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Groups Continue Fight Against Boardman Bridge

Court rules road commission must obtain permits before lawsuit is heard

September 18, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bob Carstens
  A coalition of environmental organizations filed suit March 15, 2002 in Grand Traverse County Circuit Court to stop a new highway bridge through the Boardman River valley, just south of Traverse City.

Traverse City, MI — Environmental groups today said it was their responsibility to sue to prevent a highway through a prized river valley and stop the sprawl it would generate, despite a court ruling that the suit was too early to be heard.

“We had a duty to sue to protect the region’s natural environment and high quality of life,” said Anne Woiwode, staff director of the Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter, one of the plaintiff groups.  “We are obliged to take all necessary steps to protect the Boardman River Valley and halt the sprawl that this project would bring.”

“Our commitment to protecting what’s best about the Grand Traverse Region will not falter,” said Helen Milliken, a Traverse City resident for more than 50 years and a board member of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a second plaintiff group. “We will go on working every day to advance creative traffic solutions that are effective and fit with our community’s up-north character and recreational heritage.”

Circuit Court Judge Thomas G. Power ruled today that the Grand Traverse County Road Commission must obtain state permits to fill wetlands and pollute surface water before he can hear the merits on an environmental suit brought by several local, state, and national organizations. The judge also refused to rule that sprawl cannot be considered under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, as the road commission had requested regarding its $30 million Hartman-Hammond road and bridge project.
The judge acknowledged that it was a good idea the groups filed the suit when they did or else the road commission could have spent millions of dollars and argued later that the groups waited too long to sue.  The court ruled that while the groups’ claims may be valid, the time for the court to hear the arguments comes after permits for the project are approved. If the permits are not approved, the court noted there would be no need for the suit.

“The road commission gained nothing from this round. The groups and their concern for this community will only grow stronger,” said James Olson, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. The groups are ready to challenge the permits the road commission will need to develop wetlands and degrade the Boardman River, which flows into West Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan.

The groups filed suit March 15, 2002, in Grand Traverse County Circuit Court to stop the Hartman-Hammond road-and-bridge project through the Boardman River Valley, just south of Traverse City. “The likely damage to the environment is unmistakable,’’ said Mr. Thayer. He cited the road commission’s own studies that illustrate the project’s design and predict 5 acres of wetland destruction, fragmentation of wildlife habitat, and sprawl that will be caused by the proposed corridor.

The next opportunity to prevent the bridge project from proceeding comes when the road commission completes the project’s design and applies for state permits to fill wetlands and alter rivers and streams. The plaintiff groups will vigorously challenge these permits in front of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and any other permitting agencies. If the permits are granted, the groups are prepared to immediately re-file their case with the Grand Traverse County Circuit Court and argue that equally effective and less damaging alternatives exist and should be pursued.

The groups are determined to continue raising the public’s awareness of better options than building a bridge through the Boardman River Valley.

“The Boardman River and its valley are loved and enjoyed by anglers, paddlers, and thousands of other residents and visitors who hike and ski along its banks year round,” said Ken Smith, chair of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, whose 600 members have been fighting the project since 1995. “If we sacrifice this area, it’s gone forever. Then we become much more like the sprawling cities of southern Michigan that so many seek to escape on the weekends. There are far more sensible ways to manage traffic and growth.”

In addition to the Sierra Club and the Michigan Land Use Institute, the plaintiff groups are the Coalition for Sensible Growth, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and All the Way to the Bay. Together the groups have thousands of members in the Grand Traverse region and more than 23,000 members statewide.

The groups’ lawsuit and claims contend that the road commission was violating state law by failing to consider cheaper and less damaging alternatives to relieve traffic congestion.  “The extensive environmental damage to the river, wetlands, parks, and our region’s environment can and should be avoided,” said John Nelson, chair of the Coalition for Sensible Growth.

The road commission seeks to build a 200-foot-long bridge and create a new 4- and 5-lane highway around Traverse City, about a half-mile south of the Grand Traverse Mall. The proposal’s roots reach back 15 years. In 1987, Grand Traverse County voters rejected a multimillion-dollar road package that included the Hartman-Hammond-Three Mile road and bridge among several projects. Since then, the road commission has sought state and federal funds to pursue the project, over the objection of voters and Traverse City’s City Commission. Rather than listen to the public, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission spent six years and more than $1 million trying to justify its plan to build the road and bridge.

The plaintiff groups have worked diligently since 1997 to alert the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to the shortcomings of its proposed road-and-bridge project and to advance an alternative called “Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region,” which would move traffic while conserving the environment and taxpayer dollars.

Hundreds of regional residents contributed to the creation of “Smart Roads,” local groups fashioned the public’s ideas into a plan, and a noted Chicago-based transportation planner strengthened it. The “Smart Roads” remedies traffic problems by widening and connecting the Beitner-Keystone corridor to Hammond Road, improving public transit, and providing space for bicycling and walking.

The plaintiff groups are represented by the law firm of Olson & Bzdok, PC, Traverse City, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center, in Chicago.

Kelly Thayer, an environmental journalist, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation program. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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