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Benzie Residents Call For Smaller Crystal Lake Launch

Size, scale are central issues in state boating proposal

February 29, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Crystal Lake Association
  By a margin of more than two-to-one, Benzie County residents said they were very concerned about a large boat launch that the state proposes to build on beautiful Crystal Lake, and urged it to be significantly downsized.

BENZONIA — A state proposal to build one of northern Michigan’s largest inland boat launches on Crystal Lake in Benzie County attracted more than 250 people to a local high school auditorium last week, many of them to express a similar view: More public access is an important goal but not if it diminishes one of the Midwest’s most beautiful lakes.

Fully 30 percent of the people who commented at the hearing, held by the state Department of Environmental Quality, said they opposed the launch because the risks of environmental damage, introducing more exotic species, and the construction cost outweighed the benefits. Nearly 40 percent more of those commenting said a better idea would be to build a smaller boat launch to reduce dredging, storm water runoff, erosion, wetlands loss, and potential degradation of Crystal Lake’s renown fishery.

“The Crystal Lake Association truly appreciates the need for better access for boaters, anglers, and others,” said Ron Renner, president of the 44-year-old association, which represents over 1,000 members, many of them shoreline owners with private access to the lake. He called for cutting the project roughly in half to two boat ramps and 50 parking spots. “I emphasize that Crystal Lake is not just any lake. It’s clean and clear. And experts tell us it takes 50 years for the lake to turn over and clean itself.”

County Leaders At Odds with Most Public Sentiment
Though the majority of the comments urged the state Department of Natural Resources to either abandon or downsize the proposed boat launch, an influential minority, including the county’s senior elected leaders, voiced their determined support for a large launch. Don Tanner, the chairman of the Benzie County Board of Commissioners, said, “This has been a long process to find affordable and safe access.” He complimented the DNR’s responsiveness to community concerns and ended by saying, “The Benzie County Commission supports the site as proposed.”

Mike Jones, a Benzie County Commissioner, read from a commission letter that said that the DNR plan “provides safe, environmentally sound access to Crystal Lake.” He emphasized the priority the county places on public access for all. He added, “Personally, I think it’s the right spot, but the size is yet to be determined.”

Citizens for Positive Planning, a Benzie County-based group, also said it supported the large launch. “The fact must be faced that Crystal Lake is not a private lake,” said Telfer Mook, the group’s president. “ It belongs to all the people of Michigan. Those who do not own property on its shore should not be denied access to the lake.”

A Superb Lake; Divisions Over Scale
The clear divisions over the size and need for a new boat launch reflect how deeply Crystal Lake reaches into Benzie County’s economy and culture. The hearing on February 25 drew people from across the county who came in the dead of winter to protect a rite of summer — boating and beach-going on the electric-blue lake, with its sandy bottom and bluff-lined shore. One-by-one, boaters, anglers, swimmers, local residents, and lakeshore property owners spoke up, some passionately. The prevailing opinion was to downsize the DNR’s plan to develop a large boat launch on the lake’s south shore, about two miles west of Benzonia.

At more than 9,800 acres, Crystal Lake is the ninth largest inland lake in Michigan, according to the Crystal Lake Watershed Fund, a citizen organization. Since 1996, when the DNR purchased 30 acres of shoreline and forest for a boat launch near where the lake drains into the Betsie River, the state’s plan to make it easier to launch private boats into Crystal Lake has stirred an active discussion about the security of the lake, the public interest, the region’s recreation economy, and simple fairness. The state’s original proposal, intended for the west side of a county park on the lake, foundered after citizens argued persuasively that the intended launch would ruin a shallow and very popular wading area and produce significant environmental damage, especially from dredging.

The Department of Natural Resources responded by spending $1.1 million to purchase 19 more acres on the east side of the county park, a site that included a steep, nearly 80-foot bluff, and a wetland along the shoreline. The DNR said it hoped to build the launch later this summer or fall, at a cost of $500,000, and open it in the spring of 2005.

At Issue for Environmental Agency: Filling Wetlands
The DEQ held the hearing last week to consider the DNR’s application to fill about a third of an acre of shoreline wetland and to dredge about 1,200 cubic yards of the lake bottom. The DNR’s proposal also includes 100 truck-trailer and 21 non-trailer parking spots on the crest of the bluff. Nearly 80 feet below at the shoreline the state would build two double ramps for launching up to four boats at a time. The state acknowledged that it based the dimensions of its plan on the size of the lake — not the need — and asserted that it could even justify making the project three times larger.

Perhaps the strongest opposition to that idea came from the Crystal Lake Property Rights Association, a citizens group with members living along the lakeshore. The association argued that the boat launch may be illegal under county zoning rules and a court-sanctioned agreement that it reached with the DNR several years ago over building a biking and walking trail along the south shore of Crystal Lake. Richard Wilson, the group’s attorney, said the DNR agreed not to cross the non-motorized Betsie Valley Trail when the lawsuit was settled in the 1990s. The trail sits atop an old railroad bed from Frankfort to Beulah. Mr. Wilson said the judgment called for “no permanent structures in the 30-foot wide easement for the rail right-of-way.”

The DNR immediately disagreed with that position. Bill Boik, a DNR staff member who oversees the Crystal Lake proposal, said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, “There are no structures. That’s the wrong interpretation. It’s taken out of context.”

Institute Supports Smaller Launch
The Michigan Land Use Institute, which thoroughly studied the proposal and spent more than a year working with local groups to reach a community consensus, said it supported a new launch site but concluded that the proposed design is out of scale with the potential use. One factor the Institute considered in reaching its conclusion was the difficulties many boaters will have just walking up and down the bluff between their boats and vehicles.

“We support the location but we know that it’s too big for expected use,” said Jim Lively, the Institute’s planner. “The design calls for people to walk up 150 steps — that’s seven stories — to get to their vehicles in the parking lot. That by itself will surely limit use.”

The question, then, was how big should the launch be? The Institute and the Crystal Lake Association hired Keith Wilson to help develop an answer. Mr. Wilson, who oversaw Michigan’s public lake access program for 30 years and supervised the development of the DNR’s guidelines still used today for designing boat launches, said the proposed Crystal Lake launch is twice as big as it needed to be.

“Under the circumstances, it is my belief the parking spaces being provided exceed any reasonable expectation of their need,” said Mr. Wilson in a report. “Desirable though boating on Crystal Lake may be, the physical constraints of the site are so excessive they will greatly diminish the appeal of the site.”

Those seeking to downsize the boat launch are relying on a provision of Michigan’s Wetland Protection Act that says the state DEQ will not allow wetlands to be filled if there’s a “prudent and feasible alternative” to the design or location. In addition, the wetland law says that the MDEQ must consider the proposal’s “probable impact on recognized historic, cultural, scenic, ecological, or recreational values and on the public health or fish or wildlife.”

DNR: We Like The Current Plan
The DNR said after the hearing that it was sticking by its proposal. “Last night was not a popularity contest,” said Mr. Boik. “I’m a little disappointed that people didn’t recognize that we have downsized the parking by reducing the amount of pavement and going with gravel.”

Still, Mr. Boik acknowledged that changing the surface materials did not reduce the amount of space reserved for parking. Mr. Boik said making the site preparations all at once saved money and was more realistic than the phased approach of building smaller and then measuring demand over a few years, as many at the hearing preferred. He also pointed to the DNR’s plan to install a storm water collection and filtration system — a first for a state launch — as evidence that the DNR was listening and cared about Crystal Lake.

The DEQ is accepting written public comments until Saturday, March 6. The law requires the agency to decide in 90 days —by late May — whether to grant the DNR permission to fill and dredge. The DNR also could voluntarily choose to withdraw its application without penalty, make design changes that reduce environmental harm, and resubmit it within 180 days for further DEQ review.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and transportation policy analyst. He directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Northwest Michigan Transportation and Land Use Project.  Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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