2018-03-08 / Front Page

Trail lawsuit tossed

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

The end of construction is closer for the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail now that a federal lawsuit has been tossed.

Plans to construct the final segment of the trail in Leelanau County will move forward despite an effort by members of the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association to block the project by suing the National Park Service in federal court.

A three-judge federal appeals court panel in Ohio decided unanimously late last month to uphold a 2017 decision by a U.S. District Court Judge in Grand Rapids to summarily dismiss the association’s lawsuit against the National Park Service.

Members of the lake association had objected to the project because plans call for routing a 5.2- mile segment of the trail along the north side of Traverse Lake Road — literally across the street from lakefront homes owned by association members.

The deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Tom Ulrich, said the appeals court ruling will allow Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation

TART) Trails to continue fundraising to pay for construction of the final segment of the trail in Leelanau County.

Currently, the trail extends some 20 miles from Empire to Bohemian Road (County Road 669) in Cleveland Township, where it ends near the Cleveland Township Hall on M-22 (Harbor Highway). Most of the trail has been paid for with federal and state grant dollars bolstered by funds raised privately.

TART raised some $775,000 of the $5.1 million necessary to construct an eight-mile portion of the trail between Glen Arbor and where it currently ends. Plans formulated in 2009 based on an extended public input process and environmental studies called for the trail to continue from Bohemian Road along M-22 to Traverse Lake Road.

Plans also called for the trail to be routed along Traverse Lake Road north of Little Traverse Lake before ending at the Good Harbor Trail (County Road 651) road-end on Lake Michigan. Members of the association had advocated instead for the trail to be routed up Bohemian Road and parallel the Lake Michigan shoreline well north of Traverse Lake Road before ending on Good Harbor Trail.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Gordon J. Quist in Grand Rapids summarily dismissed a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association against the National Park Service. The judge noted that the association filed the suit almost six years after the National Park Service held a series of public input sessions on plans for the trail, completed environmental studies and made a finding of “no significant (environmental) impact.”

But members of the property owners’ association appealed the judge’s January 2017 decision in a federal appeals court in Ohio, contending that plans formulated in 2009 for the trail violated the National Environmental Protection Act and its implementing regulations. Last month, a panel of federal appeals court judges affirmed the district court judge’s decision to dismiss the case.

(The president of the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association provided a statement about the issue which accompanies this news article.)

As TART resumes fundraising for the final segment of the trail in Leelanau County, Ulrich said, Cleveland Township officials have offered to facilitate a series of meetings and public discussions among residents, TART officials and other government officials about detailed plans for the next phase of trail construction.

“There are still some details to be worked out on the exact location and configuration of this segment of the trail along Traverse Lake Road to Good Harbor Trail,” Ulrich explained, “but there are no plans to locate the trail anywhere other than where it was generally planned to go – along Traverse Lake Road.”

Cleveland Township supervisor Tim Stein, himself a Little Traverse Lake property owner, said the township government will continue to work with the National Park Service, the Michigan Department of Transportation, Networks Northwest, the Leelanau County Road Commission and TART Trails to finalize plans for “segment 9” of the trail.

Stein said a series of meetings will likely be held at the Cleveland Township Hall beginning in April on dates to be announced after more of the township’s seasonal residents return.

Officials said it is not yet known when construction of the next segment of the trail will begin or exactly how much it will cost. Engineering studies and construction bids will need to be completed before final figures are known.

Overall, the non-motorized Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is expected to span some 27 miles between Manning Road in Benzie County and Good Harbor Trail in Leelanau County. The southern portion of the trail currently ends in Empire, and discussions are still underway with Benzie County officials toward building the final portion of the trial south of the Leelanau County line.

The trail is designed to showcase attractions within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and allow visitors to access more sites on foot or bicycle. A portion of the trail between Glen Arbor and Empire is also groomed for crosscountry skiing during the winter by the non-profit volunteer organization Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Group issues statement

In response to questions from a Leelanau Enterprise reporter, Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association President David Skjaerlund of Cleveland Township provided a written statement about the association’s recent loss in federal court. The group sued the National Park Service over location of the easternmost segment of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.

The Enterprise did not independently verify information in Mr. Skjaerlund’s statement, which follows:

“Nearly 70% of all public comments submitted during the October 2008 public comment period raised concerns about Segment 9, including safety concerns and impact on protected 40’ high critical dunes, wetlands, and private property. It is unfortunate that we were not directly informed by NPS that we had to resubmit those same concerns a second time during another public comment period held in late winter 2009, in which not a single person in the entire community submitted any comments, either for or against - and thus the court ruled on that technicality alone.

“We have extensively raised our concerns during the last 10 years, including submitting engineering reports, a petition signed by over 200 local residents, and numerous efforts to communicate our concerns, including unanimous resolutions submitted by the Cleveland Township Board. These have seemed to fallen on deaf ears with NPS.

“We will continue to communicate concerns about the proposed routing of Segment 9 and explore ways to minimize that impact by proposing alternatives, including the option of a trail along CR 669 and Lake Michigan Drive, which has no impact on the environment or private property and is a much lower cost alternative while providing a superior user experience than what is being proposed. This area is already designated a recreational zone in the NPS master plan, as opposed to the proposed route along the wilderness area. We believe there is a win-win solution if the community would be willing to take a step back and reevaluate the options along with their impact and costs.”

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This is extremely disturbing

This is extremely disturbing news. We at Sleeping Bear Naturally are against bulldozing, grading and paving the forest, destroying critical forested dunes and habitat, and cutting down trees for an unnecessary paved bike road. We will work with all who want to encourage the National Park Service to act sensibly and responsibly and adhere to its duty to protect the resources entrusted to it by Congress. We encourage nature-loving citizens to speak to Lakeshore personnel, especially Tom Ulrich, about their concerns and to not give money to TART's fundraising campaign. Marilyn Miller, Sleeping Bear Naturally