Court rules against Sleeping Bear trail critics

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Satellite view of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan. Image: NASA’s Earth Observatory

By Eric Freedman

Opponents of a segment of the 27-mile non-motorized Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Trailway have lost a court challenge to the planned route.

U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist rejected a suit by the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association, which claimed the National Park Service failed to fully disclose and analyze environmental impacts of the segment along the north side of Traverse Lake Road in Cleveland and Centerville townships.

The challengers, who own land on the south side of the road, also claim the National Park Service didn’t adequately analyze alternative routes and used incomplete or misleading data.

When completed, the trail will connect southern Leelanau County with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at Good Harbor Beach at the north end of County Road 651. The trail runs on Park Service land and on existing public rights-of-way.

The challenged segment is the northernmost five-mile piece of the route. The timetable for working on that segment depends on fundraising and grants for its design and construction, said Tom Ulrich, the deputy superintendent of the national lakeshore.

The first four-mile stretch between Glen Arbor and the Dune Climb opened in 2012, and 17 miles are now open.

“The trail is well-loved” by area residents and visitors, Ulrich said, and attracts “people who otherwise wouldn’t have used a trail” to hike or bike.

When the National Park Service sought public comments in 2008 about its trailway plan, Traverse Lake Road residents raised objections about increased traffic risks, disruption of wildlife habitat and disruption of driveways and utilities. They recommended using the M-22 right-of-way instead, according to Quist’s decision.

Pam Darling, the development director of the Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails, said, “There was big public input before the Park Service management plan. The Traverse City-based group is the nonprofit fundraising arm for the project.

The challengers, Darling said, “just don’t want the trail. It’s a basic NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality.”

In response to the challengers’ initial criticism, the National Park Service changed its plans for that segment in 2009. Instead of having it run immediately adjacent to the roadway, the path will be separated from the road.

The agency received no public comments or objections to the modified route from the challengers during the new comment period.

The lawsuit accused the National Park Service of failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

In dismissing the case, Quist ruled that the challengers forfeited their right to object because they failed to comment on the modified 2009 environmental assessment.

“The Park Service issued a revised plan that addressed many of the concerns initially raised and held another comment period. They knew how to structure their participation to allow the Park Service to consider these objections before issuing the finding of no significant (environmental) impact but failed to do so,” said Quist, who sits in Grand Rapids.

He also ruled that the challengers’ comments on the original 2008 plan were insufficient to support the suit.

Thaddeus Morgan, a Lansing attorney for the challengers, said his clients haven’t decided whether to appeal Quist’s ruling.

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