This map describes the six phases of construction for the proposed Blue Star Trail, posted to www.fotbst.org

County balks at owning bike path

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

A group of volunteers hoping to build and connect a bike path through Allegan County are working to convince Allegan County commissioners to give several phases of the project a home.

The 90-member volunteer group and nonprofit Friends of the Blue Star Trail believes it can gather the donations needed to match grants for the estimated $6.1 million project, to be built in six phases through 2019.

They plan to coordinate its construction, seek grants to pay for the work and fundraise for the local matches those grants require.

The proposed 19.5-mile Blue Star Trail would be a paved path for walking and nonmotorized traffic and stretch from South Haven to Saugatuck Township’s existing path built in 2007.

That stretch, in turn, connects to Laketown Township’s 5.75-mile path built four years ago, which leads north to similar ones in Holland and Grand Haven.

Fundraising is ongoing; the group is also gathering donations to provide an endowment managed by the Allegan County Community Foundation to fund ongoing repair and maintenance.

Approximately 13.4 miles at the project’s south end have no municipality to own and oversee them going forward. Casco and Ganges townships both support the project but claim they do not have the staff or funding to own them.

Volunteers with the Friends of the Blue Star Trail met Thursday, Aug. 14, with county commissioners and officials, road commissioners and township and city officials in an effort to convince the county to own the proposed paths once they are built.

Several commissioners were vocally apprehensive about the prospect.

Commissioner Max Thiele said, “We have letters of support from both Casco and Ganges. If you recognize the benefit to the local communities... why have you not put any skin in the game?”

Casco Township Supervisor Allan Overhiser said his township had just wrapped up investing heavily in the concept, having completed construction of a 20-acre nature preserve andstaircase from it down to Lake Michigan. That very investment, however, was also the reason its board wasn’t interested in owning its section of path.

“I think we have tremendous skin in the game,” Overhiser said. “But our parks millage is committed for the next 10 to 15 years. And we don’t have any full-time staff.”

Ganges Township board trustee Richard Hutchins said his township had no parks millage.

“We support it, but we’re not willing to fund it,” Hutchins said. “Liability’s a big issue for us.”

Laketown manager Al Meshkin said coverage for the township’s bicycle trails fell under its umbrella insurance coverage.

Douglas city manager Bill LeFevere said coverage for its paths had not affected the city’s premium.

Meshkin also said repair and maintenance costs had not been a problem for Laketown.

“We’ve got 11 miles and we budget $1,000 a mile,” he said. “That includes washout repair, mowing 2 feet on either side, snow plowing.”

Thiele suggested a recreational authority could be formed to better serve as owner of the entire length of the trail.

“It could provide the most consistent experience for those using it,” he said.

Friends of the Blue Star Trail president Jeanne VanZoeren said that had been considered by a vision committee in 2008 but discarded since some townships already owned trails; other municipalities, like Douglas, were well on their way to building trails.

She believes instead an informal collaboration among the townships, city and county could function to make sure signage was consistent.

“We think that might be a more suitable model given our particular area,” VanZoeren said. “We are fundraising for hundreds of thousands of dollars. To stop now to organize an authority... would be extremely detrimental.”

She said, at this point, the Friends group is asking the county to agree to take ownership of the second phase of the project, a 1.7-mile section of trail along Blue Star Highway.

“(That’s done) with a four-way memorandum of understanding between the road commission, the community foundation, the Friends and the county,” VanZoeren said.

The project, scheduled for next year, has already won a $355,000 federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant.

She said the economic benefits of bicycling were real, pointing to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s completion of the first of a five-part study on its benefits. It looked at five case studies—among them was Holland, for which it calculated bicycling generated $6.4 million yearly.

Douglas Mayor James Wiley said, “Putting this together shouldn’t be this difficult. It seems like a no-brainer.”

Saugatuck Township manager Aaron Sheridan, “It’s basically a free trail. People call me about our trail all the time. I’d guess it’s more popular than most of your county parks.”

County commission Chair Mark DeYoung said, “I think we need more discussion with Casco and Ganges. I do see merit in a (recreation) authority. If people run across a branch, they’ll need a central number to call.”

Speaking at the later afternoon meeting, Thiele said the project’s main difficulty would be gaining easements for the 50-plus properties along a loop of the proposed trail that isn’t along the Blue Star Highway right of way.

“It’s potentially a road to nowhere,” Thiele said. “It’s like building a Mackinac Bridge and not the middle section.”

Commissioner Tom Jessup  said, “Do we want to own it if it only goes 1.7 miles?

“And if it really is no cost to the township, what difference does it make?”

Thiele said, “So what is it that Casco and Ganges are balking at?”

Commissioner Jim Storey said, “The patchwork of ownership (concept) nags at me.”

Commissioner Don Black said, “I’m not opposed to them working on it and then going for an authority (later).”

Ultimately, DeYoung requested another meeting with the Friends and the county parks commission to discuss the issue further.

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