The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership worked for years to help clean up the lake and now aims to ensure equitable and meaningful public access to the Muskegon Lake waterfront. The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership worked for years to help clean up the lake and now aims to ensure equitable and meaningful public access to the Muskegon Lake waterfront. COURTESY PHOTO

OPEN ACCESS? As city approves developments, group advocates for public access on Muskegon Lake

BY Sunday, September 29, 2019 04:27pm

MUSKEGON — After decades of site remediation and restoration projects to clean up Muskegon Lake, the south shoreline is ripe for redevelopment and various stakeholders are watching and waiting to see how it unfolds.

Muskegon city officials have several projects in the works that could transform key public parcels along the waterfront, including a potential deal to swap Fisherman’s Landing for West Michigan Dock & Market Corp.’s Third Street perimeter property and move the company’s shipping operations out of downtown.

Another major development, Hartshorn Village & Marina, is a public-private partnership that involves 55 condominiums overlooking the public Hartshorn Marina with a new marina clubhouse, pool and other amenities.

While city officials view it as progress, groups including the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, one of the organizations behind the environmental cleanup of the lake, continue to watch the development plans and advocate for sustained, equitable and meaningful public access to the lake. 

The volunteer Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership is a diverse, community-based organization that supports grassroots, state and federal programs to restore Muskegon Lake and its tributaries.

The group has worked to clean up the lake for three decades, advising on grant-funded projects to remove contaminated sediment, restore the shoreline and fish habitat, improve water quality and more.

“Ultimately, I want what’s best for the environment and what’s best for the community,” said Dennis Kirksey, chair of the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.

The group plans to continue on once Muskegon Lake is delisted from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Great Lakes Areas of Concern list, which could come in the next year or so. The partnership has formulated an action plan that includes prioritizing public access to the lake and education about being good stewards of the watershed’s natural resources.

The group remains concerned over the current transfer of public waterfront parcels to private developers and wants to see the city include language that stipulates developers incorporate portions for public access, Kirksey said. 

“It isn’t a problem today of having public access to the lake; it is more a concern of how and whom we are communicating that access to within the community,” he said. 

Balancing act

Whether it is along a river or on a lake, the debate over forging ahead with private development versus maintaining public access to waterfront property remains an issue across the country. 

In Grand Rapids, the GR Forward plan identified as its top priority the re-establishment of the Grand River as the city’s central amenity, both in guiding development and expanding public access.

City officials and planners have made a dedicated effort to create a riverwalk, connect bike trails along the Grand River and bring people to the riverfront with public parks, plazas, kayak launches and more. 

Besides reconstructing the rapids as part of the Grand Rapids Whitewater project, the “River for All” plan includes six different sites and design guidelines that will establish an accessible 7.5-mile river trail between Riverside Park to the north and Millennium Park to the south. In downtown, plans include enhanced public access points near Lyon Square, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Fish Ladder Park.

Similarly, the Muskegon Lake Vision 2020 planning process identified a community desire to link the protection of natural resources with enhanced recreational opportunities. By promoting human interaction with the lake and its tributaries, it instills a stewardship ethic for residents and people who use the lake for recreation and commerce, according to the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.   

In addition, the group says restored shorelines with public access increase social and economic benefits for residents throughout the city by increasing neighborhood housing values, along with recreational visits and tourism. 

City Manager Frank Peterson feels there are numerous public spots along the lake, and the swap of Fisherman’s Landing for the Third Street perimeter property would create public access to the waterfront near downtown Muskegon.

However, it would eliminate the public campground and possibly the boat launch, and the city has to replace the recreational component somewhere else because of federal grants tied up in the Fisherman’s Landing property. 

The recreational feature doesn’t necessarily have to be a campground, according to Peterson. The city has considered a campground in other locations, including the Ovals at Pere Marquette Beach, but the idea stalled after negative feedback from residents.

Fielding reactions

Besides Fisherman’s Landing, Hartshorn Marina and the county-owned Heritage Landing, a frequent site for concerts and festivals, the city maintains two other boat ramps and the popular, multi-use Lakeshore Trail along Muskegon Lake. The lake lacks a nice public beach, but the shoreline contains decades of historic fill materials that are not conducive to that use, according to Peterson. 

As well, the city also requires that all planned unit developments on the lake include a percentage of publicly accessible waterfront, Peterson said. 

For instance, Damfino Development LLC’s upscale project known as The Docks, which the City Commission approved in June, includes public access in its plans. Damfino, a subsidiary of Sand Products Corp., wants to create a new housing community with 240 homes, a 12-acre water feature and marina connected to Muskegon Lake. The development includes boardwalks, but also protected wetlands and undeveloped natural areas on the former Pigeon Hill dune site.

The 80-acre development near Harbor Towne Condominiums has drawn complaints from residents in the historic Beachwood-Bluffton neighborhood. Sand Products has owned the property since the 1930s. The site was zoned for residential use but remained undeveloped until now.

While land swap talks are ongoing with West Michigan Dock & Market Corp. President Max McKee, the city’s deal with Harbor West to redevelop 10 acres of vacant property on West Western Avenue into Hartshorn Village & Marina is moving forward.

The lakeside development near the public Hartshorn Marina and boat launch includes 55 condos starting at $400,000, with a fenced-in clubhouse and pool area, landscaping and access to the city-owned marina.

The standalone condo models have nautical names like “Schooner,” “Sloop” and “Cutter” and vary between 1-story, 1.5-story and 2-story cottage-style homes.

Peterson said the city is using Harbor West’s investment to help finance marina improvements. The city is paying for the pool and clubhouse up front, and Harbor West will reimburse the city via brownfield tax capture.

In exchange, condo owners will get access to the new marina amenities. If they want a boat slip, they have to pay the regular rental rate, Peterson added.

Money matters

Hartshorn Marina is one of the city’s charter parks. One issue facing the city is funding to maintain the city’s major parks. Long term, the city identified $16 million in park improvements that are needed in those charter parks.

“The hard part about that is the residents came through and they wanted (to establish key charter parks in the city) back in the late 1990s,” Peterson said. “Obviously they approved it, but one thing they didn’t approve when they did that, to keep all of these parks in perpetuity, they didn’t ever set any money aside to fix them and keep them up.”

Despite the lack of funding, the city could not sell off any of Muskegon’s charter parks without a vote of the public. 

The city also recently hired a public marina management company, F3 Marina, to co-manage Hartshorn Marina and advise on improvements and rental rates. Slip rates are projected to increase based on planned upgrades that include dock work, new bathrooms, a pool and clubhouse.

“We’ve historically managed it ourselves, very poorly, and we thought the best thing for that marina is to get a public marina manager brought in,” Peterson said. “The company that we hired, they manage marinas all over the Great Lakes, so they know what they are doing way better than we do.”

Addressing concerns

The Hartshorn Village & Marina website has incorporated the marina into its branding and marketing. On the website, renderings show the current public access road leading to the boat launch and space in front of Fricano Place and Event Center being transformed into green space with a beach and fire pit area. 

Plans call to reroute the boat launch access drive around the development, but the bike path will stay along the waterfront, Peterson said. 

The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership members have multiple concerns over the Hartshorn Village development, including taking out all of the trees, moving the access road, and directly discharging stormwater into Muskegon Lake without any green infrastructure, according to Kirksey.

Some members are concerned about keeping the lake accessible to people who fish out of necessity, while others want to make sure the popular Lakeshore Trail stays along the lake’s south shore.

There are city-owned parcels such as the former Amoco-BP site that could be sold to other private developers. The bike path runs through the former BP site, and the group would like to see the city include language that requires an easement for the Lakeshore Trail.

“That’s a crucial section,” Kirksey said. “Once you cross Ruddiman Creek, it’s all city-owned land, but you have to pass through that BP site.”

Ensuring access

Other than Heritage Landing and certain areas along the Lakeshore Trail, there are limited spots where people can fish, especially if the city gets rid of Fisherman’s Landing and limits public access near the Hartshorn boat ramp. A walkable pier and public access point near Terrace Point Marina also prohibits fishing. 

The group would like to see more opportunities for meaningful public access, whether that is giving inner-city children a chance to kayak or providing people adequate places to fish.

“Muskegon has a pretty good population of people that sustenance fish,” Kirksey said. “We need to be sensitive to all spectrums of our community, from the top to the bottom, and everyone should have access to the water.”

As a sailboater who also manages lakeshore property for Kirksey Investment Corp., Kirksey isn’t opposed to progress, development or even creating access for boaters to dock and enjoy a meal in downtown. The larger issue, he said, is about proper planning and making decisions on behalf of the entire community.

Kirksey cites numerous studies that show increased public access to the waterfront increases overall property values and quality of life. 

“We see a trend going. It isn’t toward creating more public access; it appears to be toward eliminating, or at least reducing, the current public access,” he said. “This is something that really affects everybody; these types of decisions really affect the greater community.” 

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