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Road to nowhere 4/4/11

Anne Stanton - April 4th, 2011
Road to Nowhere: Leelanau taxpayers will pay for a road that no one seems to want
By Anne Stanton
 A legal settlement that has been reached over a controversial, unimproved
road past the Wings of Wonder bird rehabilitation center in Leelanau
County will likely cost county taxpayers something.
The problem is the Leelanau County Road Commission doesn’t have any idea
how much.  Yet it’s now responsible for “all dollars, materials,
equipment, labor, and any other costs or requirements necessary to
construct an estimated 1.75-mile New Seasonal Public Road,” which will be
12 feet wide with a 33 foot right-of-way.
Private landowners along the road—only one of which actually wanted the
improvement—must chip in a combined total of $20,000 to contribute toward
the road construction costs, according to the settlement signed in
Elmer’s Dozer gave five estimates to do the road improvement, the least
amounting to $98,000. But that was before the road design was changed and
finalized. The Road Commission ultimately decided to complete the work
in-house, but the road commission’s engineer, Jim Johnson, couldn’t give
even the Express a ballpark cost estimate.
“I have not put together an estimate of costs, by adding up manpower and
equipment hours, I have not done that,”’ Johnson said.
The road commission spent $5,636 in surveys, legal fees and meetings, but
the premium that it pays for its legal self-insurance fund couldn’t be
directly attributed to this project, according to documents included in a
Freedom of Information Act request.

The story has been long in the making. Once upon a time, the public drove
on the two-tracks that crisscrossed several hundred acres south of M-72. 
Rebecca and Don Lessard moved to a remote piece of land in the area on the
shoreline of Wells Lake in 1999.
The site appealed to them because Rebecca runs Wings of Wonder, a
nonprofit that rehabilitates injured and orphaned raptors with the goal of
returning them to the wild. They wanted a quiet place and thought that the
two-track leading up to the home belonged to them for a number of reasons.
Namely, the road had been used privately for decades, it was privately
named, and it was listed as an easement on their deed. Also, the Leeleanau
County Road Commission Supervisor Herb Cradduck and the Kasson Township
Planning Commission treated it as a private road via posted signs and
other legal actions.
Leelanau County Road Commissioner Glen Noonan told the Express that the
public needs to take a lesson from the Lessards: don’t believe your deed
or even your unit of local government that issues building permits. Check
with the road commission before buying or building on your property.
To get to the Lessard’s compound, you need to turn onto South Gilbert Road
from M-72. The pavement is short and quickly turns into a two-track, which
runs about .7 miles before reaching the Lessard home. The two-track goes
through the Lessard’s backyard very close to the raptor enclosures and
continues all the way through to Beeman Road. It’s that long two-track,
which is at issue.
Under the settlement, the two-track will be diverted around a meadow
that’s used for spiritual retreats and owned jointly by four different
owners called the Carol Waters group. It will also be diverted around the
Lessard’s property, thereby saving the raptors from close encounters with
the cars. The new road will go on a portion of the neighboring Christensen
“That’s the golden nugget of this agreement. They have to keep the road 70
feet away from our property line,” Rebecca said.

Still, the Wings of Wonder nonprofit will have to build a $4,000 fence
between the raptor enclosures and the road for security reasons. And the
controversy has already cost them plenty. The combined legal bills for the
Wings of Wonder nonprofit have totaled $30,000, in addition to the $12,000
for the road and fence. Since moving there, they have also invested
$28,000 to maintain the two-track.
Despite generous donations, the legal controversy has left the Wings of
Wonder bank account nearly empty for emergency raptor surgery and blood
tests, as well as the scholarship program that allows Rebecca to bring in
the raptors at a discount into area schools.
The controversy was sparked, although not driven, by Bob and Karen
Christensen, who belong to a trust that owns a vacant parcel of land in
back of the Lessards that is primarily used for logging. The Lessard’s
deed says they must allow their two-track to be used for logging trucks to
access the Christensen property. Bob Christensen said that in 2008, the
Lessards requested that the loggers stop going through their property, but
rather use the Beeman Road entrance for the sake of the raptors. They
agreed, but it required improvements to Beeman Road, the costs of which
were assumed by both the Christensens and Leelanau county. As a result of
this concession, the loggers charged the Christensens twice as much
because a hill, graded but still so steep that they could use only one
trailer of logs instead of two.
The logging issue triggered the commissioners’ interest in the two-track,
which they said was once used to reach Wells Lake for fishing and hunting
(although there was never any formal public access). When the issue went
to court in May, Bob said he was concerned that the Lessards would also
try to end the legal easement access to the logging, which had been
written into the deed, although the Lessards had never mentioned it to
The controversy became a family disagreement. Karen’s sister, Marjorie
Cook, donated thousands to the Wings of Wonder legal defense fund and was
ready to testify on behalf of the Lessards that her father had developed
the legal description for the road, which allowed ingress and egress to
the parcel owned by Karen Christensen and her heirs.
Efforts to reach Cook were unsuccessful.

What will taxpayers get for their money? Well, the road won’t give anyone
access to the two lakes that lie along the road because there is no
public access.  But cars will be able to take a short-cut from Gilbert to
Beeman Road if the mood strikes them, since the new two-track will
connect all the way through.
Bob Christensen said the new road will serve as a scenic byway—one of the
few that’s left to public access in Leelanau County.
“I do think it’s unfortunate that the people who live in Leelanau County
or Kasson Township can no longer access what they could growing up 25 or
30 years ago. And although it’s been offset by the National Park it’s not
the same thing,” he said.
 “I do think there’s a public good.  Is it really significant, is it
really large? I don’t suppose that it is. I don’t think the traffic will
be substantial, and I don’t think the connections are commercially all
that important.  I won’t try to oversell the public benefit, but I do
think there is one.”
In terms of commercial importance, Bob Christensen said he has no plans to
develop the property, but someone might 50 years from now and the road
will make it easier, although it’s awkwardly situated for the 10-acre
Noonan said the point is that the road was once used publicly and it
should remain public (although the Lessards claim the commission never
presented proof of that).
“In the first place, it was used as a public road, and we defended the use
as a public road,” Noonan said. “My concern is the county public roads in
Leelanau County, and I always tried to do the best to my ability to see
that’s taken care of.  The only comment is I’m going to make to you is I
hope it’s over. I think the Lessards do a great thing. I appreciate what
they do with the animals and birds. And that’s about all I can tell you.”
Under the terms of this agreement, Lessard and the other private property
owners are not allowed to disparage the road commission and the road
commission cannot disparage them.            

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