GO-REC Plans Earn East Bay Planning Commission Approval
By Beth Milligan | March 25, 2022
East Bay Township planning commissioners voted 6-1 at a marathon five-hour meeting Thursday to support a proposal from Rotary Camps and Services to open up the 500-acre former Camp Greilick property for public recreation, camping, educational classes, and special events. Plans for the property – now called the Greilick Outdoor Recreation and Education Center, or GO-REC – next head to township trustees for final approval.
After the Boy Scouts terminated their lease in 2016 for Camp Greilick following several decades of site use, Rotary Camps and Services developed a new plan for the renamed GO-REC property on Scout Camp Road, aiming to offer the same types of camping, outdoor education, recreational programming, and access to trails, woodlands, and lakes that had been available there for almost 100 years – only this time to the general public. Rotary Camps and Services plans to offer not only overnight camping – a use already approved for the property – but day uses as well, allowing the public to come hike, bike, cross-country ski, snowshoe, kayak, and play disc golf on the site without having to stay overnight. Those types of day uses require township approval. GO-REC staff also plan to offer classes – such as wilderness first aid and how-to classes on different recreational sports – and partner with groups like Norte and the Vasa Ski Club for on-site programming. In addition, special events like weddings, conferences, and races would be allowed on the property.
In December, Rotary Camps and Services appeared before township planning commissioners with an application for a planned unit development (PUD) – or a zoning plan tailored to a specific property – to allow GO-REC to host all of those different uses. At that and subsequent meetings, planning commissioners flagged numerous issues Rotary Camps and Services would need to address to move forward, ranging from parking plans and septic system capacities to the prevention of invasive species spread and potential noise and traffic impacts from events. Neighboring residents were particularly alarmed about plans to hold large events on the site, forming a nonprofit called Save Forest Lakes and collecting approximately 250 signatures through an online petition opposing the PUD approval.
At Thursday’s meeting, Gayle McGregor – an attorney from Williams, Williams, Rattner & Plunkett representing Save Forest Lakes – said GO-REC is surrounded by a “very low-density residential area,” making its proposed uses incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood and East Bay Township’s master plan. She said allowing the public to bring in outside watercraft would lead to the spread of invasive species in Rennie Lake, and argued that a conservation easement on the property was designed to protect it from commercial use. She said GO-REC’s plans formed a “direct contravention to the township’s ordinance.”
But GO-REC’s legal counsel and some planning commissioners disputed that characterization, noting that many of the proposed uses have already occurred on the site for decades and that PUDs are allowed in the township’s ordinance specifically to accommodate creative uses on properties that a zoning code might not otherwise anticipate. Attorney Jeffrey Jocks, representing Rotary Camps and Services, pointed out that only nonmotorized boats will be allowed on Rennie Lake and will first go through a boat-cleansing station before entering the water. Only overnight campers and class attendees will be able to bring their own watercraft onto the property, with a maximum of 60. GO-REC plans to maintain its own fleet of on-site kayaks and canoes for the public to borrow.
A significant portion of Thursday’s public comment period – and planning commissioners’ deliberation – was spent on special events at the property. After much back-and-forth, planning commissioners eventually agreed to allow up to 20 large-sized events at GO-REC annually, defined as those with 100-420 guests. As part of those 20 events, up to 12 weddings can be held between May 1 and October 31. However, planning commissioners added a condition that large-scale events cannot take place on back-to-back weekends, with the goal of providing neighbors with a respite between major events in the summer. Professional sound and traffic studies determined that noise and traffic safety should not be issues at the site, particularly as most buildings and gathering spaces are located within the interior of the property away from neighboring parcels. In addition to 20 large-scale events, GO-REC can hold up to 30 mid-sized events annually (30-100 guests) and smaller classes and events (1-30 guests) daily. Any major races or transient events – those exceeding 420 guests – would only be allowed on a case-by-case basis with township permit approval.
Planning commissioners added several other conditions that GO-REC needs to meet to retain PUD approval. Those include obtaining all other necessary approvals from outside permit agencies, obtaining state approval over an environmental remediation plan to address a former gun range on the site, maintaining a state campground license, keeping events within the capacity of available on-site parking spaces, and limiting event attendance at Besser Lodge to 200 until the on-site septic system is upgraded. Planning Commissioner Judy Nemitz still opposed the PUD approval despite those conditions, saying she thought approval would set a “pernicious” precedent that would prompt other Forest Lakes resorts to pursue more intensive uses. She said the “intensity and frequency” of GO-REC’s planned uses did not comply with township zoning.
But the other six planning commissioners disagreed. “We've got this opportunity, we've got this gem sitting here in our township,” said Planning Commissioner Renee Edly. “I also completely respect the neighbors...but I feel like we've worked really hard to get to a happy medium. And I think that it's a good thing.” Planning Commissioner Carl Ferguson agreed, saying he initially had concerns about the former gun range and the scale of proposed events, but said the board “worked to mitigate those, at least to my satisfaction.” Planning Commission Chair John Sych said the PUD constituted an “appropriate reuse of a parcel, of this land where there’s been a history of outdoor activities.” He added: “I think it’s quite unique…I think we’re fortunate to have something like this in the community.” Sych said plans for GO-REC – a property that includes 4,300 feet of shoreline, a 1.5-acre pond, open fields, forested wetlands, and pine and hardwood forest, plus an extensive trail system, campground, and recreational infrastructure – would make amenities available to residents who otherwise might not have access to them.
Though many neighboring residents sharply criticized the board’s vote during public comment, Sych reminded the audience Thurday that GO-REC still has “a lot of work” to do to adhere to the conditions placed on the PUD. The application also still has to clear township trustees, to whom it now heads for final approval. “This is not the end of the process,” Sych said. “It’s a major step, but it is going to continue forward.”Comment