Bluff Road closed on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Bluff Road closed on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
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As erosion issues continue to plague the north end of Bluff Road, a portion of which has been closed since last winter, some Old Mission Peninsula residents who live there are saying enough is enough.

In a letter to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC) dated August 26, Jim Raphael says their handling of the Bluff Road situation has been “pathetically clumsy, but not totally surprising.”

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“The path leading to the current juncture in the Bluff Road fiasco has been strewn with Road Commission obfuscation, back sliding, half-truths and outright fabrications,” writes Raphael.

He says that residents of Bluff Road and Mission Hills, a subdivision on the south end of the road closure where he owns a home, have tried working with GTCRC for several months, with the assumption that appropriate steps and a plan of action would develop to repair and re-open the road. The Mission Hills Homeowners Association owns shared water frontage located in the middle of the road closure.

“It is now clear this trust and optimism were misplaced,” writes Raphael, adding that he feels that GTCRC’s intent all along has been to permanently close Bluff Road to avoid spending funds – “our tax dollars,” he notes – on a project it didn’t want to undertake.

Year-Long Erosion Issues

Erosion issues along that stretch of Bluff Road began in the fall of 2019, when we reported that a large tree had collapsed into East Bay, taking part of the bank with it. At the time, GTCRC poured fill into the bank where the tree came down.

But the shoreline and bank continued to be pummeled by high water, escalating the erosion and sending more trees and dirt into East Bay. In January 2020, GTCRC determined that the road was impassable and closed that portion of Bluff Road indefinitely.

Since then, residents to the north of the closure have taken Bluff Road to Boursaw Road to Smokey Hollow Road, while residents to the south have traveled down Bluff Road to Blue Water Road or Center Road.

At the time of the road closure, GTCRC noted that they would be working on the road, weather permitting, with a plan to possibly re-open the road in the spring.

However, the only work that’s been done on the road this year involves repairing sinkholes caused by underground streams on the north side of the road closure. Still, erosion continues in that area, and Paulette Kloes, who owns a home there, says sections of that bank are collapsing.

“We really need to focus on how residents will be able to egress if more damage occurs and nothing is done,” note Kloes. “That north road maintenance becomes imperative if cul de sacs are put in place.”

The water has also created caves under the road near the south end of the closure, and the barricades and fencing now span far beyond the initial bank collapse of Fall 2019.

Bluff Road Erosion on the Old Mission Peninsula | Susan Shooltz Photo
Bluff Road Erosion on the Old Mission Peninsula | Susan Shooltz Photo

No Re-Establishment of Land in Great Lakes

Old Mission Gazette recently spoke with GTCRC manager Brad Kluczynski, who said they met with EGLE (Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy; formerly the Department of Environmental Quality) to determine whether EGLE would issue a permit to rebuild the closed section of Bluff Road.

Kluczynski was not optimistic that EGLE would issue that permit, because “the current standards do not allow re-establishment of land in the Great Lakes,” he says.

If that’s the case, he says the road will need to be closed permanently, with cul de sacs built on both sides of the closure. Here’s a photo from a few weeks ago.

Bluff Road Erosion on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Bluff Road Erosion on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo

A $2.5 Million Project

Funding the project is also an issue. “At this point, we don’t have the funds to do it,” says Kluczynski. “You’re talking about probably a two and a half million dollar project, and 75 percent of that would have to come from the township or other sources.”

The 75 percent figure comes from Act 51, he says, which notes that “money distributed from the Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) may be expended for construction purposes on county local roads only to the extent matched by money from other sources.”

GTCRC’s policy is that a local match of 75 percent is required for all local road improvements, provided through either the township’s general fund or a special assessment.

Kluczynski says that the MTF – the primary funding for GTCRC – has seen a substantial decrease due to the pandemic, and that using the available funding for a small stretch of Bluff Road provides limited benefits to the county road system.

In a letter dated August 20 to Gary Popovits, a Traverse City attorney and resident of Mission Hills who’s working on behalf of the subdivision, Kluczynski explains it this way:

“For the past 12 months, we’ve received $12 million in total MTF funds, of which $8 million was received for primary roads and $3.8 million for local roads. Our 2020 budget for local road routine and winter maintenance alone is $3 million.”

He adds that the MTF funds are also used for equipment purchases and operating costs, debt obligations, administrative and facility expenses, local match on federal and state aid grant projects and matching funds for partnership projects. “Our board policy is to set aside $500,000 per year for the road commission’s 25 percent match on partnership projects.”

“A Very Small Stretch of Road”

He also notes that repairing Bluff Road isn’t in line with GTCRC’s Asset Management Plan, which evaluates where GTCRC dollars should be spent.

“Based on the Road Commission’s estimate of the cost to repair this 2/10th of a mile portion of Bluff Road, using millage funds as a match would result in nearly 62 percent of the millage dollars for one year being used for a very small stretch of road that provides very limited benefits to the county road system. This would not be equitable to the county taxpayers, nor is it consistent with the Road Commission’s policy on local roads or use of the County millage dollars.”

Kluczynski adds that GTCRC has no jurisdiction outside of the road right-of-way, “and it cannot expend money for the benefit of private property owners. The Mission Hills Subdivision HOA and other private property owners along the shoreline obviously can take whatever actions they feel are necessary to prevent further erosion of their property. The Road Commission is willing to work with them to ensure any action will not further erode the road right-of-way.”

Raphael says Mission Hills has done their part to stabilize a portion of the shore frontage, noting that last summer, the homeowners association reinforced almost half of its 320 feet of East Bay frontage with riprap.

And he believes that much of the problem falls within GTCRC’s road right-of-way.

“It is now clear that Bluff’s roadbed erosion in the area now closed is the result not only of shoreline activity, but also of an overloaded and active underground network of springs, which has been sending water under the road from the hills above and destabilizing the clay soil bluff. The incident that started the first Bluff Road problem initially had little or nothing to do with shoreline erosion, contrary to assertions made by Mr. Kluczynski.”

(When we talked with Kluczynski a few weeks ago, he noted that the sinkholes beyond the north end of the closure were due to water runoff from the west side of the road.)

Along with the springs, Raphael argues that much of the erosion didn’t start at the water’s edge, but rather up higher towards the road. He says a large tree within GTCRC’s right-of-way was uprooted and blew over in high winds late last summer, falling into Mission Hills’ waterfront and causing significant damage.

Here are photos of that tree and bank collapse last fall.

High winds caused a tree and bank to collapse into East Bay on Bluff Road on the Old Mission Peninsula
Tree and bank collapse into East Bay on Bluff Road, about a half-mile south of Boursaw Road | Jane Boursaw Photo
High winds caused a tree and bank to collapse into East Bay on Bluff Road on the Old Mission Peninsula
Tree and bank collapse into East Bay on Bluff Road, about a half-mile south of Boursaw Road | Jane Boursaw Photo

Questioning the Road Commission’s Policy

Raphael also questions GTCRC’s co-funding policies mentioned above. “This policy from former years could be modified or waved by your Board as circumstances warrant,” he writes to GTCRC. “Instead, it’s being used to help kill any prospect of repairs to Bluff. There is no obvious rationale for such a steep match requirement under current circumstances when you are getting $5 million per year from townships through the millage.”

He says it’s time for GTCRC to take responsibility and fix the road – something that should have been done last fall. “What would have been a modest repair bill at that site last fall, if proper steps had been taken, has grown into a major engineering project.”

He also questions GTCRC’s $2.5 million estimate to repair Bluff Road, especially if they’re still communicating with EGLE on whether a repair could even take place.

“How did [GTCRC] come up with this figure, if there is no plan to justify the estimate?” writes Raphael. “The high number gives the appearance of an excuse for not doing the work. Why does GTCRC think Peninsula Township, the State, or another funding source is going to help with a project that lacks a plan?”

He adds in the letter, “Management inexperience or a shortage of expertise on road erosion issues is one thing. But the obvious lack of motivation, sense of urgency, and indifference towards Peninsula residents who live on or use Bluff Road and who help pay your bills and salaries are what make the Road Commission’s behavior unacceptable for those who now have to deal with the consequences.”

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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 and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, 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 I started my own newspaper.

Because Old Mission Gazette is a "Reader Supported Newspaper" -- meaning it exists because of your financial support -- I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks our 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 OMP. In a time when local news is becoming a thing of the past, supporting an independent community newspaper is more important now than ever.

To keep the Gazette going, click here to make a donation. Thank you so much for your support. -jb

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