County again backs bike path along lakeshore

By: 
Ryan Lewis

Allegan County Commissioners last week again agreed to own a southern section of the proposed Blue Star Trail.

The county had previously supported owning trail sections in Casco and Ganges townships. They rescinded that in November after the group fundraising for the trail reorganized its plan; the county’s resolution no longer referred to the correct phase.

The proposed 20-mile non-motorized path is planned to run on the west side of Blue Star Highway from South Haven to Saugatuck. The Friends of the Blue Star Trail have pledged to provide the grants, matching money and endowments to provide for their maintenance and repair, but Casco and Ganges townships, along with Saugatuck city, have balked at assuming ownership within their boundaries.

The state grants the group intends to continue pursuing require a local government to own the path and be responsible for its upkeep, which is why the group continues to seek the county’s pledge for the sections that will be in Casco and Ganges townships.

At the meeting Jan. 11, county commission board Chair Dean Kapenga said the Friends of the Blue Star Trail was a large group with more than 100 members giving money to enhance their area.

“They’re putting their money up for this,” Kapenga said. “It’s not going to cost us anything initially, but maybe 50 years down the road, who knows? So, I’m going, why are we not moving ahead? I know I’m very much in favor of this.”

“I think we can’t get every question answered—no trail system could. Our risk is so minimal; we know trails like this bring economic development. It’s a very positive, low-risk decision.”

Commissioner Max Thiele said no one was attacking the plan.

“We know this is not just a parochial proposition,” he said. “It’s a potential benefit across the board, but it presents some liabilities. And this resolution, if properly constructed will address that and take care of items we’re not aware of today and cannot address.”

Commissioners voted unanimously in passing a resolution designed with broad protections to ensure the county does not end up owning any section of trail without first signing off on aspects such as its design, location and making sure funding is provided for its maintenance.

The southern sections of trail are slated for work in approximately 2022 or 2023. The new plan estimates the total cost of the trail at $11.1 million, which includes $600,000 for a maintenance endowment.

Commissioner Gale Dugan said, “I think this is as encompassing as possible given what we know now.”

Friends of the Blue Star Trail president John Adams said he was thrilled at the commissioners’ decision and appreciated all the work the county had put in to understand the issue.

“I think it’s a good option to have this trail owned by the county,” Adams said. “We’re glad they agree.”

He said the group is continuing to focus on the next section of trail it hopes to build, a connection from what was built in Saugatuck Township last year. It would run from where it leaves off at North Street to existing trail at Holland Street. He said that connects to the Beeline trail, which connects to Holland and beyond.

“There’s an undeveloped park there in the township, and we’re working with the township to go through that. There’s a river back in there; it’s a very pretty area. We’ll build some nice boardwalks and maybe working with the township parks department and putting in a picnic table.”

He said the group would be applying for those grants this spring to help pay for that.

Commissioner Jim Storey said the segment of the trail that would pass through Saugatuck city remained an issue.

He said, “Right now, the path stops at the Saugatuck city limit. They’re not enthused with the project. That needs to be settled.”

Commissioner Tom Jessup said, “What difference does it make to us? We’re only concerned about the south end of this, just the two townships.”

Commissioner Don Black expressed many of the doubts that hang over the project, raised during the months the matter has been under consideration.

“By my math, (the county’s eventual section of trail) is going to cost more than $4 million,” Black said. “I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I want to be financially responsible. These people have this dream, but it can’t fall on taxpayers’ shoulders.”

Allegan County executive director of services Dan Wedge said there would always be some risk involved, but that “the group has committed to, prior to construction beginning, that they would have the maintenance funds in hand.” That would be in addition to having secured the cost of the construction, including matching funds for grants.

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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