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Institute, Partners Gather Along Boardman to Block Bridge

Transcript of news conference

March 17, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Helen Milliken, former Michigan first lady: "As surely as spring follows winter, sprawl follows roads. If you build it, they will come. The traffic, the noise, the congestion, the business, yes, and the billboards."

On Friday, March 15, 2002, a coalition of environmental and conservation organizations filed suit in state court against the Grand Traverse County Road Commission. The purpose: To block construction of a $30 million road and bridge across the Boardman River south of Traverse City. The next morning, March 16, 2002, the plaintiffs held a news conference along the banks of the Boardman.

The transcript follows:

Kelly Thayer, transportation project manager, Michigan Land Use Institute:

Thanks for coming down here. Thanks for coming out. We’ve got a wonderful day. It’s a beautiful spot, and I am taking that as a sign of the good work this whole group has been doing out here for the last several years to talk about better ideas for this area and the whole region.

Today we are going to do two things and one is simply enjoy this spot that we are in. The whole Boardman River Valley is a gem. It reflects the kind of thing that cities across this whole nation are paying to revitalize and restore, to move highways out — paying millions to do that — to have places just like this. We’re blessed to have it intact. It’s wonderful.

Since 1987 the Grand Traverse County Road Commission has called for building a four- and five-lane highway and a massive bridge through this very area, just down the river a little ways. We can take a look at that site later. The plan, they say, is their vision for how we enhance the quality of life in this region and how we reduce traffic by building this road, essentially another South Airport Road just to the south through the river valley. That’s their take on what our future should be.

But for the last 15 years all the people out here, representing five groups who have thousands of members in this local area, 25,000 members across the state — groups with local, state, and national reach — have been working to see something very different happen. Folks all across this region, residents have been saying, ‘Yes, we do need to manage our growth and solve our problems.’ That’s a priority. It probably always will be and, frankly, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

We’re in an area that is thriving economically and environmentally. So we’re thankful for that. People have also said as we solve our problems and we manage our growth ‘let’s protect the most special places that we have.’ We love to be in them. We know that people all over this state and all over this country love to be in them. They come up every year, all four seasons.

Let’s preserve places like the Boardman River Valley and the Traverse City State Park on Lake Michigan. That park is at the end of this project. One end would dump thousands more cars and trucks right at the entrance, right at the public access to the lake, right where people come from all over the state to enjoy. That’s a vision, but not a vision that we have been fighting for.

That is a place for people. We need a balance there. The public has been so active that they have even come out night after night in meetings the last several years, offered ideas, and formed a plan. They’ve put their own plans forward that say, ‘yes, let’s do this. Let’s solve our growth issues. Let’s manage them. But let’s also preserve what’s best about this place because we will never get it back if we let it go.’

The problem is the Grand Traverse County Road Commission has refused to listen to that message. They are not listening to the local people. And that, unfortunately, is a violation of state law. State law says that when you propose a project that would have such a massive, substantial impact on the environment you must seek to minimize those environmental harms and maximize the benefits.

This is a $30 million investment that’s being discussed. The region has advanced many ideas for how to better invest that. Today we’re saying that the road commission has ignored the law and local people, and we will not accept that. Therefore, today, we five groups are announcing that we are suing the Grand Traverse County Road Commission. The groups are the Coalition for Sensible Growth, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Sierra Club — both the local Traverse group and the national organization as one — and All the Way to the Bay canoe racers, who are out here every week of the year. We together will stop this Hartman-Hammond, Three Mile road-and-bridge project. We will continue to work hard every day to advance ideas that solve our growth problems and protect the prized places of the Grand Traverse region.

Most people in this region are against this project. How do I know that? In 1987 we voted against it. Seventy-one percent of the public voted against a millage proposal by the road commission that proposed building this Hartman-Hammond Road, Three Mile Road and bridge. They turned it down.
The road commission hasn’t let go of that project for 15 years so the city took the project on and voted on it. They oppose it. The city of Traverse City doesn’t benefit from this. They’re overwhelmed by the traffic that would come from this corridor and the sprawl that would spread out all along it.

We have thousands of members in this area from our five groups that oppose this. We have 25,000 members across the state. This is a mistake. The Hartman-Hammond project goes against the will and the wishes of the people. It’s illegal and illogical.

What is true is that once in a generation, once every 20 years, we have an opportunity like this where we make a major decision about the growth and evolution of the region. In this case we have to ask ourselves, ‘will we be remembered by our children and then their children for having decided to build a highway through this area? Are we going to decide that the river valley is the place we should urbanize so that we have urbanized every last square inch? Is that the legacy we’re seeking to leave behind?’

Or, we have to ask ourselves, ‘do we want to be remembered for being people who at the beginning of a new century advanced a different vision that says, yes, let’s manage and solve our problems and let’s protect some places forever. That’s a vision within our grasp.’

Look around Michigan. More and more places are being set aside and protected by good, hard working people like us. Protected forever. We can make that decision together. That’s a competing vision with the road commission’s highway plan. So we say that with our actions today, we are being asked to be remembered by our children, by future generations, for the vision and values that we are putting forward.

I’ll end by encouraging all of us and all residents of this region to get out and enjoy this glorious space in the Boardman River Valley. Every time I come down here I’ve been surprised by the quiet special areas I find throughout here. And every time I’ve come with someone who hasn’t been before, it’s a discovery for them. It’s in our backyard. It’s our home and it’s easy to overlook.

Let’s get out and celebrate it. Let’s also this summer relax at the Traverse City State Park. It’s a wonderful public access to the shore, to the water. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s not allow that to become a place we can no longer enjoy because it is so urban. Let’s take time also to enjoy the forest and farmlands across this region that, yes, are still here and that define this region. Let’s celebrate what we have. Let’s not give up on it.

We’ll continue to grow. We can grow in positive ways. The Grand Traverse region is a beautiful place to visit and to call home. This is a wonderful place to be. I am proud every day and happy to live here. And I know that’s how we all feel because I hear that every day. Look at this magnificent day. We’re fighting to keep this a special place to live. Thank you all.

I’m going to introduce Helen Milliken, Michigan’s former first lady and a guiding voice for growth in this area for the last 50 years.

Helen Milliken, former first lady and board member of the Michigan Land Use Institute:

I thank you for your eloquent remarks. I have been a resident of Traverse City for over 50 years now, so this area has been very deeply imprinted on me and my husband.

We have been imprinted by the wondrous natural beauty of this north country. Its rolling hills, its woods, its waters. Those blue depths, which an Indian chief once called, ‘the smile of the Great Spirit.’

People come here to find these things, this setting, this quality of life. Perhaps too few are able to realize how rare and how fragile it is. How the onrushing tide of our times, of building something bigger, better, faster has swallowed up the natural countryside almost before we even realize it is gone — the plague of urban sprawl.

Sprawl follows roads, specifically big, new roads. Kelly mentioned Three Mile — a very big example. As surely as spring follows winter, sprawl follows roads. If you build it, they will come. The traffic, the noise, the congestion, the business, yes, and the billboards.

Do you recall Joyce Kilmore’s poem? ‘I think that I shall never see a billboard as lovely as a tree.’ The proposed Hartman-Hammond bridge and bypass is ostensibly a transportation solution for our rapid and ongoing area growth. I believe this misguided proposal will not only fail in its objective but in the process will destroy or mitigate the values that draw us here in the first place.

The destruction of vital wetlands and wildlife habitat, the inevitable urban sprawl are part of the price. And in the process, are we really willing to make this sacrifice at a cost to the taxpayers at a cost of $30 million? I, for one, am not. Thank you.

John Nelson, chairman of the Coalition for Sensible Growth’s steering committee:

I am John Nelson. I just want to make a brief statement on behalf of the members of the Coalition.

A sensible, reasonable, conservative approach to solving our community problems is the approach the Coalition favors. Transportation issues are profoundly interconnected with land use and natural resource concerns. The "Smart Roads" proposal suggests modifying and improving existing infrastructure, doing this in a measured, step-by-step formula that conserves the Boardman River Valley. The "Smart Roads" approach is cautious in its effect on land use change. The "Smart Roads" proposal also will save a lot of money.

The Grand Traverse County Road Commission has chosen the most radical solution to the perceived transportation problem. They have not shown that there are no reasonable, prudent, and feasible alternatives to their bridge proposal. Thank you very much.

Monica Evans, chair of the Traverse Group of the Sierra Club:

Hello. I am Monica Evans. I want to thank everyone for coming out here today. On behalf of the Traverse Group of the Sierra Club and our 700 members, and on behalf of the 20,000 members of the statewide Mackinaw Chapter of the Sierra Club, I would like to make the following statement.

The Sierra Club is dedicated to preventing the destruction of the Boardman River Valley. It is the last unspoiled, undeveloped, environmental treasure in the metropolitan Grand Traverse region. The valley’s unique and fragile wetlands, the cedar and the black ash swamp, the waters of the Boardman River, are paramount to the health and the survival of the fish and wildlife that call this valley their home.

Furthermore, we are committed to the prevention of sprawl, which is one of the Sierra Club’s national priorities. We see the intention of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to spend $30 million on a bridge-and-sprawl corridor as being nothing less than irresponsible and reprehensible.

For years the road commission has ignored the public’s opinion and outcry and has dismissed the more sane and efficient ideas of the "Smart Roads" alternative in favor of a bridge that would literally tear this valley in half, ruin the last undeveloped route into Traverse City, and send almost 30,000 cars and trucks a day through the Boardman River Valley and onto U.S. 31 at the state park entrance.

Not only would the bridge and road destroy the beauty and serenity that surrounds us here today, it would also have huge negative impacts on the Natural Education Reserve and the Boardman Lake as well. The cost to the environment — not only to the Boardman River Valley — but to the entire Traverse City region is unacceptable to us. We are not willing to compromise either our quality of life or environment in northern Michigan for a bridge and road that would bring nothing but an increase in noise, air, water, artificial light, and land pollution to this valley.

Therefore the Sierra Club believes it is necessary, proper, and exceedingly important to join in this litigation to stop the Hartman-Hammond bridge-and-road bypass proposal. We owe this not only to our members but to the citizens of Traverse City and to the Boardman River Valley itself.

It is the mission of the Sierra Club to enjoy, protect, and explore the wild places of the earth. To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources. To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the natural and human environment and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives. Thank you very much.

Arlin Wasserman, policy director, Michigan Land Use Institute:

I also wanted to acknowledge the presence of Susan Boyd, the president of All the Way to the Bay, who is feeling a little bit under the weather today and wishes she could project as loudly as the other speakers from this microphone.

All the Way to the Bay, of course, is not the only group of people who enjoy the Boardman River Valley. Kelly and First Lady Milliken also have spoken about how this generation and future generations can enjoy being in the river valley. As we walked out to the press conference we saw people enjoying birding, enjoying the water, enjoying one of the first days of sunshine. Keeping that special natural resource something that other communities want to live in, that businesses want to locate in is very important. And it’s been a priority for the Grand Traverse region for some time.

As Kelly mentioned, in 1987 more than 70 percent of voters said it’s not worth the extra expense, the sprawl, or the damage to the river valley to build the Hartman-Hammond road. Later, in the mid-1990’s, citizens spent many evenings coming up with alternative ways to relieve traffic congestion, to promote smarter growth. John Nelson spoke about the "Smart Roads" proposal. Then the city of Traverse City voted against construction of the Hartman-Hammond project. Most recently we learned that the Michigan Department of Transportation, after receiving significant questions from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, abandoned plans for a larger Traverse City bypass that would have used this same bridge. Why? Because of the damage that it would have caused to the natural resources and the consequences on land use and development in the region.

Today this lawsuit that the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Coalition for Sensible Growth, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, All the Way to the Bay, and Sierra Club are filing is an important step. It says that the Hartman-Hammond bridge, yet again, will be rejected by the courts and certainly by the community.

It’s time now for the road commission and for the region as a whole to look at new and better ways to grow: to promote the improvement of existing transportation infrastructure, to promote public transit, to promote smarter growth and more efficient land use. As our campaign moves forward, as we forestall efforts to build the bridge and promote smarter growth, we hope that future generations will appreciate what we’ve done to protect this river valley, and improve the quality of life and economic vibrancy of the Grand Traverse community.

With that, I am going to turn the microphone over to Ken Smith, chair of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Ken Smith, president of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council:

Thanks Arlin. I just want to reiterate some of the things people have said so far. Really there are three themes to what people have said.

The Hammond-Hartman road and bridge is a bad idea. It was bad in 1987 when 71 percent of our region turned it down. It’s a bad idea today. It destroys our vision of a Boardman valley that can be enjoyed by all of our region’s citizens and our grandchildren. It promotes sprawl in our region. It’ll do nothing to alleviate congestion, and it will occur at staggering costs to the environment and our quality of life.

If you can visualize these cedars, all the cedars here, if you could visualize them gone. Just for a minute, just think of them as gone. And a wall of earth, two thirds as high as those cedars, going across here carrying 30,000 cars and trucks a day at speeds of 55-to-70 miles an hour. Just think about that. That cost is staggering.

The second theme is that there are alternatives, as John Nelson said. Low cost, conservative, low impact on the special places we all care about here, like the Boardman River. So that’s the second theme.

The third theme is we’re going to stop this. We’re going to stop it now before a single one of these cedars is bulldozed. We’re going to stop it. We’re asking the court to stop the project. If it does, the road commission is going to have to do its job. It’s going to have to get serious about addressing the issue of road congestion that the citizens of this region are upset about and want to see addressed. The road commission is going to have to consult some real experts, not the hired guns that they’ve spent a million dollars hiring to embellish their bad plan. They’re going to have to hire some real experts. And they’re going to have to listen to the citizens of this region. They’re going to have to listen to us when we say, ‘leave this river alone. Leave this river alone.’ Thank you.

Ann Rogers, Traverse City commissioner:

I’m wearing several hats today. As a city commissioner, I have to reiterate that the city commission did pass a resolution opposing this bridge. And they not only passed one, but they came back a year later and reiterated the same proposal. The city realizes that with a bridge of this magnitude, the impact on the city from traffic is just going to be enormous. In fact, the county road commission at a public meeting stated that we would have 25 percent more traffic the moment that the bridge opened. And we are already trying to address our problems.

Putting on my Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council hat I guess I have to go back to Ghandi’s quote that I have put on my card because I think so much of it. It goes like this: ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed.’

Anyone who has taken a canoe, a kayak, a rowboat, and just paddled along on something as gorgeous as this river can realize that this is the quality of life. It isn’t in the malls. It isn’t in some of the frantic things we do. And I would reiterate the suggestion of the other folks who say come down and enjoy it. It is a fantastic place.

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