Traverse City News and Events

Questions Linger Over Bluff Road

By Beth Milligan | May 28, 2021

A half-mile stretch of Bluff Road that’s been closed over a year on Old Mission Peninsula due to erosion issues is recommended to remain closed for the foreseeable future, with several road sections falling short of public safety standards, according to an engineering report presented Thursday to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission. But while questions linger over how and when the road can be repaired, the Road Commission has committed to finding answers, authorizing another $37,000 for consultant GEI to identify both short and long-term solutions and cost estimates for repairs.

GEI presented findings Thursday from a recent geotechnical survey of Bluff Road between Boursaw and Blue Water roads, where an ongoing road closure has required detours at either end and generated frustration from homeowners over losing water, beach, and parking access. According to GEI, Bluff Road faces two major challenges: erosion from wave action on the beach side, especially when lake levels are high, and surface water running down the hill on the residential side of Bluff Road. Thick clay in the hillside soil prevents water from naturally seeping into the ground, instead forcing it to flow horizontally under the road, further contributing to erosion.

“This is not a self-stabilizing situation,” Carlin Grundemann of GEI told road commissioners. “It is going to keep happening.” Three areas along Bluff Road all fell short of public safety ratings in GEI’s analysis, Grundemann said, adding that a big rainstorm could “easily” cause a significant failure along the corridor. “The interim recommendation here is the road really should be closed until there are some stabilization measures in place,” she said.

Grundemann said Bluff Road residents are not alone in dealing with erosion challenges, noting that problems in the corridor are “very consistent with what we see on the lakeshore across Lake Michigan.” She added: “From a geology perspective, this is not uncommon.” Despite the widespread nature of the problem, however, solutions typically aren’t simple or cheap. Grundemann said a first step on Bluff Road could be to try and address the hillside drainage, potentially using both a vertical system – creating paths for runoff water to drain down into the soil – and a horizontal system, or piping the water across the road to the lake.

Any long-term solution will also require addressing erosion on the shoreline side, Grundemann said. That could include fixes such as back filling and installing riprap. Grundemann said the Road Commission will likely want to coordinate repairs on both sides of Bluff Road so there’s “not discontinuity” in stabilization measures. Both the hillside and the shoreline are key to address, according to Grundemann. “It’s not advised to only address one of the issues,” she said.

The GEI report marked an important step forward for Bluff Road residents, who’ve expressed frustration in the past at what they perceived as the Road Commission’s slow response to addressing the corridor. Road Commission Manager Brad Kluczynski previously estimated fixing the road could cost $2.5 million and said the department didn’t have nearly that level of funding available, especially to fix a road that sees under 200 cars a day. The Road Commission at one time discussed options including dead-ending the road and turning it into a cul-de-sac, or providing local-only access and banning thru traffic.

Whether those options still remain on the table or if Bluff Road can be satisfactorily repaired remains to be seen, but the Road Commission has committed to getting answers by hiring GEI for the initial analysis and agreeing to fund another two phases of work Thursday at a cost of $37,000 for the engineering firm to provide short and long-term recommended fixes and cost estimates for repairs. Road Commission staff also recently sat down to discuss the corridor with residents, who now have a removable barrier on the road and right-of-way permits that allow them to access the blocked-off section with insurance and liability assumptions in place, Kluczynski said.

Joseph Quandt, an attorney representing the Mission Hills Homeowners Association along Bluff Road, told road commissioners Thursday that the HOA was committed to working with the county to find a fix for Bluff Road. “We also continue to support a collaborative solution,” he said, acknowledging the corridor isn’t a problem “that’s just the Road Commission’s” and that residents were prepared for the reality they may have to contribute to funding eventual repairs. Saying that the parties were starting to make “slow progress,” Quandt said the HOA’s goal was to “try to keep the process moving forward as fluidly and as comprehensively as we can.”

“We want to be your partners in a solution here,” he said.

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