By Susan Bromley
The village council put the brakes on trail progress Monday night.
In a 6-1 vote at their March 27 meeting, the council decided to not apply for DNR land acquisition grants that were originally proposed as possibly being used for the Iron Belle Trail.
“You’re going at such a speedy rate, why are you trying to get these Iron Belle Trail grants through when it’s a dead fish in the water in the township?” asked Darcy Butzu during public comments prior to a public hearing and presentation on the matter by Village Manager David Trent and DDA Director Matt Jenkins. “Why can’t you give us an opportunity to think about it? It won’t stop people from riding their bikes or enjoying the village. The village will have to kick in money forever if it passes.”
Trent had sought approval to proceed with the grant applications in the hopes of acquiring property owned by the Brandon School District including a 3-acre parcel adjacent to the ITC corridor and a 5-acre parcel that fronts Church Street. He also had planned to pursue a less than 1-acre privately owned parcel known as the “red barn” property in the village, located on Church Street as well, and which is currently listed for sale for $100,000.
In February, Trent had encouraged the council to approve Monday’s public hearing, a necessary step prior to the DNR grant application, which was due this week. In making a case for applying for the grants, Trent said acquisition of the land parcels would help achieve a goal of making the village more walkable, bikeable and accessible. He noted that the state is more amenable to granting funds to communities who are seeking to advance the Iron Belle Trail, a proposed statewide trail system with two routes— both of which would extend from Belle Isle in Detroit to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula.
The village, as well as Brandon, Atlas, and Groveland townships, are part of the proposed bicycling route for the Iron Belle Trail, which would extend 774 miles in total. The Iron Bell Trail as proposed utilizes many existing trail systems, and in communities such as Ortonville where no trail system is present, grant funding is intended to help establish trail connections.
But while Trent urged “striking while the iron is hot,” many residents at Monday’s meeting voiced concerns about maintenance costs of a trail, as well as crime on trails. They cited recent vandalism of the Paint Creek Trail in which four suspects were caught on surveillance video with spray paint, as well as the 2014 murder of April Millsap on the Macomb Orchard Trail in Armada.
Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Greg Glover, commander of the Brandon substation, addressed concerns at the meeting, saying that most crime in communities where trails are present does not occur on the trails, but in areas where the cars of trail users are parked.
When asked if he would support a trail adjacent to Harvey Swanson Elementary, however, Glover said he would not.
“I would not recommend putting a trail this close to a playground or school,” he said. “Personally, I have an issue with group home residents walking around with the kids around. There is the potential for something to go wrong.”
Still, he also said he is concerned with kids walking along M-15 daily and called it a miracle that no one has been hit by a vehicle yet.
Trent said Superintendent Matt Outlaw had requested a fence to be put up as a barrier if the trail went in by Harvey Swanson.
“It seems like everyone is saying what a bad bunch of people we are with crime,” said Ron Sutton, a village resident. “Ninety-eight percent of people are good. I think we should do something for the good people… We need to get over being so negative and do something worthwhile for the community.”
Sutton was joined by several others at the meeting, including township residents, in voicing support for the trail.
The Brandon Township board, after seeking survey input from residents about four proposed routes for the Iron Belle Trail last year, has also put the brakes on the project after pushback from residents on the route that received the most survey support— route c, which was also deemed the safest and least expensive and which includes a small portion of Baldwin Road, a large portion of the off-road ITC corridor (the former Detroit United Railway electric railroad line), and continues to the corner of Kent Road and Granger Road in the village. The 7.7 mile route has an estimated cost of $4,968,900, or $647,877 per mile. After hearing objections, visiting the route and seeing close proximity to some homes, the board expressed some interest in investigating the cost to put the trail down Seymour Lake Road from Oxford and up M-15 to the village, which was not an option on the survey.
Kristen Bennett, Iron Belle Trail coordinator, attended Monday night’s council meeting.
On Tuesday, she offered her thoughts on the community’s concerns and the council’s decision to not move forward at this time.
“I think in general this community is at the beginning of their process,” she said. “They are struggling to figure out how a regional trail would come in and how it would benefit them. Some talked about the economic benefits, and others worried about how it will impact them if it’s in their back yard. We hear this a lot with trail conversation.”
Bennett said trails do not necessarily increase crime and it could have the opposite effect on the ITC corridor if a trail were put in where she notes people are mostly likely riding three-wheelers and possibly hosting bonfires while no one is watching or policing the area.
“If you put a trail there, now you have moms and kids going down it, people bicycling,” she said. “The three-wheelers go away, they don’t want to be caught doing what they weren’t supposed to… It isn’t that people shouldn’t worry about vandalism, but having a trail doesn’t make it worse.”
Bennett believes forward progress will continue to be made toward the trail in time and adds that she doesn’t blame residents who want the council to slow down, especially because Brandon Township has not yet made a decision where the route makes the most sense.
“I think in some ways, it makes more sense for the township to jump first,” she said. “Oxford has come up to Seymour Lake Road, so if (Brandon) township continues up Seymour Lake Road, it brings it farther south of the village. If they went up the ITC corridor, it brings them to that park in the village.”
The “park” that Bennett references was a hot topic of discussion at the village council meeting as well. The 47-acre parcel was deeded to the village in 1982 by Paul and Mary Jane Croissant for park or recreational use and is largely wetlands. Trent is currently investigating stipulations on the deed and whether any approval is needed from Crescent Hill subdivision residents for use of the property.
Regardless, Trent said the village could have facilitated a loop trail if they acquired the school property and the red barn parcel would have been “icing on the cake” with adaptive recreational uses including a farmer’s market.
All of that is a moot point with the council’s vote. Tonja Brice was the sole vote in favor of pursuing the grant, noting she saw the trail as a safety upgrade, not a detriment to safety. Councilmembers Keith Dylus, Dan Eschmann, Coleen Skornicka, Karen Sleva and Mark Butzu all voted no, however, many citing the need to pay for sidewalk and street improvements first. They were joined in voting no by Council President Wayne Wills, who prior to the vote spoke at length in favor of pursuing the grant and trail.
“What do you want to do in a positive way?” he asked. “We’re just trying to move the village forward. There are no sewers… Yes, we need roads and sidewalks and we can do all these things. We can sell bonds and do things, or we can stick our heads in the sand and let progress pass us by.”
He cited the intermediate school being up for sale and likely returning to the tax rolls, as well as a potential plan to move the township offices and Brandon Fire Station #1, both currently in the village, to a piece of property owned by the township on M-15, south of the high school, which had been mentioned long ago as a possible municipal complex site. Such a move, not discussed by the township board in years, would put the buildings back on the village taxrolls, too.
Sleva had the last word before the vote.
“Keeping things the same is very positive,” she said.