April 14, 2021

FishPass: A Foul-Hooked Project

Guest Opinion
By Grant Parsons | March 6, 2021

There’s proper fishing, and then there’s illegal “snagging,” or “foul-hooking.” The latter’s a good metaphor for the way the FishPass project was landed by Traverse City.

Union Street Dam Park is a gem of a park. From the Union Street bridge on any given day, you can look down at the park, its historic willows, a fisherman or two, and the sky reflecting off the surface of the Boardman River.

City, state, and federal bureaucrats want to turn that postcard park into a $20 million research station called FishPass — a 400-foot-long concrete fish tank with an overhead crane-and-gantry system, commercial lighting, truck entrance, 6-foot-high chain-link fence, and a sorting barrier for lamprey eels.

One week before construction was to start, the FishPass project was stopped by Rick Buckhalter, a little guy who filed his own “pro se” lawsuit — no lawyer, no money, nothing but sincerity. His suit has exposed three fundamental FishPass falsehoods.

No. 1 “The Dam is Failing” Falsehood: The city says Union Street Dam is failing, and the city needs free federal FishPass money to replace it. In fact, a 2018 DEQ Inspection Report says this: “The dam is in satisfactory condition overall with several recommendations and observations listed in the report.” For years, the city budgeted maintenance money but did nothing. The dam doesn’t need removal; it needs maintenance.

No. 2 “No Right to Vote” Falsehood: Traverse City’s city charter says the sale, lease, or re-purposing of parkland is prohibited unless residents approve by a 60 percent majority vote. The city has claimed FishPass won’t change the park, but Judge Tom Power rejected that argument in a pretrial hearing, saying “ … it is a laboratory and is not a park purpose.”

No. 3 “FishPass Won’t Hurt the Boardman River” Falsehood: FishPass planners want to pass “desirable” fish upstream while blocking lamprey eels and other “undesirable fish.” But they cannot or will not say which fish are “desirable” and cannot or will not disclose how FishPass will screen lamprey eels. Engineers admit this: FishPass is experimental; other attempts have tried and failed to pass fish while blocking lampreys; if FishPass fails, the state will have to poison the Boardman with TFM to kill the eels. Fish biologists say if lake-run fish (steelhead and salmon) do get upriver, they will out-compete the native brook trout population. Some fishermen want salmon and steelhead upriver; others say it will radically change the fishing culture.

Judge Power saw past the falsehoods and stated the obvious: The $20 million FishPass Research Station is a significant re-purposing of the park, and the city charter probably requires a public vote. He issued an injunction stopping FishPass at least until the May trial.

Now, bright orange “X’s on trees and yellow police tape across the sidewalks mark the spot where FishPass was planned. City officials complain the delay is costing $9,000 a day. The obvious response:  If the city wanted to avoid delay, why didn’t they do the right thing and allow a vote back in 2019, when residents asked for a vote? The city has required votes on numerous other projects that have affected city parks — a handicap ramp in Jay Smith Walkway, a 10-foot strip of Sunset Park, the remodel of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, the widening of Division Street, the thwarted Bayview Mall. If a vote was required for a handicap ramp, isn’t it obvious a vote is required to build the $20 million FishPass project?

This FishPass dispute highlights the strained relationship between the city commission and city residents. Since late 2018, when details of FishPass started to emerge, residents voiced serious objections: Doesn’t the city charter require a vote? Isn’t there a better place to experiment with fish, rather than in the blue-ribbon Boardman? How much will FishPass cost city taxpayers in the long run? Will the excavation of 10,000+ cubic yards of old industrial sediment affect the downstream river ecology? Will the dam removal increase the risk of flooding? Why did all prior attempts to screen lampreys fail? Will steelhead and salmon be passed upriver? If lampreys get upriver, and lampricide is used, will it poison other organisms? Will steelhead and salmon impact brook trout?

City officials issued a multi-page “answer” sheet that was long on deflection and short on answers. City commissioners were foul-hooked by city staff’s bad advice: “the dam is failing, no vote is necessary, it’s free federal money.” Public be damned, city staff decided it knew better.

City officials made the wrong choice once again to support outside interests against city residents’ interests. City supporters trotted out the same old tactics — fancy computer animations and fanciful promises — and threatened Rick Buckhalter, the conscience of the community, with court costs and “damages.”  

A vote on FishPass is not only good for FishPass opponents; it is a reset for everyone. Planners get a chance to come up with a better proposal, and city voters get a chance to listen, learn, and decide — exactly as the city charter intends.

Grant Parsons is a Traverse City trial attorney with an interest in land-use policy. He has provided free legal advice to Rick Buckhalter and others for many years.


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