In the latest MichiganTrailMaps.com Trail Talk blog, we are again wondering why anybody would oppose a non-motorized trail that would link two of the most popular trails in Michigan; TART and the Little Traverse Wheelway. We suspect we’ll never understand.
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By Jim DuFresne
In the more than 30 years of covering trails in Michigan – and thus trail controversies – I’ve witness opposition to paths from home owners and shoreline cottage owners and equestrians and community leaders who were worried that the proposed Bay-to-Bay Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore would bring too much foot traffic into Glen Arbor.
But the group that always amazed me the most was farmers.
The salt of the earth.
I covered the early years of Michigan’s rail-trail movement when farmers were often the most vocal opposition to long-distant trails, especially when the Leelanau Trail was proposed. That one got ugly fast.
After the rail service ceased operations in the early 1990s, the Leelanau Trail Association (LTA) was formed in 1994 to turn the abandoned railroad bed into a multi-purpose trail. The following year LTA signed a $475,000 land contract to purchase 15 miles of the corridor that extended from Traverse City to Suttons Bay, much of it past the fruit farms and apple orchards of the Leelanau Peninsula.
Almost immediately there was heated opposition leading to numerous court cases over the proposed trail. The association’s ownership of the rail bed was challenged in court by adjacent property owners claiming reversionary clauses deeded the land back to them. When that failed, opponents tried to use local zoning laws to prevent the trail from being built or people from using it.
Eventually a grassy two-track was opened but when I rode the trail for the first time in 2002 there was still signs that stated “The Leelanau Trail is lawfully open to the public. If anyone interferes with your peaceful use of (it) please contact the sheriff’s department.”
Welcome to the Leelanau Trail. Enjoy your ride.
Today none of that controversial past is evident. The Leelanau Trail is now a fully paved, off-road connection between Traverse City’s TART Trail and Suttons Bay, winding past picturesque farms and vineyards, forests, lakes and ponds. And there’s no denying its overwhelming popularity.
Local bike shops rent bicycles to out-of-town visitors to pedal it. The Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) offers a Bike-N-Ride program with special buses that take weary cyclists and their bikes back to Traverse City from Suttons Bay. Vineyards along the way, and there is a half dozen of them less than a mile from the trail, welcome two-wheelers with open arms and bike racks. Grand Traverse Bike Tours (www.grandtraversebiketours.com) incorporates the trail in a self-guided tour of the Leelanau wine country and in the winter TART volunteers groom sections of it for both classic and skate skiing.
And in all these years not once have I read about renegade cyclists freewheeling it through orchards and stealing apples.
You’d think everybody; government officials, locals and especially farmers, would have learned something from this experience.
But then I look at Elk Rapids just north of Traverse City and realize every new trail is going to be a struggle.
Two of the most scenic and popular trail systems in Michigan is TART (traversetrails.org) that includes the Leelanau Trail and wraps around Grand Traverse Bay from Acme to Suttons Bay and Little Traverse Wheelway (www.trailscouncil.org) that hugs the shoreline from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs. It’s always been the goal of both organizations to link them and create a 325-mile regional trail system that would span across the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula.
The proposed Traverse City-to-Charlevoix Trail would be a 45.8-mile non-motorized route through the communities of Traverse City, Acme, Elk Rapids, Eastport, Norwood and Charlevoix with most of it a “shared-use path” along US-31 corridor. In other words, a trail that is physically separated from the road (and thus motorized traffic) by an open space or barrier.
The scenery would be outstanding, the places to stop numerous. The trail would connect more than 20 beaches, natural preserves, county and township parks and Fisherman’s Island State Park. Throw a swim suit in the saddle bag. Along the way cyclists could stop at a dozen farm markets and roadside stands, fill their panniers at a U-pick cherry farm or refuel at a small café. Even vineyards with tasting rooms, like Chantal Lefebvre, are beginning to appear along this stretch of Lake Michigan.
And the town that would benefit the most from such a trail is Elk Rapids, a shoreline community that seems to like its share of tourism and traffic. That’s why area government bodies, including the Township of Elk Rapids and the Village of Elk Rapids, went on record supporting the project.
Now they have rescinded it.
At public meetings last month farmers complained about how “increased foot traffic near their farms could impact crops” according to the Elk Rapids News. Others were worried about the liability of the chemicals they spray on their trees drifting across the trail.
Then there was concern over the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that was signed into law in 2011 with the intention of shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to food supply contamination to preventing it. Farmers said that trail users could be in violation of the new federal law.
As if walking or cycling along a trail is enough to contaminate the cherries in an adjacent orchard.
That’s all it took. Local government officials back pedaled faster than a clown on a unicycle and said that while they like the concept of the trail they could no longer support the project until property owner’s concerns were addressed.
That shocked me because this village of 1,600 is more than accustomed to cyclists. The popular Ride Around Torch begins and ends in Elk Rapids and is basically a one-day celebration of cycling that fills the town with two-wheelers. Large organized rides use Elk Rapids High School to overnight and during the summer there always seems to be groups of spandex-cladded riders indulging at the Harbor Café or getting a caffeine fix at Java Jones.
But somehow a farmer’s concerns over the effect of trail users on his harvest, however misplaced it might be, takes precedent over the growing economic impact of non-motorized trail users like cyclists.
Like the Leelanau Trail, this link to Charlevoix will be built. Make no mistake about it. TART and the Top of Michigan Trail Council are experienced organizations with a proven track record of trail development especially in terms of fund raising and generating support. They will get it done.
It just seems like every trail that is proposed these days runs into opposition that in the end requires more time, more money and, as in the case of the Leelanau Trail, lawyers to build it. It delays everything but usually changes nothing.
I just hope when they finally cut the ribbon for Traverse City-to-Charlevoix Trail I haven’t retired my biking shorts yet. But who knows?