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If you've never heard of Michigan's richest community, that's just fine

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Barton Hills — There's no sign that says, "Welcome to Barton Hills Village," and that's how residents like it.

The only straight road is Barton Shore Drive, a shared driveway running under a tunnel of trees that is used to enter the community.

Little would anyone know that at the end of the mile-long road lies Michigan's wealthiest community, one many have never heard of, tucked away just five miles north of downtown Ann Arbor.

A community planned by what is now DTE Energy as it built hydroelectric dams on the Huron River, Barton Hills Village was Michigan's wealthiest community as measured by median household income in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released in December.

There are 140 homes on less than two-square-miles of rolling hills overlooking the Huron River's Barton Pond. No two homes are alike, said Martin Bouma, an area real estate agent for the past 34 years.

"There's sort of an 'old-money' environment," he said. "It doesn't look or feel like any typical neighborhood."

The 100-year-old community has two priorities: its privacy and the trees, said Jan Esch, the village clerk.

The trees play an important role. Not only does the village have some of the nation's oldest and largest oak and yellowwood trees, but the trees also hide the large homes that would be difficult to see outside the winter months. Yet what attracts residents is being near the city.

"We don't have anything. We have residential, open natural space, and the Country Club, which has been there since 1922 as well," said Esch, who has lived in the village for 40 years. "When we developed our master plan, 10 years ago now, a lot of that points toward we’re not anticipating building schools or libraries because we’re so close to the city and yet, when you drive in you feel like you’ve left the city behind."

The community in Ann Arbor Charter Township had 287 residents in 2018, according to census data, with a median household income of $222,917 — the highest in Michigan.

Lots vary in size from a half an acre on the south drive to huge homes sitting on eight acres on the upper north drive. The average lot is two to three acres, said Bouma. 

"It's a culmination of old little ranches and amazing mansions surrounded around a golf course and it's the land that really makes a difference," said Bouma. "It’s got those beautiful winding roads and all the lots were laid out with purpose and really good privacy. Most houses you can't even see from the road."

The majority of homes are valued upwards of $1 million. Of the 26 sales in Barton Hills the past five years, 10 homes went for more than $1 million.

"That's more than a third. You won't see that in any other neighborhood besides Geddes on the east side, but it's not at the same level of privacy," Bouma said. "It's definitely exclusive. Saying you're from Barton Hills really meant something, especially a few decades ago." 

Dave Brandon, former CEO of Toys 'R' Us and Domino's and onetime athletic director at the University of Michigan, sold his Barton Hills Village home a couple of years ago for $3.75 million, the highest sale in Washtenaw County over the last five years, Bouma said.

Historic photo of the Barton Dam built in 1913 by Detroit Edison.

Rich history 

The 48105 ZIP code area just northwest of Ann Arbor, was used for cattle grazing before it was purchased by the Detroit Edison Company, which built the Barton dam in 1913.

The company planned to construct a series of hydroelectric dams along the Huron River and in the 1920s used the nearby land to build luxurious estates for its executives to have country homes.

In 1949, the company hired Walter Esch to be the private community's superintendent. In return, Esch and his family would live on the land for free. Esch worked for the village until his death in 2017. His son David Esch has since been the assistant superintendent of Barton Hills Village. He and his wife, Jan, live in a 1917 farm-style house next door to the childhood home that he shared with nine siblings.

"Imagine 12 people and one bathroom ... that house still only has one bathroom," said David Esch, 70. "I remember three-minute morning showers.

Esch said his father "had a great deal of influence on how the community developed and it's a pleasure to carry on that legacy."

However, the historic home comes with the title. Since the Esches plan on retiring and their children don't plan on taking over, the couple plans on moving to Dexter and leaving their history behind.

They're not in any hurry, they said.

(From left) Jan Esch, an office clerk for Barton Hills Village, and her husband David, the assistant superintendent of the village, stand in front of their home, March 5, 2020.

The company shareholders gifted the land to residents in exchange for assuming the responsibility for municipal services. It became an incorporated village in 1973 and has its own police, fire, sewage system and mailing services, which Esch manages with superintendent Jeff Hnatow.

The village has a double layer of government, a public sector including its nine-member board of trustees, three maintenance workers and three office workers. Police and fire service are covered by Ann Arbor Township.

There's also the private Barton Hills Maintenance Co. established in 1922 when the neighborhoods were designed. The corporation oversees deed restrictions and approves any changes to the neighborhood through a shareholder vote.

“When people buy in, people understand that their lot and the deed comes with restrictions and boundaries," said Jan Esch, 67. "The private corporation has the right to preserve things. There’s a sense of things are the way they are and we like it that way.”

When asked how the community has remained so little known outside of Washtenaw County for decades, Jan Esch said, "We’re actually pleased you say that because it is an unwritten community value."

The Barton Hills Country Club, which is just as old as the community, was built on 125 acres donated by the president of Detroit Edison. The club has an 18-hole Donald Ross course, practice facilities, a pool, courts and a fitness center. There's a poolside grill and upscale dining and weddings are often held in the grand ballroom.

Almost 45% of Barton Village residents belong to the club, making up 14% of its 500 members. Membership fees aren't disclosed to just anyone and general manager Barry Garrett would only release information through a board of governors-approved statement.

"The course is unique in its quiet, pastoral setting with only two homes visible from the course. Views roll as far as the eye can see, while being only minutes from downtown Ann Arbor," he said.

Alicia Torres, president of the board of trustees for Barton Hills Village, sits in front of a map of the village, March 5, 2020.

What keeps them there?

Alicia Torres, the Village Board President, and her husband Frank moved to the village 21 years ago and are still considered “new.” The oldest resident, a woman who was the first village president in 1973, has been there since the 1950s and is more than 100 years old, she said.

“You’re just surrounded by nature, it’s private, it’s quiet, and I think people here value being low-key," said Torres, 59. "But we also value the resources we have in Ann Arbor, just over the river and through the woods. You have wonderful cultural venues, school music theater, sporting events and for us older generations, a wonderful health system is important to us.”

Ernie Perich moved to Barton Hills Village six years ago but has been a member of the country club since 1997. He said for active golfers like him, all signs pointed to Barton Hills.

"It’s a spectacular place. From a golfer perspective, it’s an old, classic, beautifully restored course that is the most pleasant four-hour experience," said Perich, who plays about 100 rounds a year there.

Perich started an advertising agency nearby in 1987 and when the right home was for sale, he decided to move to the village because "it's private, quiet, secluded and about five miles from my office in downtown Ann Arbor," he said.

Perich said not all his neighbors appreciate the community that has been developed over the past century.

"It’s had its ups and downs financially and as you drive through the 140 homes, you can see everything from 1,800-square-foot ranches to 14,000-square-foot mansions and there are homes that are mid-century, new builds and homes that have been built on over decades. 

"You can drive through the neighborhood and see homes from every era. You look over and see, ‘that’s what they were building in 1980 when there was an energy crisis and you didn’t want windows in your homes.' I think that's what makes our community special."

He purchased a walk-out ranch, custom built in the 1960s, on a lot overlooking Barton Pond. He tore the old house down and built a 3,500-square-feet replacement on top of the original basement.

"My goal was to build a house that you didn't know when it was built," said Perich, 61. "I feel like I’m Up North when I’m just five minutes from downtown Ann Arbor. It’s been a blessing."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_