on growth is intertwined with becoming a city. Keough was a big proponent of cityhood as a way to reduce Dexter residents’ taxes and improve services. The cityhood vote passed with 54 percent, with supporters in the new subdivisions a major source of the victory.
The issue divided the Mast family. Bob, ninety-four, who has lived on a farm two miles outside of Dexter his entire life, was against the change. He says he liked the “old town of Dexter. When you look back, everything was a lot smaller and quieter.” His daughter Carol Mast Jones, seventy, favored cityhood. As the village (now city) clerk, she feels it puts Dexter in a better position to secure grants and state funding. In other ways, she stresses, “we’re trying to hold everything as it was when we were a village.”
Some changes have been popular, such as the new walking and biking path along Mill Creek. Such nonmotorized trails are “a perfect example of what brings great things to great communities,” says Paul Cousins, who has lived in Dexter for fifty-two years and served ten years on the village council.
Similarly popular is Dexter’s long-term plan to move manufacturing operations out of the downtown area into an industrial park and foster high-density residential and retail redevelopment in their place. The city council and the Downtown Development Authority are entering into a pre-development agreement with Foremost Development Company to build housing, possibly with a retail component, on the former DAPCO site at 3045 Broad St. Citing the recent upward movement in area home prices as “one of the reasons we’re developing Broad St.,” the DDA’s Doug Finn says he hopes the project will attract young professionals by offering more affordable housing.
At the former Pilot Industries at Baker and Grand, developer Steve Brouwer has proposed a sixty-eight-unit residential complex–“the first large infill project that’s happened in Dexter’s history,” says community development director Michelle Aniol. While some worry about the project’s scale, Aniol points out that it fits both the master plan and DDA development plan. Brouwer also would pay to relocate a storm sewer, and is offering an easement for public access to the planned second phase of Mill Creek Park.
“There is no controversy surrounding the fact that it’s residential,” Aniol says. “This will support the downtown and create a wonderful, vibrant community.” But during the review process, concerns were raised, she says, about design aspects–that it is “too suburban” or “not urban enough.” In the end, the planning commission, city council, and the public will all have a say.
“Having density here will be great for the businesses downtown,” says city manager Courtney Nicholls. “People [living in the new homes] will want things they can walk to. It will allow different businesses to serve those people.” She points out that downtown retail is already nearly at capacity, with only one significant vacancy in February, at the former Huron Camera store.
Far more controversy surrounds a proposed housing development on Baker Rd., on a piece of land known as the Sloan-Kingsley property. Peters Building Company originally proposed building more than 500 homes there in 2007, but that plan died with the recession. Now, the company is proposing a smaller-scale project, 250 to 400 homes on 160 acres.
“We are doing our best to try to plan something that would fit into the neighborhood and would be a vibrant community. There’s still a demand for that,” says Jim Haeussler, president of Peters Building.
But the property is in Scio Township, and “I don’t know that there’s anyone on my board who’s enthusiastic” about Dexter annexing it, says Scio supervisor Spaulding Clark. Indeed, the township’s Land Preservation Commission tried to purchase it, only to be outbid by Peters Building.
“We have a different plan for that property than they do,” says Clark. “We want to maintain the character of our township as a quaint, rural area.”
“I haven’t made up my mind as to whether adding homes down there would be good or not,” Keough says, though he realizes the benefits on a personal level. “If somebody hadn’t thought about providing subdivisions, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to live in Dexter.” Still, he says, “I’m not going to harm my relationship with one community to create a development.”
The other reason Haeussler wants the land annexed is that Scio doesn’t have sufficient sewer and water capacity for so many new residents. But Dexter may not, either: Aniol says the city can provide utilities for growth within the city boundaries, but it’s unclear whether its capacity is sufficient for development outside of its borders. “The community is not at this point willing to sacrifice its build-out potential within its boundaries to bring in something outside of its boundaries,” she says.
Haeussler says that if it can’t use Dexter’s sewer system, the new subdivision would need to build its own. But this raises environmental concerns. “We don’t support these kind of private shared septic or wastewater treatment plants in general,” says Huron River Watershed Council executive director Laura Rubin. “It is better to tap in to an existing public system, even if they need to expand or upgrade, and usually it is much cheaper.” More generally, HRWC encourages “housing density where the infrastructure exists while protecting the natural areas and farmland in the rural areas.”
No matter what happens to the proposed new subdivision, growth around the city will continue. Fifty-five homes are being built in a phase II development at Lima Township’s Thornton Farms, with another 100 slated for phase III, says Jaime Byrd, sales manager for Lombardo Homes. “They’re selling them as fast as they can build them,” says Craig Maier, Lima Township supervisor. Similarly, lots at Hartman Farms in Dexter Township “have been selling steadily,” says Zach Michels, the township’s director of Planning and Zoning. “There is a shortage of housing stock in the area, and this development has incredible natural features.”
Beyond natural features, what attracts many buyers is Dexter’s public school system, which extends far beyond the city into the surrounding townships. Only 4 percent of students in the school district attend private schools. “We’re keeping our kids,” says Dexter Community Schools superintendent Chris Timmis.
The enrollment is now at 3,553, up from 3,093 in 2000 and 2,085 in 1980. Yet it’s maintained a teacher-pupil ratio of twenty-two to one. Timmis doesn’t worry about new families taxing the school system. “We could handle another 400 kids” without having to build new facilities. And new pupils bring new revenues that allow more teachers to be hired, if necessary. “I’m not concerned about it. We always figure it out,” Timmis says.
But the bustling school population is contributing to heavy traffic during school start and dismissal times, since all Dexter schools are located within two square miles. Traffic has been one of the noticeable complaints from residents about the changing landscape. Harley Rider, Dexter Township’s supervisor, says that a trip from his home to Zeeb Rd. that once took twelve minutes now takes as long as twenty-five. Keough says the traffic is also due to growth in surrounding areas. “We have 20,000 cars a day that come through our town. It’s a lot of cars for a town with a lot of two-lane roadways, and we’re not interested in five-lane roadways,” he says.
“It’s one of those things that comes with being a great place,” adds Nicholls. She says the county road commission, the city, Scio, and the schools are working to reduce congestion at the intersections of Baker and Shield and Dan Hoey and Baker to make them work better during school arrival and dismissal times.
The lure of Dexter to young families has helped to drive up housing prices from a median $235,000 in 2010 for a single- family home to $300,000 in 2015. Some 53 percent of midsized, four-bedroom homes in the Dexter school district sold within thirty days last year.
Dick Doletzky, seventy-five, feels the surging population compromises the city’s quaint spirit. Since 1963, he’s owned the Family Barber Shop, a tiny space with stuffed deer heads on the wall. “I’m like a stranger in my own town,” he says. “I’m not happy with the growth.” His forty-five-year-old daughter and employee, Maryann, cutting a customer’s hair, recalls that when she attended Dexter schools, she knew nearly everyone in her high school class and what bus they rode. Then, she says, there were 100 to 150 students per class; now each has 300 students.
But many newer residents seem to like the growing city fine. Hackney Ace Hardware and the 101-year-old Dexter Bakery still stand side by side as they have for decades. At Hackney, a rainbow of colors fill bottles of old-time sodas, like RC Cola and Route 66. Employees know many customers by name, engaging them easily in conversation. “If you have any problems, let me know,” says a cashier ringing up a customer’s purchase.
Next door at the bakery, one young mother introduces herself to another as their toddlers watch cartoons on television. Tracie Varitek, sitting with her two-year-old as she munches on a donut, says her family is part of the growth, having moved to Dexter four years ago from Dearborn. “We’re very happy here,” she says.
Tracy Lambert, owner of Fancy Stitch silk-screening and embroidery and the mother of three young children, is the fifth generation of her family to live in Dexter. She remembers when there was only one stoplight and the village was surrounded by acres of vacant fields and unpaved roads. But it’s still the type of community where she always runs into someone she knows when she’s at a restaurant. “It’s evolved just like any other place does as people move towards it. You just need to be careful with continued growth because eventually the people won’t know each other as well as they do now.”
Keough agrees there are downsides to growth. More homes bring a higher tax base but also a greater need for services–more roads to plow, sidewalks to maintain, and trees to trim. James Brooks of the National League of Cities says the answer doesn’t lie in opposing growth altogether. “The notion of pulling up the drawbridge behind the last person who just came in is absurd. It’s good if people want to come and stay in your communities.” What’s most important, Brooks says, is to grow and preserve the qualities that make your place distinct from those surrounding it. “There is clearly a uniqueness in Dexter that has to do with historic buildings, views and vistas, trees and parks, the nature of the retail, the proximity to agricultural land, and housing affordability. These are the things that are at the heart of place making.”
Longtime Dexter resident and former state representative John Hansen echoes those sentiments. “I don’t know if we can choose not to be bigger, but we can choose how to be big and manage it,” he says. “We have to be vigilant and make good plans and elect smart people who make good decisions. We’ve done a lot of that.”
This article has been edited since it was published in the Spring 2016 Community Observer. Chris Timmis’s name has been corrected.