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Pere Marquette Charter Township hopes to open 316-acre park in fall

February 16, 2019 GMT

PERE MARQUETTE TWP. — Pere Marquette Charter Township’s plan to acquire a 316-acre property on the south side of Pere Marquette Lake from Dow Chemical Co. to create a recreation and conservation park is expected to gain ground in 2019.

The property would be kept largely undeveloped, said Township Parks Manager Kelly Smith. The majority of the acreage is located east of Lakeshore Drive and north of Iris Road, which would effectively connect the township’s existing park lands.

“It’ll basically fill in the gap between Sutton’s Landing all the way to Buttersville Campground,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a huge addition.”

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The proposed project for the property is tentatively named Pere Marquette Conservation Park. The property includes 312 feet of Lake Michigan frontage next to Buttersville Park, more than one mile of frontage on Pere Marquette Lake and a half-mile of frontage on the Pere Marquette River.

“Another main objective is providing good access along the P.M. River for fishing and boating,” Smith said. “It’s a pretty unique piece of property that will give us the potential to access our waterways ... In the end, I think it’ll make P.M. Township known for its parks. It’ll be one of our main identities in the future. I think if nothing else, it’ll boost our economy through tourism.”

According to planning documents, the township expects to take possession of the property by the end of the second quarter of 2019 and to have it initially opened to the public in the fall. The actual timeline will depend upon approval from entities like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), so the acquisition process might take longer, Smith said.

“That’s a best-case scenario,” he said. “Realistically, it’ll be mid-summer to early fall. The timeline is changing constantly as there’s different requirements that need to be met.”

The project was awarded a $839,400 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund in 2017, which will cover 50 percent of the acquisition cost. The other 50 percent of the cost will be supplied by Dow, which is donating one-half the value of the property, Smith said.

“The township ultimately is getting the purchase without us having to pay out of pocket,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to get this grant and to have Dow donating the 50-percent match.”

In an email to the Daily News, Township Supervisor Paul Keson clarified that the township will pay for some expenses related to hiring an environmental firm to evaluate the property as part of the acquisition process, “but the costs will be very small and some of that is even reimbursable through the grant,” he stated.

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Dow ceased its Ludington operations in 2009, and now it is offering the township the property at a “price significantly below appraised value,” stated Steve Lucas, associate remediation director for Dow, in an email to the Daily News. The company is “pleased” with the idea of converting the property into a conservation area and the opportunities it provides for public recreation, he said.

“Dow made this property available in recognition of more than 60 years of operations in the Ludington area and in appreciation for the support and commitment of employees and the community for so many years,” Lucas stated.

The goal of the proposed park is two-fold — increase the public’s access to recreation on land and water trails, while also protecting and enhancing the sensitive habitats of local species, Smith said.

“There’s plenty of room for both, and there’s definitely areas that will make more sense for one than for the other,” Smith said.

Several wetland areas would likely be preserved as habitats, and areas that were developed previously, such as a former Dow employee park area, would be renovated for public use, Smith said. Invasive plant species on the property would also be addressed, he said.

Another principal partner in the project planning is the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, a nonprofit that works with private landowners and governmental bodies to permanently protect and care for natural lands in eight Michigan counties.

The township will apply for a $20,000 grant from the National Coastal Zone Management Program in 2020, with a matching $20,000 paid for by the township, to go toward project planning and development.

Dow has also pledged $250,000 toward the goal of collecting an initial $500,000 to establish a permanent operational endowment fund for the proposed park, according to township plans. Other fundraising efforts are currently underway to complete the endowment goal.

The township plans to hold a series of public input meetings this spring and summer to refine the plan for the property’s development and future. This community planning effort is being facilitated by the National Park Service.

The public meetings would likely take place in April or May, Smith said. He said the next meeting, in March, will be a focus group for stakeholders to plan what they want to accomplish during the public meetings.

The property would likely open for public use within 90 days after the township acquires the land, Smith said. Visitors could use the land and water for recreation, but access points would be difficult until more infrastructure is built, such as boat launches, he said.

“It’ll be open to the public, but it will be undeveloped, raw land until we can move forward with a few things as far as development goes,” Smith added.

Until the township takes possession of the land, it remains private property owned by Dow and it is not open to the public.

TESTING

Dow used parts of the property in salt product manufacturing, so “testing is primarily looking for elevated levels of salts,” Keson stated in an email.

“Dow has conducted extensive soil and groundwater testing at various locations on the property over the past several years in preparation for the property transfer to P.M. Township,” Keson stated. “The testing has been conducted in consultation with the (DEQ) on an ongoing basis, and the results and property management recommendations have been submitted to them. Preliminary results indicate that the property is appropriate for public recreation, however, the (DEQ) has not completed their review of the test results and property management recommendations.

“We can assure the public that the property transfer to P.M. Township will not take place until the State of Michigan finds that the overall use and value of the property meets Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund property acquisition standards for public recreation and resource protection purposes,” he stated.

If there is any environmental issue that needs to be addressed, Dow will be liable for it even after the acquisition takes place, according to Keson.

“Dow has always been upfront with us in that they will remain liable for any historical environmental issues on the property in perpetuity,” Keson stated.

As part of the liability protection process, the township has hired Lakeshore Environmental, Inc., a Grand Haven-based firm, to conduct a baseline environmental assessment, Keson said.

“This assessment is a requirement from the DEQ and DNR before the property transaction can take place. This assessment is an evaluation of environmental conditions for the piece of property prior to being purchased. It will provide (the township) a means of liability protection,” he said.

“P.M. Township is very appreciative of Dow’s cooperation and commitment to this effort and looks forward to completing this process and the property transfer during 2019,” Keson added.