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Letters 09-22-2014

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Home · Articles · News · Features · ‘Sacred’ Land or a Fair...
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‘Sacred’ Land or a Fair Swap?

Word of a state park land deal worries some Charlevoix neighbors

Patrick Sullivan - May 19th, 2014  

Talks between the state and a cement plant to swap land at Fisherman’s Island State Park near Charlevoix have some neighbors on edge.

They’ve formed an opposition group and Facebook page called “Save Fisherman’s Island” to rally support against the trade.

A spokesman for St. Marys Cement Inc. says that the company is working with neighbors to come up with a plan for the park that could benefit everyone.

They are currently forming a committee of residents to evaluate and make recommendations about the plan.

HUNDREDS OF ACRES INVOLVED

St. Marys has not submitted a proposal to the state, though they have held two meetings with the Department of Natural Resources about a land trade since 2011.

They also received permission last year to conduct test drilling to determine if the land they want is suitable for a limestone quarry.

The swap would involve 190 acres in the north going to St. Marys in exchange for 220 acres to be added to the south of the park, according to preliminary plans.

St. Marys wants the swap because it would consolidate their land, reduce fuel costs for work in the quarry, and create a larger buffer between them and neighbors.

Opponents say the swap would relocate the park entrance miles further away from Charlevoix, that the offered land is less pristine than the existing land, and that it would represent a corporate takeover of a public park.

The controversial tone stems from an accidental discovery of a test drilling operation, which was spotted by a park visitor last fall and led to allegations from opponents that a secret deal was in the works.

Anne Zukowski, a Charlevoix resident and member of Save Fisherman’s Island, recalled becoming alarmed after she happened upon the drilling rig.

“We saw people drilling out there and they wouldn’t talk to us at all,” Zukowski said. “They wouldn’t tell us why they were drilling or anything.”

GROUP WANTS TO KEEP WATCH

Cox said St. Marys was not trying to sneak something through.

Indeed, a secret land swap wouldn’t be possible, said Rich Hill, Gaylord district supervisor of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. Hill said it is not unusual for talks to take place between a company and the department prior to the submission of a formal proposal.

Once submitted, one of this magnitude would require an extensive process that would involve public participation, he said.

“The folks that were worried that we were trying to do this and trying to fly under the radar, that’s absolutely not true,” Hill said.

Still, Jo Anne Beemon, one of the leaders of Save Fisherman’s Island, doesn’t put it past the state and a private company to conspire to push a real estate deal through quietly.

She believes it’s up to groups like hers to keep watch.

“It used to be that state parks were sacred,” Beemon said. “What is sad is that those who are in charge of protecting the public trust haven’t been as responsible as they were in the past, so more and more citizens have to step up to the plate.”

MUST BE AN EQUAL TRADE

For a swap to occur, it would have to be approved by the DNR and, because the park has received federal funding, the National Park Service.

A provision in the Land & Water Conversion Fund Act says parkland that has received federal funds can be traded for other land, but it needs to be of equal value.

That’s the point the sides are unlikely to disagree on.

Asked if he thought what’s being offered is equal to what would be taken away, Cox referred the question to the Code of Federal Regulations, which lays out the definition of what’s considered “reasonably equivalent.”

“Someone other than us is going to have to decide that,” Cox said.

There’s lots of fine print. All practical alternatives have to be ruled out. Federal appraisal standards have to be used.

Ultimately, the land traded for must be “of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location as that being converted,” according to the federal language, which attempts to make a subjective process as objective as possible.

Swap opponents say there is no comparison between the two parcels. The existing parcel is forested, attractive parkland, and the swap parcel is “scrub,” Beemon said.

“It’s laughable, when you look at what they want to give and what they want to take,” Beemon said. “Basically, what this comes down to is there are 450 acres of Fisherman’s Island State Park land in Charlevoix Township, and a company is looking at that and it’s licking its chops and they want to quarry that land.”

FURTHER FROM CHARLEVOIX

Opponents also worry about how a swap could force the entrance to the park miles south from where it is today.

The history of the park is one of further and further separation from the residents of Charlevoix, Beemon said.

When it was opened almost a hundred years ago, the park was a short hike from Charlevoix’s southern neighborhoods. Since the cement plant opened, that operation has been a growing obstacle between the park and Charlevoix residents.

If the park entrance were moved several miles further from Charlevoix, that would mean the park would no longer be a comfortable bike ride from town for families with children, Beemon said.

Also, an already in-the-works bike path is planned to end at the current park entrance, not several miles south in Norwood Township.

Although it wasn’t part of the original land swap plan, it’s possible the park’s current entrance on Bell’s Bay Road could remain a park entrance or a bike path entrance, Cox said.

He said St. Marys is open to considering the objections of opponents and making changes.

Opponents remain weary, however.

Beemon believes St. Marys could promise one thing to get the swap through and then deliver something else once it’s done.

ST. MARYS A GOOD NEIGHBOR

Not everyone sees it that way. Nancy Ferguson, president of WATCH, or Water and Air Team for Charlevoix, an environmental group that looks out for the county’s water and air quality, said she believes residents should listen to St. Marys’ proposal with an open mind.

She’s been involved with WATCH for 15 years and said St. Marys has been a better neighbor than previous cement plant operators.

Years ago, under a different operator, WATCH received several complaints a month from neighbors. Today, Ferguson said, it’s been years since WATCH received a complaint.

Currently WATCH is officially against the land swap.

“However, we are in favor of a committee to look at it with other groups,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson attended a Charlevoix Township meeting about the swap where she said some people strongly opposed it and others appeared to believe the park could be improved in a swap.

“Will it be as aesthetically pretty as it is now?

Probably not,” Ferguson said. “There are good reasons why there might be no change and there are good reasons for there to be change. And it might be good for Charlevoix.”

She said the goodwill St. Marys has created for itself in the community doesn’t mean they should automatically receive support for the swap, however.

“They’ve been very good neighbors,” Ferguson said. “But does that mean we owe them this change? It doesn’t. This is a very different thing.”

 
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