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Suit Aims to Stop Bridge Across Boardman

Challenge to Grand Traverse County Road

March 26, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  On a bright, sunny north country morning, Kelly Thayer (center, bearded), the Institute’s transportation project manager, announced that a coalition of organizations filed suit to halt the construction of a new bridge and roadway across the wild Boardman River valley just south of Traverse City.

Traverse City, MI — Five local, state, and national groups filed a lawsuit this month to block the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge, a major construction project near Traverse City. The groups said they were opposed to the $30-million proposal because it pushes pavement into valuable wetlands, promotes haphazard growth, and fails to ease congestion.

The groups filed the suit on March 15, 2002 in Grand Traverse County Circuit Court against the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, which is proposing the massive transportation project over the objection of voters and the city commission in Traverse City. Plaintiffs include the Coalition for Sensible Growth, the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Sierra Club, and All the Way to the Bay. Together the plaintiffs have thousands of members in the Grand Traverse region and more than 23,000 members statewide.

"The Grand Traverse County Road Commission’s highway project would harm some of the premier waterways and parklands in our region and offer no solution to traffic congestion," said Helen Milliken, Michigan’s former first lady, a board member of the Michigan Land Use Institute, and a Traverse City resident for more than 50 years. "We need creative solutions that are effective and fit with our community’s up-north character and high quality of life."

Michael Dillenbeck, manager of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the court action. "I kind of look at this as almost like taking a class," he told Interlochen Public Radio. "You’ve done all your homework. You passed all the quizzes. Now you’re going to have the final exam. They want the judge to look at the record and make a final decision. We have appropriately completed everything and, to my knowledge, we have done everything that we’ve ever been asked to do or required to do by federal or state agencies."

Since 1987 the Grand Traverse County Road Commission and regional planners have proposed the 4- and 5-lane Hartman-Hammond road and 200-foot-long bridge as part of various bypass concepts.

In 2001, after five years of citizen action by some of the plaintiff groups and others to stop a 30-mile highway bypass from bisecting Leelanau, Grand Traverse, and Antrim counties, the Michigan Department of Transportation canceled its proposed Traverse City bypass. Despite the defeat the Grand Traverse County Road Commission insists on building the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge, which is the sole surviving stretch of the proposed bypass.

The Hartman-Hammond project would cross a particularly wild stretch of the Boardman River — a designated blue-ribbon trout stream — that lies at the center of the fast-developing Grand Traverse region. The river and its undeveloped valley provide year-round enjoyment for residents and visitors who come to canoe, kayak, fish, hike, jog, picnic, and watch birds and other wildlife. Just south of the proposed Hartman-Hammond bridge, the Boardman River is protected by the state’s "Natural River" program. North of the bridge crossing, the river enters Traverse City’s Boardman Lake and re-emerges as it winds through downtown before emptying into West Grand Traverse Bay, on Lake Michigan.

"As an area paddler and a regular user of the Boardman River, I am well aware of what we have to lose by allowing the degradation of the river and its surrounding environment," said Susan Boyd, president of the canoe-racing group All the Way to the Bay. "The Boardman is a beautiful, diverse, and highly entertaining river, and there’s no justification for destroying something that adds so much to the uniqueness of the Traverse City area. I see nothing to be gained by the proposed construction — only way too much to lose."

"The Boardman River Valley is irreplaceable as a wildlife and public recreational area. To run 30,000 cars and trucks a day through it is unthinkable," said Ken Smith, chair of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, whose 600 members have been fighting the project since 1995.

The lawsuit contends that the Grand Traverse County Road Commission is violating the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) by failing to consider all available, common sense alternatives to its proposed road-and-bridge project. The road commission, the suit says, violates state law by proposing a massive project that will pollute, impair, or destroy the water, wetlands, and other protected natural resources of the Boardman River and Mitchell Creek and their tributaries and wetlands.

The project also violates MEPA by interfering with wetlands, groundwater and surface water quality, and the public’s right to canoe, fish, and recreate.

"The problem with the road commission’s approach is that it thinks if it adequately evaluates the adverse harm to the environment, and shows that its sledge hammer works better than more common sense and sensitive solutions, then it has satisfied its legal responsibility. But it’s wrong," said James Olson of Olson & Bzdok in Traverse City, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, along with the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, a project as massive as this one that is likely to harm the river, wetlands, and surrounding natural resources is unlawful unless the road commission can show it has no other alternative."

"The burden," added Mr. Olson, "will finally be on the road commission to prove why on earth it should get away with sacrificing the heart of a famed blue-ribbon river when it’s patently obvious there are many sensible ways to move traffic and save the land and water that helps this community thrive."

The legal action in Grand Traverse County stems from a strong and growing local commitment to manage traffic and growth while protecting and enhancing the region’s natural features, which define the regional economy.

Throughout Michigan citizens, grassroots groups, and local governments opposed to high-cost, and damaging highway proposals are crafting and advancing low-cost, environmentally sensitive alternatives. Since 1999 public opposition has halted more than $3 billion worth of ill-conceived highways, including the U.S. 23 realignment in northeast Michigan, the U.S. 131 extension north of Cadillac, and the proposed Interstate 73 between Jackson and Toledo.

Some of the plaintiff groups assisted in those efforts, and they continue to work with residents to fight highway bypass proposals in Petoskey and Grand Haven, as well as the proposed $1.3 billion widening of seven miles of I-94 in Detroit.

"Residents in the Grand Traverse region and across Michigan are demanding that any new or wider highways complement community character, protect the environment, and enhance the overall quality of life," said Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. "The Grand Traverse County Road Commission has failed to consider the public’s reasonable recommendations. Instead the road commission has remained focused on the same proposal that voters soundly rejected more than a decade ago."

The plaintiff groups have worked since 1997 to alert the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to what they viewed as shortcomings of the Hartman-Hammond project. The plaintiffs also promoted an alternative, "Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region," which could move traffic while conserving the environment and taxpayer dollars.

Hundreds of regional residents contributed to "Smart Roads." Local groups fashioned the public’s ideas into a plan. And Rick Kuner, a noted Chicago-based transportation planner, strengthened it. The "Smart Roads" approach remedied traffic problems by widening and connecting the Beitner-Keystone corridor to Hammond Road, improving public transit, and providing space for bicycling and walking.

"‘Smart Roads’ is an incremental, conservative idea with broad public support," said John Nelson, chairman of the steering committee of the Coalition for Sensible Growth, a citizens group based in Grand Traverse County. "It calls for fixing what exists and making step-by-step improvements, rather than building a huge highway through our open spaces, including the lush Boardman River Valley."

Mr. Dillenbeck, however, argued that the "Smart Roads" plan would not work. "We ran the numbers and they just didn’t fare out," he said. "There was no significant improvement to the traffic."

The Grand Traverse County Road Commission spent six years and more than $1 million to justify its proposed road. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, raised a number of crucial objections, arguing that the Hartman-Hammond project:

  • Threatens the region’s prized places. The project would fill at least 5 acres of wetlands and harm wildlife habitat along the Boardman River, a blue-ribbon trout stream. The new road also would dump thousands more vehicles each day at the entrance to Traverse City State Park on Lake Michigan, delivering high levels of noise, air, and water pollution.

  • Fails to solve congestion. The road commission’s own studies, the plaintiffs contend, show its project would send 27,000 vehicles a day through the Boardman River Valley, creating one of the region’s busiest corridors and overloading adjacent local roads. The Traverse City Commission for years has opposed the project because of the lack of relief and the added traffic the project would bring to the city.

  • Promotes sprawl. The road-and-bridge project would encourage poorly planned new development, and the resulting damage to natural resources, by paving over valuable open space far from the city limits.

"The fight to protect the Boardman River from this bridge and the sprawl that it will cause is a priority for the thousands of Sierra Club members in Michigan," said Monica Evans, chair of the Traverse Group of the Sierra Club. "They understand not only how rare and precious the Boardman River Valley is, but how important it is to draw a line here by stopping this bridge. Generations of Michigan citizens will thank us for taking on this fight."

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and the Institute’s transportation project manager. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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