2012-06-21 / Front Page

Lansing power play delays Leland project

By Alan Campbell
of the Enterprise staff

AN AERIAL photo shows part of the Crary property in a clearing. Bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan are shown in the foreground; north Lake Leelanau is at top. Photo courtesy of Tim Alter AN AERIAL photo shows part of the Crary property in a clearing. Bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan are shown in the foreground; north Lake Leelanau is at top. Photo courtesy of Tim Alter The purchase for public use of one of the prettiest properties in Leelanau County is on hold for at least another month and maybe longer, the result of a constitutional disagreement over disbursement of state oil and gas revenues.

Leland Township clerk Jane Keen is concerned that the $5.8 million deal to purchase what has become known as the Clay Cliffs Natural Area could fall through while Legislators seek to exercise control over the $500 million Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which was established by the Legislature in 1976 and written into the state Constitution by an overwhelming majority of voters in 1984.

Leland Township worked with the Leelanau Conservancy in submitting a proposal to the Trust Fund Board seeking $2.9 million — half the pricetag — for purchase of the Crary property north of Leland. The 104 acres has extensive frontage on north Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan, with stunning views offered from a 200-foot bluff. Some 25 percent of the purchase was donated by the property’s owner, Rachel Crary, who is seeking to fulfill her father’s dream with the transaction. Remaining funds are being raised through grants and private donations.

“Our seller’s attorneys are extremely frustrated,” said Keen. “This is difficult for them. They are trying to close an estate for this person. And we’ve been granted the money. I just don’t understand the problem.”

Neither do two long-time members of the Trust Fund Board, which is charged with choosing projects for funding. Trust Fund Board chair Bob Garner and member Keith Charters said the Legislature has tried before to interfere with the board’s decisions, but eventually backed off.

This year, however, members of the Republican-controlled state House and Senate appear determined to assert their wills into the process of determining which projects will be funded. One reason, according to Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Everett) who represents Leelanau County, is because he believes the state already owns too much land. While bills allocating Trust Fund monies were held up over a discussion about the merits of funds set aside for the DNR to purchase property to fill in privately held gaps in state parks, wildlife areas and forests, Booher’s argument goes to the core of the Constitution and the role of the independent Trust Fund Board.

“I think it’s high time that the Legislature takes the oversight where it ought to be, and that’s with us. That’s not the DNR’s money, that’s the state’s money. That’s oil and gas lease property,” he said.

His argument goes across the aisle, as a state Senate bill removing funds for the DNR to purchase land to fill in what are termed “eco regions” was passed unanimously. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson of the Upper Peninsula.

“When it passes with every senator voting to pull the DNR (funding) out, that’s something, isn’t it? That’s pretty good evidence that they’re tired of this,” said Booher. He has no complaints with funding for projects sponsored by local units of governments, including the Leland purchase.

The state House bill was slightly different from the Senate’s version, requiring a joint conference committee to work out a compromise — and setting back the process. The state Senate went into summer recess, causing another delay.

Booher expects the Senate to approve the compromise when it convenes on July 18, and Gov. Rich Snyder to sign the bill into law. Funding for 2010 projects received Snyder’s signature in late March, 2011.

Booher doesn’t expect the delay to jeopardize projects. “I think all of the local (projects), they will go through. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think the DNR may have a problem with it with some of the properties they had targeted to buy within the northern eco-region,” he said.

Charter is also a former chair of the state Natural Resources Commission, which sets policy for the DNR. He said funds set aside for DNR land purchases have not been mishandled, and offers as proof funds that each year go unspent. Some $4 million has been carried over in recent years, he estimated.

“But they want to carry enough balance in there so if something comes up, they can jump on it. The mere fact that there is money left over tells me that they aren’t spending it willy-nilly; they are using it as it was intended,” he said.

Charter, who resides in Traverse City, is concerned about projects put on hold, including the Crary property.

“You take a piece of property such as that. They could sell their frontage on Lake Leelanau, and settle all of their problems. They could parcel off the water frontage, and sell it, and it’s not as though that’s a tough sell, either,” he said.

Garner said the delay is bad for the economy, but was just as concerned with precedent being set by the Legislature. He worked while chief legislative aid for State Sen. Kerry Kammer to set up the fund as a fitting use of revenue over oil and gas exploration on state-owned funds. The Kammer Recreational Lake Trust Fund was signed into law in 1976, setting up a citizens’ committee rather than the Legislature to review and recommend projects for funding. Eight years later, voters placed the concept in the state Constitution.

Said Garner, “We’ve never dealt with this before. If they go home to campaign, we don’t know what will happen. They are bringing on a real Constitutional crisis that doesn’t need to be brought on. It’s the first time that the Trust Fund has been messed with like this.”

Funding has also been delayed for a $240,000 pathway project in the Suttons Bay Village that had been among funding recommendations from the Trust Fund Board.

Prior to the Crary project, the Trust Fund had provided $4 million toward 12 projects in Leelanau County including purchase of Veronica Valley County Park in Bingham Township, the DeYoung conservation area in Elmwood Township and water front improvements in Northport, Greilickville and Empire. The DeYoung property at $900,000 was previously the highest-funded project — and continues to be as the Trust Fund Board’s recommendations languish in the Legislature.

Keen, for her part, would just like some answers.

“This is so unlike it has been before, and I’m getting absolutely no answers (from Sen. Booher’s office). It’s really frustrating. We’ve been trying to raise money ... I just didn’t think this is the way it was supposed to work,” Keen said.

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