The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is seeking input regarding the planned removal of the Pure Michigan Byway designation on M37/Center Road on the Old Mission Peninsula. They are planning to hold a public hearing on May 21, 2020, 5 – 7 p.m.
The removal is necessitated by the anticipated jurisdictional transfer of M37 from MDOT to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, a transfer opposed by Peninsula Township officials. This includes the portion of the road within Peninsula Township (Center Road), as well as M37 north of US-31 within the Traverse City limits.
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MDOT Grants Benefit Peninsula Township
When the issue of transfering M37 from MDOT to the Road Commission came up last year, Peninsula Township officials drafted a resolution opposing the transfer, citing a variety of reasons, including the fact that MDOT has the ability to pursue grant money, which has been helpful for Peninsula Township in the past.
“We’ve been successful with MDOT before to get grants,” said Peninsula Township Supervisor Rob Manigold when I talked with him yesterday. “That’s what got us the paved shoulders on Center Road and the scenic turnout at Chateau Grand Traverse.”
Manigold said MDOT would also be available to work with Peninsula Township as needed for corridor studies on traffic, as well as establishing non-motorized bike lanes and passing lanes at various points, including possible turn lanes at Cherrywood Commons on Center Road (near Vineyard Ridge), turning onto Bluff Road from Center Road and others.
“We’ve been talking for years about doing a corridor study, and we’d want to partner with someone who has the ability to get grant money, which would be MDOT,” he said.
Tree Removal by Road Commission Caused Erosion
Manigold added that Peninsula Township has a great relationship with MDOT dating back decades. “When they started cutting maple trees on Center Road, before they would cut a tree, your dad (Walter Johnson) would bring a forester out from Leelanau County, and John Wunsch and I would meet with them and MDOT to check out the trees before they were cut. By working with them instead of just removing trees, we were able to keep a lot of that canopy that’s there today.”
Meanwhile, over the past four years, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission has cut hundreds of trees along Bluff Road and Peninsula Drive, resulting in erosion issues, despite the fact that Township residents organized and circulated a petition to thwart the project.
“When those trees were cut along Peninsula Drive and Bluff Road, we told the Road Commission that removal of that vegetation would cause serious erosion problems,” said Manigold. “We told them at the time that the road was eventually going to go into the lake. We thought it would be a little longer before that happened, but with the rise of the water and the erosion that’s taken place along Peninsula Drive and Bluff Road, we thought it was important to put that in the resolution (opposing the transfer of M37 to the Road Commission).”
William Strong, president of the nonprofit group Keep Michigan Beautiful, agreed. In a letter to Peninsula Township dated May 1, 2020, he wrote:
“The Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC) has demonstrated a lack of environmental planning and could have prevented an environmental impact of erosion by not removing trees on Bluff Road. The GTCRC removed trees along the shoreline that resulted in erosion and providing natural shade of the roadways. The natural shade prevented the deterioration of shoreline roads.
“If GTCRC is allowed to have control of M-37 Pure Michigan Scenic Byway, this beautiful scenic natural area will no longer exist. The Peninsula Commission should maintain control of the Pure Michigan Scenic Byway. GTCRC has demonstrated they are not an environmentally friendly organization.”
M37 is a Major Trunkline in Peninsula Township
Manigold also noted that M37/Center Road is Peninsula Township’s major trunkline for traffic heading to the wineries, Mission Point Lighthouse, historic sites and other locales, not to mention agricultural traffic year-round. Also, the Purchase of Development Rights program established in the 1990s was always designed to keep traffic on M37.
“We’re very adamant about keeping M37 in MDOT’s hands,” he said. “With all the farm machinery traveling down the road – millions of pounds of cherries, apples and other fruit are coming and going off this road – we’ve got to keep it a state highway. With MDOT’s funding and our ability to work with them and do studies, we’d really be at a disadvantage with the Road Commission.”
There’s a State Park at the End of Old Mission Peninsula
One sticking point about transfering M37 away from MDOT is that there’s a state park surrounding Mission Point Lighthouse at the end of the Old Mission Peninsula. Last year, both MDOT and the Road Commission went on record noting that because there’s no longer a state park there, M37 no longer needs to be a state road.
However, there are, in fact, two parcels at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula that are owned by the State of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In 1949, 132 acres of state land surrounding the lighthouse was leased to Peninsula Township in perpetuity, as long as the Township allows the public to use it. This land, known as Lighthouse Park, is owned by the Michigan DNR and leased to Peninsula Township, who maintains it. (Mission Point Lighthouse sits on five acres owned by Peninsula Township.)
In 1988, 514 acres once owned by the Murray family was purchased by the Michigan DNR and leased to Peninsula Township on a 30-year lease which automatically renews. After it was purchased, the DNR gave the township $465,000 to set up the trail system. This land, now known as Old Mission State Park, is owned by the state and maintained by Peninsula Township.
M37 also serves two DNR Lake Michigan boat launch sites (East Bay and Bowers Harbor), along with a proposed third launch site on state property (Kelley Park, south of Haserot Beach).
M37 Transfer Supported by Road Commission and City
Both the Grand Traverse County Road Commission and the City of Traverse City have passed resolutions supporting the transfer of responsibility for M37 to their jurisdiction, which will make them responsible for ongoing maintenance and operation of the road.
If the transfer is completed, each entity will receive funding under Michigan’s Act 51 transportation funding formula to provide for that maintenance, as well as funding from MDOT equivalent to anticipated construction projects on the route.
But Manigold notes that any money the Road Commission would receive for taking over the road wouldn’t necessarily have to be used in Peninsula Township. It could be used anywhere in the county, he said.
A Letter to the Governor and Possible Injunction
The upcoming public hearing will include MDOT staff from the Traverse City Transportation Service Center, representatives from the Grand Traverse County Road Commission and City of Traverse City, as well as interested residents, commuters and business owners. Noticeably absent from the list of invitees are Peninsula Township officials, a fact not lost on Manigold.
“We just feel it would be a travesty to lose that Pure Michigan Byway designation and have the county take over M37,” said Manigold, adding that the Township attorney is preparing an injunction to stop the transfer.
“That’s a last case scenario,” said Manigold. “Before we go to court, we like to try every avenue. But if it comes to that, we’re willing to move forward and get an injunction to stop the process of transferring the road.”
Meanwhile, Peninsula Township officials fired off a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, state legislators and local leaders today, with a request that the governor ask MDOT to put a moratorium on the public hearing pending further investigation into the matter.
From the letter: “Removing M37 from the Pure Michigan Scenic Byway system is not in the best interests of Michigan or Peninsula Township’s agriculture and tourism industry, which has benefitted from its partnership with multiple entities including MDOT and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to protect and preserve its incomparable scenic views and which has been permanently preserved by its landmark Purchase of Development Rights program leveraging substantial state and federal grants.”
Read Peninsula Township’s entire letter to Gov. Whitmer here.
MDOT Seeking Public Input During 30-Day Comment Period
As noted, a public hearing regarding removal of M37’s Pure Michigan Byway designation will be held on May 21, 2020, 5 – 7 p.m. The hearing and a 30-day public comment period are required due to the transfer resulting in the roadway becoming a city street and county road, as only state highways may be designated under the Pure Michigan Byway program.
Submit comments through May 20 by downloading the M37 Pure Michigan Designation Comment Form here. Comments may be sent to MDOT Public Involvement Specialist Monica Monsma, [email protected] or mailed to MDOT Bureau of Development, Attn: Monica Monsma, 425 West Ottawa St., P.O. Box 30050, Lansing, MI 48909.
The hearing will be held at MDOT Traverse City, 2084 US-31 South, Suite B, in Traverse City. A live broadcast of the hearing will also be available here. For more information regarding online participation, email Monica Monsma at [email protected].
Accommodations can be made for persons with disabilities and limited English-speaking ability. Large print materials, auxiliary aids or the services of interpreters, signers, or readers are available upon request. Please call (517) 335-4381 to request at least seven days before the meeting date.
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb