At their meeting on March 23, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission may vote to decertify the section of Bluff Road that’s been closed due to erosion since January of 2020.
At the Feb. 14 meeting of the Peninsula Township Board, Road Commission Manager Brad Kluczynski said that decertifying the road would give the Commission the ability to close it down to vehicular traffic, but still leave an area where pedestrians and bicyclists can go through. He added that this change of use cannot be done while the road is still certified.
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At that same meeting, the Township Board clashed with Kluczynski, with several board members stating that the Road Commission did not address the Bluff Road erosion in a timely manner back in 2020, thus allowing the road to further collapse.
“The problem for the citizens out here is that this was a county road, and it seems like the county abrogated its responsibility for maintaining the road before it collapsed,” said Board member Rudy Rudolph. “The citizens feel like Peninsula Township does not exist for you. It is a problem.”
Rudolph also noted that at the beginning of his presentation, Kluczynski spent several minutes talking about Road Commission projects elsewhere in northern Michigan, including the Hammond-Hartman Bridge.
“You didn’t address Peninsula Township at all when you came in here,” said Rudolph. “I don’t really care about the bridge going over the Boardman River. That’s not my problem. My problem is the roads out here on the Peninsula, which I have seen deteriorating over the last 30 years.”
Board member Armen Shanafelt noted that the amount of money being spent to fix and maintain Peninsula roads is disproportionate to the millage sent to the Road Commission by the Township.
“If I look at the expenditure on the Peninsula, it is nominal to the point made earlier about how much of our tax dollars are going to the Road Commission. If you want to regain trust, which would be highly useful, can you show us proportionately how our dollars are being used for Peninsula Township?”
Kluczynski began to say, “We don’t break down by township…,” to which Shanafelt replied, “You spent $33,000 last year on the township. We gave you $800,000. Tell me, what happened to what should have been $765,000 going to repair some of our roads?”
Kluczynski replied that the millage goes into a pot that’s used for the entire county.
“I understand that,” said Shanafelt, “but as a consequence, you are ignoring needs on the peninsula. [The end result of] the asset management program is that we are not getting our fair share of work … The problem is the appearance that very little work is being done, compared to the amount of millage that is going to the road commission. I understand that the asset management is causing that, but there has to be a way to address it.”
Township Treasurer Marge Achorn asked Kluczynski, “Why did you not maintain the road before you let it be destroyed by your inactivity and ignoring the problem? You left a problem that was perhaps $250,000 grow into a [three]-million-dollar major catastrophe.”
Township Clerk Becky Chown noted that there’s been no mitigation action to date to control the erosion problems, and Board member Warren Wahl noted that the only people who have done any work on the road and erosion issues are the homeowners who live on that section of Bluff Road.
Kluczynski reiterated that the cost of fixing Bluff Road is more than $3 million – a number that’s disputed by the residents of the Mission Hills subdivision, located at the road closure – that the Road Commission doesn’t have the funds to fix it, and that the number of cars going through there daily does not justify a fix. However, the car count he mentioned, around 200 cars, was done several years ago and does not take into account the new subdivision on the corner of Boursaw Road and Bluff Road.
Kluczynski said they’ve applied for two grants, but have not heard back, and that the next step is to decertify the road, which must be done this month in order to meet the deadline for the Road Commission’s annual resolution verifying an inventory map tied to state funding of the roads it maintains throughout the county. He also stated that decertifying the road would not prohibit the Road Commission or Township from applying for grants, and that the road could be re-certified in the future if funds became available to fix it.
In our interview with Kluczynski in August of 2020, he stated then that the Road Commission may not open the road. “At this point, we don’t have the funds to do it,” said Kluczynski at the time. “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. We will probably not be able to fund it in the next few years. It’s just the nature of where we have funding coming in and where the State of Michigan mandates our funds.”
The Township Board is against decertifying the road and sent a letter to the Road Commission stating their reasons. At the March 14 Township Board meeting, Supervisor Isaiah Wunsch read the following letter into the record. The letter was signed by each Board member and sent to the Road Commission ahead of their March 23 meeting.
“The Peninsula Township Board unequivocally opposes the closure, decertification, or abandonment of Bluff Road. We recognize the financial constraints faced by the Grand Traverse County Road Commission but are unconvinced that decertification and/or abandonment of all or part of this vitally important road will be consistent with our mutually stated objective of resolving this issue and reopening Bluff Road through the acquisition of state or federal grant monies. Moreover, our legal counsel is concerned about the legal issues raised by the road commission’s approach to decertifying a portion of Bluff Road and closing it for public travel yet maintaining it for non-motorized traffic.
“This proposed action also raises questions about why the commission would take this measure and the rationales that have been set forth to the public as a basis for decertification. We therefore urge the Grand Traverse County Road Commission not to decertify Bluff Road or at a minimum to further delay such action until the commission fully addresses the township’s concerns.
“For the record, the road commission’s inaction regarding the collapsed section of Bluff Road for more than three years has dramatically worsened the condition of the road and placed undue financial and managerial burden upon township officials and residents. The further step of decertification without a realistic, actionable solution will cause real financial harm to residents who live in the impacted area. It will also pose physical harm, undermining the ability of Peninsula Township to dispatch firefighters and EMTs to the affected area (see this letter from Peninsula Township Fire Chief Fred Gilstorff).
“Specifically, the steep grades drivers experience on the detours they’re required to take on Smokey Hollow Road limit ingress to and egress from the affected portion of Bluff Road during periods of adverse weather. These hazardous driving conditions are worsened by the road commission’s continued failure to plow Smokey Hollow Road. This bleak situation poses a real risk of loss of property in the case of fire or the loss of life due to medical emergencies during the regular periods of severe winter weather the township experiences every year.
“To date, Peninsula Township has submitted grants for the repair of Bluff Road, met with state and federal officials to discuss the problem, and invested staff and consulting resources to try to find a workable solution. Meanwhile, our residents pay more than $800,000 in millage funds to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission each year, raising serious questions about the ROI they receive for their dollars. A clear, executable plan for repairing the damage to Bluff Road will go a long way toward addressing concerns among Peninsula Township residents that the road commission millage they pay flows only in one direction. To that end, the consensus in our community is that it would be fine to allocate several years worth of millage levies to address the Bluff Road problem.
“In sum, Peninsula Township asks the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to work with the township to find a solution to fix and reopen Bluff Road and, in the interim, not to decertify or abandon the road while we work together to protect the health, safety, welfare, and property interests of our residents.”
The Township Board and Kluczynski agreed to reconvene the Bluff Road Committee to discuss possible funding options and the future of the road. The committee will consist of Township residents, as well as members of the Township Board and Road Commission.
UPDATE: March 23, 2023:
At their meeting on March 23, 2023, the Road Commission voted unanimously to decertify the closed section of Bluff Road. “We have not maintained this section of the road for three years,” said Commission Chairman Joe Underwood. “There comes a point when we have to, for lack of a better phrase, true up what we actually do.”
However, Commission members stressed that decertifying the road doesn’t mean they’re abandoning it. Decertifying it officially removes it from the county’s Act 51 funding maps and allows them to create a safe pathway for pedestrians and bikers. They say they’re committed to working with the Township to find funds to fix and re-open the road.
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