By: Ken Smith
Without question, Traverse City, Michigan is known throughout the Midwest as a great place to visit and to live. But ask people in Northern Michigan and many will say Traverse City is an example of what happens when a great small town appears on the radar screen of national developers. Ugly sprawl development, rising taxes to cover infrastructure costs, pollution, and traffic congestion are problems that many feel are destroying the qualities that make this beautiful region so attractive to so many.
This is a familiar story, played out in communities across America. What’s different in Traverse City, though, is the emergence of a powerful coalition of environmentalists, community leaders and ordinary citizens that is fighting back…and winning.
This group has chosen to take a stand against a newly-proposed highway and bridge that would slash the longest undeveloped stretch of the Boardman River in half. The Boardman River is a blue-ribbon trout stream that supplies one-third of the water flowing into Grand Traverse Bay. The stretch in question encompasses a county-owned Nature Education Reserve that is visited by thousands of people each year and is planned to soon be linked into the Traverse Area’s network of recreational trails.
The proposed bridge would form a critical link in a bypass around Traverse City. First proposed in 1987 by the county road commission in a road bond referendum, the bypass idea was soundly voted down by the public. It surfaced again in 1995 in a study by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to set the route for a 35-mile state highway bypass around Traverse City. In a parallel study, the county road commission asserted that a new bridge was needed to replace a “critical bridge” located three miles upstream and that the new road would ensure “east-west mobility” and relieve traffic congestion in the region.
Convinced that this project would trigger a whole new cycle of sprawl development, a handful of environmental leaders mobilized the Coalition for Sensible Growth (CSG), now more than 500 members strong. Together with the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC) and the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), the Coalition held a citizens’ workshop in 1997 that culminated in the publication of the “Smart Roads Plan.” In a full-color booklet, CSG and MLUI outlined a set of proposals for using existing roads and “smart growth” design concepts to provide mobility to residents while minimizing traffic congestion, pollution, and sprawl.
The Plan has proven to be a powerful tool for showing people there is a better way.With the help of a grant from the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund, CSG and MLUI distributed more than 10,000 copies of the Smart Roads Plan. Well-reasoned letters to the editor and opinion-editorial pieces against the bridge project soon became a regular feature of the public discourse. The Traverse City Commission and two township planning commissions officially came out in opposition to the bridge proposal.
With growing evidence of public opposition to the project, Congressman Bart Stupak persuaded the reluctant road commission that it needed to carry out a full-blown Environmental Impact Study. Meanwhile, the MDOT announced it had taken the bypass around Traverse City off its long-range development plan, leaving the county road commission to push the bridge as a strictly local initiative. Opponents held a “The Bypass is Dead” celebration on the VASA Trail, a park that would have been cut in half by one of the bypass routes that MDOT had considered.
In October of 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources individually sent letters to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announcing opposition to environmental permits for the highway and bridge project. These dealt a powerful blow to the road commission’s plan. A key theme of the letters was the road commission’s failure to consider “prudent and feasible” alternatives as required by state and federal law. They referred specifically to alternatives outlined in the Smart Roads Plan. Currently the road commission and its consultants are busily working on design refinements they hope will alleviate the agencies’ concerns. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, highway and bridge opponents are elated with the progress to date. They are especially encouraged by the attentiveness of the conservation agencies to the flaws in the road commission’s analysis. They are gratified also by growing public expressions of concern about actions that would trade environmental quality for driver convenience. Recent editorials in the local press have called for a closer look at the alternatives outlined in Smart Roads, a dramatic reversal from just a few years ago when editors decried “endless studies” holding up the bridge plan as a quick fix for traffic congestion.
The implications are huge. The defeat of the bridge would assure the future of the Boardman River Valley as a close-in wildlife and outdoor recreation refuge. The combination of citizen energy and a proactive proposal, the Smart Roads Plan, have leveled the playing field for people concerned about the shape of the region’s future. It is possible that Traverse City could emerge as a powerful model of the way growth should happen rather than an example of how unfettered development can destroy a beautiful, unique community. Stay tuned.
Ken Smith is Executive Director of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council and a co-founder of the Coalition for Sensible Growth. He lives with his wife, photographer Kay Smith, on the Boardman River.