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"Beautifully Engineered Bad Idea"

Throng at public hearing opposes Boardman River bridge

July 18, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
  Traverse City attorney Jim Olson addresses the standing-room-only crowd, most of whom opposed constructing a new road and bridge across the Boardman River south of the city.

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — With nearly 400 people crowded into a local school auditorium, the Granholm administration last night convened a public hearing to consider the Grand Traverse County Road Commission’s plan to build a four-lane, $40 million road and bridge across the Boardman River valley just south of Traverse City. 

The overwhelming majority of those who attended and testified at the standing- room-only event opposed the bridge and road, arguing that they would cause irreversible environmental damage and should be cancelled in favor of a more efficient and much less expensive alternative for moving traffic.

“It’s a beautifully engineered bad idea,” said Ray Minervini, a builder and developer from Traverse City who spoke in opposition. “The beauty of the Traverse region is the natural and the built environment. The Boardman Valley is part of that natural environment that is worth preserving. More and bigger roads simply lead to more and bigger sprawl.” 

The hearing was called by the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider the road commission’s application to fill at least five acres of wetland as part of the bridge’s construction. It was the Granholm administration’s first public opportunity to fully consider how the proposed road and bridge would affect the region’s environment, economy, and development.

Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, campaigned in 2002 on a platform that stressed protecting natural resources, fixing roads before building new ones, and taming suburban sprawl. As governor she appointed a 26-member Smart Growth commission to recommend Legislative measures to solve sprawl, appointed a new state Department of Environmental Quality director to enforce environmental laws, and reached agreement with the Legislature to delay construction of 17 new highway projects and invest the saved funds in road repairs.

Fulfilling a Campaign Promise
At the public hearing in Traverse City several people said in interviews that halting the proposed Boardman River bridge offered the governor a clear opportunity to advance her campaign pledges. Doing so, they said, would save money, protect the environment, and enhance the quality of life in the fast-growing Grand Traverse region.

“This is a major test for Governor Granholm,” said Jim Olson, a prominent environmental attorney and general counsel for the Michigan Land Use Institute, which opposes the new bridge.  “She talked about restoring the integrity of the DEQ and putting into place a framework for assuring that infrastructure investments such as this one do not undermine her visionary leadership to protect the environment, preserve farmland, and implement a strong land use ethic in Michigan.”

Both proponents and opponents of the road and bridge see the dispute as a signature clash in northwest Michigan over how to preserve environmental values, spur economic development, reduce congestion, and rein in sprawl. According to a poll published in January by the Traverse City Record Eagle, the region’s daily newspaper, residents are deeply divided over the bridge and its consequences for the region. Some 73 percent of young adults 18 to 29 years old oppose the project, according to the poll.

Several prominent members of the region’s business community testified on Thursday in support of the bridge, asserting that the potential environmental damage had been significantly reduced by the road commission’s proposed design and that the economic benefits were paramount. Charles Blankenship, the president of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, announced that the organization’s board voted earlier Thursday to support the bridge. Rick Stein, a realtor and the chairman of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the road and bridge would reduce traffic congestion and not produce significant environmental harm. “It’s a logical solution to east-west mobility that will improve the quality of life in the area,” Mr. Stein said.

A History of Intense Controversy
The hearing attracted the largest crowd ever to attend a public event in the more than 12 years since the county road commission secured $4.5 million in federal funds to study and launch the project’s preliminary design. The commission asserts that the $40 million project to bridge the Boardman River and link Hartman with Hammond roads will solve the region’s growing traffic congestion.

In 1996, when the project was first publicly unveiled, the location and magnitude of the project attracted immediate and widespread opposition. Opponents described the wild character of the Boardman River, its value as habitat for trout, mink, otter, and eagles, as well as an easily accessible recreational gem for hiking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing. 

Opponents said that maintaining the character of the Grand Traverse region depended on protecting clean and beautiful places like the Boardman River valley, and that the new road and bridge would significantly diminish that character and encourage new and sprawling development south of Traverse City.  They also said there were better alternatives for dealing with the region’s worsening traffic.

In 1999 the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Coalition for Sensible Growth published Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region,” a more environmentally-sensitive, less expensive, and technically-sound alternative plan for reducing traffic congestion. Smart Roads called for modernizing nearby roads and an existing bridge across the Boardman. An analysis by Rick Kuner, a planner and professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, found the Smart Roads alternative was equally effective in moving traffic as the road commission’s proposal, and tens of millions of dollars cheaper.

In March 2002, seven months after the Federal Highway Administration approved the design for the road and bridge, five environmental and conservation organizations, including the Institute, filed a lawsuit in state court to halt the project, contending it violated the Michigan Environmental Protection Act.

Earlier this summer the road commission filed an application with the state environmental agency to fill nearly five acres of wetlands for the project. Thursday night’s hearing provided citizens with their first and only opportunity to comment publicly on the application.

Promises Made Do Not Persuade Critics
Michael Dillenbeck, the manager of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, and a team of business leaders and consultants focused their remarks in support of the project on three areas: Efforts they insist the commission made to minimize environmental damage, the usefulness of the road and bridge to move traffic, and the economic benefits of a new east-west corridor in the region.

The road commission said the four-lane approaches to the bridge were designed to spare several wetlands and forested areas from harm, and that it will build them with the region’s recreational interests in mind. The commission promised to construct a biking and hiking trail alongside the roadway, and it would connect those trails with the county’s existing trail system. The commission said it would create new wetlands and protect other wild ground in the valley.

“This is a very generous mitigation effort,” said a road commission consultant who testified.

Opponents of the project, who vastly outnumbered supporters at the hearing, were unswayed. They focused their remarks on sustaining the wild nature of the Boardman River valley as an asset to the region’s way of life and economy. They noted that a magnificent public park lies along more than four miles of the river’s west bank, funded in part by the state, and would be cut in half by the bridge.

Ann Rogers, an elected member of the Traverse City Commission, outlined the natural resources at risk in the valley and said the project “was not in the public interest of Traverse City.”

Jerry Dennis, a prominent author who fly fishes in the stretch of the river that the bridge would cross, described the Boardman valley as “an incredible treasure, a place that we can take our kids to show them what Michigan used to be, and is still in this very special place.”

The Wetlands Law
Opponents also focused on the state wetlands protection law, enacted in 1979, which requires the road commission to secure a permit to fill wetlands.

In weighing whether to issue a permit, the DEQ must consider the extent of the environmental damage, if the road commission gave enough credence to feasible and prudent alternatives, and the consequences of the project to “recognized historic, cultural, scenic, ecological, or recreational values and on the public health or fish or wildlife.”

Chris Bzdok, an attorney in Traverse City who represents plaintiffs in the case against the bridge, said the state environmental agency can not issue a permit under the law if alternatives exist that are less harmful to the environment than the proposed project. He said the Smart Roads proposal was clearly less harmful.

Scott Howard, an attorney and Mr. Bzdok’s colleague, said that the wetlands in jeopardy “are unique and irreplaceable and that their plan to ‘mitigate’ is questionable.” He said that under the law, the commission must prove that the wooded wetland it plans to buy in order to make up for ruining others is in “imminent danger from destruction and impairment.”

The road commission said on Thursday evening that the imminent danger was potential logging. But Mr. Howard testified that “the quote for logging the property was obtained by Michael Dillenbeck, the manager of the road commission. In effect, the road commission is buying this property to preserve it from itself.”

Karen Ferguson, another attorney who works with Mr. Howard and Mr. Bzdok, said the DEQ is required to look at the broader affects of the proposed bridge, including runoff and water pollution caused by 30,000 vehicles a day crossing the bridge, and the sprawling development the new road will cause.

The DEQ is accepting written comments until Sunday, July 27, 2003. A decision is expected this fall.

Keith Schneider is a journalist and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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