City Commissioners Vote To Seek Legal Opinion On MDOT Agreement; Approve River Plan & Roundabout Easements
By Beth Milligan | Feb. 8, 2022
Traverse City commissioners voted unanimously Monday to seek an independent legal opinion on a 1947 agreement between the city and Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) that city leaders believe grants them approval power over the state’s reconstruction plans for Grandview Parkway. Commissioners stated they weren’t trying to derail the project, which is set to begin construction next March, but want to definitively establish whether the state needs city approval on any improvement plans. Commissioners also unanimously voted Monday to adopt the final version of the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan and to grant easements to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission for a roundabout construction project this year at Keystone/Beitner/River roads.
A 1947 agreement between the City of Traverse City and the Michigan Department of Transportation (then called the Michigan State Highway Department) states that neither entity can undertake construction projects on the shared US-31/M-22/M-37 trunkline running through the city “without full approval and consent by the other interested party.” While MDOT argued in a 2017 memo that legislation later superseded the agreement and gives the state exclusive construction power over Grandview Parkway, as the trunkline is known today, city commissioners voted unanimously Monday to seek an outside legal opinion on the issue.
Mayor Richard Lewis asked commissioners to consider getting legal advice on the 1947 agreement as MDOT prepares to undertake a $19 million reconstruction of Grandview Parkway and part of East Front Street next year. “It’s one of those documents that raises a question mark,” Lewis said. While city staff and leaders of groups including TART Trails and Norte have been meeting weekly with MDOT to give input on the design plans, in addition to MDOT hosting public input meetings, Lewis thought the terms of the agreement make it clear the state doesn’t just need feedback but approval from the city to proceed. “At some point, the city’s going to have to give their official consent to this project,” he said.
However, Lewis said he didn’t want to act unilaterally and direct City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht to investigate the agreement without other commissioners weighing in first. Commissioner Tim Werner said he thought commissioners had a responsibility “to pursue this and understand it,” not only for next year’s project but any future projects that commissioners will deal with in the years ahead. Other commissioners agreed, though Commissioner Ashlea Walter said a potential “cloud hanging over” the discussion is the possibility of the city jeopardizing funding for next year’s reconstruction by delaying or disrupting the planning process. Assistant City Manager Penny Hill noted that MDOT is aiming to have Grandview Parkway’s new design 98 percent complete by late April or early May and to put the project out to bid in November, cautioning commissioners she didn’t know how MDOT would react to the city’s pursuit of investigating and possibly enforcing the 1947 agreement.
MDOT has already weighed in on the agreement in recent years, as has a past city attorney. In 2008, then-City Attorney Karrie Zeits stated in a memo that it was her legal opinion that in order for MDOT to make Grandview Parkway improvements, “it must receive the approval and consent of the city.” She added that she had “not found a document or agreement that supersedes this provision.” However, in a 2017 memo to City Engineer Tim Lodge, then-MDOT Traverse City Transportation Service Center Manager Richard Liptak said that ACT 51 – state legislation that was passed in 1951 – gives MDOT “exclusive power to construct, maintain, and improve state trunk line highways,” an opinion he said was backed by the attorney general’s office.
“There is nothing in ACT 51 that requires MDOT to obtain approval from local agencies to work on its highways,” Liptak continued. “Because the 1947 agreement contradicts Act 51, the agreement is against public policy, therefore violating state law and is unenforceable.” Liptak acknowledged the issue was important to MDOT given “future construction projects” planned for Grandview Parkway, adding that the state department was still “interested and willing to work with the City of Traverse City during the development and construction of these projects.”
Due to the tight timing of MDOT’s design process and Trible-Laucht’s current workload, commissioners agreed Monday to spend up to $10,000 to hire an outside firm to write a legal opinion on the 1947 agreement. Commissioners asked staff to provide an update – including the opinion itself, if it can be turned around in time – at their March 7 meeting. Lewis said he didn’t want to delay the Grandview Parkway reconstruction timeline, but said it was better for the city to deal with the MDOT agreement now than run the risk of it coming up next year right as construction is about to begin. “That’s where a bad monkey wrench hits the works,” he said.
Also at Monday’s meeting…
> Commissioners approved granting an easement to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to build a leg of a new roundabout – planned for construction at Keystone/Beitner/River roads this year – on city property. The project will combine the county’s Keystone Rapids trailhead, currently located on the north side of Beitner Road where it crosses the river, and the Oleson Bridge trailhead. The leg requiring a city easement will provide improved access to a city nursery site that’s part of the Natural Education Reserve; the city owns approximately 54 acres near the roundabout area that was the site of the former city-owned Keystone Dam, which washed out in 1961. Commissioners also agreed to provide a right-of-way agreement to the Road Commission for road construction and maintenance, and to authorize city staff to explore options for eventually selling the city-owned property surrounding the site if a nonprofit group is interested in purchasing it.
> Commissioners approved the final draft version of the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan, a master plan that will guide planning and improvement projects along the 1.6-mile stretch of Boardman River between Boardman Lake and Grand Traverse Bay. The city commission was the final group to approve the document, with other city boards reviewing and approving the plan in recent weeks. The plan calls for numerous improvement projects along the Boardman River, with the highest priority projects being the reconstruction of the north alleys in the 100 and 200 blocks of Front Street – allowing a new riverfront pedestrian plaza to be built in the 200 block alley – and upgrading the existing gravel path in Hannah Park. Adding new river boardwalk around Riverine Apartments and extending the boardwalk to Front Street are also near the top of the list. Moderate priority projects include improved access to Hannah Park, habitat restoration at multiple points of the river, new boardwalk and kayak portage options, and pocket parks and boardwalk connections along East Front Street.Comment