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March 21, 2019 11:53 pm

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Allegan County No Longer Agreeing To Taking Financial & Ownership Control Over Bike Trail In Casco Township

      A vote by Allegan County commissioners in 2014 to support taking county ownership of a section of a proposed bike trail through Casco Township as part of a planned 18-mile route from South Haven to Saugatuck Township has become null and void, according to an Allegan County official.
        The county decision is the latest problem facing the group that has been working since 2008 to build the bike trail that is proposed along the Blue Star Highway from north of South Haven through Casco, Ganges, and Saugatuck townships and also the cities of  Saugatuck and Douglas.
        The county has rescinded its support of taking responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the portion of the bike trail initially planned through Casco Township because the  organization that sought that support - Friends of the Blue Star Trail - failed to tell the county it had changed its construction and funding plans for the Casco Township section which the county had based its vote of support on Sept. 25, 2014.
        The Friends group changed its original Phase 2 building plan timeline (for Casco Township) and switched it with a proposed construction schedule in Saugatuck Township. The change was reportedly made by the group because of problems securing Casco Township and Ganges Township financial support for building and/or maintaining their respective sections of the proposed bike trail and other land acquisition issues.
        Both Casco and Ganges townships have publicly announced they will not financially support the building and/or future maintenance of the proposed bike trail through their respective areas because they have limited funds and/or have other financial priorities for unrelated projects.
        Dan Wedge, Allegan County’s executive director of services, in a May 5, 2017 email message to Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier - obtained by The Local Observer through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request - makes it clear county officials consider the earlier support null and void because the organization pushing for the county support, Friends of the Blue Star Trail, changed its  funding and construction plans without consultation with the county.
        In his email to Harrier, Wedge wrote: “As stated in our phone conversation, before Allegan County would consider future ownership or any MOU (Memo of Understanding) for maintenance (of the bike trail, the Friends of the Blue Star Trail would need to present the new plan and request consideration. “The original plan was modified both by funding and location and is no longer an option. Phase II is no longer in Casco Twp. as presented,” wrote Wedge.
        Wedge also told Harrier that current financial concerns and the limited availability of taxpayers’ funds makes it unlikely Allegan County commissioners would consider accepting the financial/ownership responsibility at this time or in the near future, if ever.
        Harrier confirmed his discussions and email exchange with Wedge, per a FOIA request.
        Jeanne VanZoeren, president of the Friends of the Blue Star, has not publicly discussed the county’s decision to void its earlier support of the bike trail or whether her group would once again seek a new agreement from county commissioners.
        In related news, VanZoeren in a recent letter sent to a competing newspaper to The Local Observer, criticized the Observer’s coverage of the overall project and Saugatuck Township’s handling of its portion of the planned bike path, including:
        * little if any notice to the public about its bike building plans and costs;
        * failure to notify or seek public support for a future maintenance funding plan that an engineering firm for the City of Saugatuck estimates will cost millions of taxpayers dollars in the next 15 to 20 years;    
        * and commencing construction in the township even though the City of Saugatuck has not agreed to let the bike trail run through the city due to financial concerns, thus resulting in a non-connected trail as originally planned.
        VanZoeren also took exception to the Observer accurately reporting that her organization has promised to pay for all construction costs through donations, grants and planned grants despite the fact her group has not secured even a fraction of the mutli-million dollars in funding engineering experts say will be needed to build and/or maintain the 18-mile bike path.
        She also has continually referred to the bike trail as “a gift” from Friends of the Blue Star Trail to the involved municipalities and promised her group will raise the matching funds needed to obtain the future grants, despite the fact her group doesn’t have any where near the needed funds to pay for those required matches. She also said the governments would need to pay for future maintenance costs estimated in the millions of dollars for the entire trail.
        Many angry residents in Saugatuck Township, for example, say township officials have not sought their opinions about the bike trail or shared how much taxpayers may have to pay to cover the cost of future maintenance and repairs for their portion of the trail.
       In her letter criticizing the Observer’s coverage of those issues, and despite the reports being demonstrably accurate per public documents  obtained and referenced in those news stories and editorials, VanZoeren also took extreme umbrage that the Observer characterizes her organization’s proposed bike trail as a bike trail.
       According to VanZoeren, in her letter she admonishes the Observer that the bike trail should be called “a linear park” because it will allow people to not only ride their bikes on it, but also to run, walk, cross-country ski and roller blade on it.
        The Observer stands behind its decision to call this bike trail a bike trail despite VanZoeren’s “malicious attempt to impugn the newspaper’s coverage of this project through semantical gymnastics aimed at trying to confuse the public about its many issues and the related questionable governmental actions that have and are taking place in connection with it,” said Observer Editor Mike Gallagher.
        “She doesn’t provide any documentation challenging our facts, she just doesn’t like us reporting our findings about her pet project.”

Allegan County No Longer Agreeing To Taking Financial & Ownership Control Over Bike Trail In Casco Township

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