With construction of the first segment of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail completed ahead of schedule, the bicycle and recreation trail is causing quite a stir among some residents in Leelanau County.
A ribbon-cutting celebration for the five-mile trail segment between the dune climb and Glen Arbor is scheduled for June 20.
The trail, when completed, is slated to span 27 miles and stretch from south of Empire to Good Harbor beach at the northern border of the National Lakeshore.
What’s causing much of the controversy is still years away from construction – a section in the final segment of the trail, proposed for a residential neighborhood on the northern shore of Little Traverse Lake.
Bill Irwin, president of the homeowner’s association there, said most residents don’t want the trail to come through their neighborhood, especially if it means construction of a bike path parallel to Traverse Lake Road that would require cutting down thousands of trees and grading sand dune hills.
Irwin said residents also don’t want to see so much pedestrian traffic through their neighborhood, and he and his property owner’s association have proposed an alternate route they say would be more scenic and less expensive.
The hitch? What they propose runs closer to Lake Michigan through a section of the park designated wilderness by the National Park Service and it would take an act of Congress before the park service will even consider whether the trail could be constructed there.
LATE IN THE PROCESS
Irwin admits the proposal from Little Traverse Lake residents is coming late in the process.
The trail grew out of the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route. Discussions of what form it would take began in October of 2005, and there have been countless public meetings since then.
The trailway plan was open for public comment for periods in 2007 and 2008, and discussion of the trail in regard to areas of the park that have been designated wilderness occurred as the National Park Service held meetings over the development of their general management plan in the late 2000s.
Irwin said different people were in charge of the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association at the time and no one raised the questions about the trail that should have been raised.
Now the association has hired Traverse City land-use consulting firm Mansfield & Associates, who prepared a report that raises objections to what’s proposed in the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail plans and proposes an alternative.
The property owner’s association would like to see the path constructed on historic trail beds closer to Lake Michigan between Bohemian Road and Good Harbor Road, bypassing Little Traverse Lake.
Irwin said the alternate plan would make for a better, less expensive trail with views of Lake Michigan and it wouldn’t upset his neighbors.
On Traverse Lake Road, “you don’t have any views of water or lake, you’ve got mailboxes and telephone poles,” Irwin said. “If this is a place that’s supposed to be the most beautiful place in America, which I believe it is, then why don’t we show people that?”
BEAUTIFUL CANOPY OF TREES
Irwin said he and most others around Little Traverse Lake support the Heritage Trail in concept.
Residents are worried about what’s going to happen to the character of Traverse Lake Road if the trail is constructed there.
“There’s lots of places where they could run the trail and it would cross virtually no driveways,” Irwin said.
The canopy of trees that arches over sections of the road today, casting shade and splashes of sunlight over the pavement, could be gone depending on how the trail is configured.
In places, the road runs directly against critical dunes, which would have to be bulldozed and graded and fitted with retaining walls to cut a bike trail through, Irwin said.
Irwin also points to areas along the road’s western edge that are wetlands. In these spots, construction costs would increase because boardwalks would be needed.
ACT OF CONGRESS NEEDED
Pam Darling, development director for TART, a proponent and fundraiser for the trail, said “more power to them” if Little Traverse Lake residents are able to get the trail moved.
Some of Irwin’s neighbors have taken a different approach.
Some in the neighborhood led an effort earlier this year to have Traverse Lake Road declared a Natural Beauty Road, which would have imposed development restrictions and been an obstacle for the Heritage Trail.
The Leelanau County Road Commission turned down that request at a recent meeting.
Irwin said he didn’t sign that petition. He prefers to fight the bike trail directly.
Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent for the National Lakeshore, said environmental impact studies have already been completed and the option available to Little Traverse Lake residents that has the least impact is directing trail traffic onto the existing road.
“It’s a fear of change and a fear of the unknown, and they would prefer that the bicyclists would go somewhere else,” Ulrich said. Ulrich believes the trail would have minimal impact on the neighborhood.
Darling said engineering plans have not been drawn up for the section of trail near Little Traverse Lake.
She said initial plans called for the path to follow the road and those plans stirred up neighborhood opposition, causing planners to come up with the current plans to run a trail parallel to the road.
Darling said planners are willing to reconsider the original plans.
In addition to environmental and aesthetic impacts on the neighborhood, residents are concerned about too much bike and other pedestrian traffic.
Indeed, the report prepared by Mansfield & Associates extrapolates a park service estimate that 350,000 people per year would use the trail to mean that during the summer months there would be an average of 5.2 trail users per minute traveling along Little Traverse Road.
That assumes, however, that every trail user will use that section of the 27-milelong trail twice every time they use the trail.
Darling said she expects the segment of trail near the dune climb will be much more popular with users.
Even the occasional day of heavy use of the road by cyclists doesn’t seem to disrupt the neighborhood, Darling said.
“The irony there is that the Leelanau Harvest Tour is routed down their road,” Darling said. At a meeting last fall about the Heritage Trail only days after the Harvest Tour, “a good portion of the people there didn’t know that one thousand cyclists had ridden down their road in one day.”
THOUSANDS IN DONATIONS RAISED
Since bulldozers appeared near the dune climb, the trail has spurred frustration and anger among some Leelanau County citizens, despite the trail being part of the years-long process.
Some were taken entirely by surprise by the trail; others said they didn’t understand how many trees would be removed to cut pathways through the woods or that it would be paved in parts.
In a letter to the Leelanau Enterprise, one woman wrote, “Should we start a campaign to change the name from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to Weeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?” Another writer asserted: “Forty years of controlled and responsible management has been undone by a combination of stimulus spending mania and the new-age bicycle craze.”
Nonetheless, a lot of perhaps less-vocal people love the idea of the trail, and they’ve supported it with their money and time.
Tens of thousands of dollars have already been raised to pay for the trail.
Fundraising is also ahead of schedule. Over a million dollars has been raised from private foundations and individual donors and $6.5 million in state and federal grants have been secured, said Patty O’Donnell of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.
Construction began in March on the first section of the trail and it has been completed ahead of schedule. The next sections to be constructed are south to Empire and north from Glen Arbor to Port Oneida Road.
For information about the trail or to learn how to donate, visit sleeepingbeartrail.org.