In our 25th year, we are taking time to celebrate milestone achievements from our legacy. Here we talk with Kelly Thayer about our earlier opposition campaigns to stop bypasses around Traverse City and Petoskey because they would generate urban sprawl and erode the rural character of our landscape. Kelly directed our transportation program from 1998 to 2005, and is now deputy director of FLOW.
Remind us of the bypass conversation that was happening in the region when you began in 1998.
At that time, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council and other activists were advancing smart road ideas, which were the alternatives to the Traverse City bypass that the road commission was pushing, which would have also built a bridge over the Boardman River. These were people who thought voice mattered and thought creative ideas were missing and that road builders should not decide the quality of life in our community. And I soon learned that similar things were happening at the time in Petoskey.
How did you chart the early direction?
A key piece of our strategy was that if we don’t advance a competing idea and a better idea, we will get the roads that the road builders want. There is incredible power in saying there is a better idea, and that was in our DNA.
The Hartman Hammond Bypass was one of the rare times Groundwork became involved in a lawsuit.
Right. There came a time when we had to decide if we were going to sue, to put a stake in the ground. Helen Milliken was on the board at the time, and we had a conversation about whether litigation was legit for a group like ours—would it be damaging to us. And Helen said something to the effect, “This will not only harm our reputation, but it would also enhance our reputation. It would show we mean what we have been saying.” And her gentle way of saying that really carried a lot of weight.
So you went ahead with the lawsuit.
Yes, and Helen was the spokesperson. To announce it, we went to the river with the media and environmental leaders. It was a frozen day in March. There was ice and snow on the banks. She reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out notes written on her stationery. Her thoughts were collected carefully, and she shared them powerfully and with understatement. It made me feel we were part of something bigger that connected to her legacy and things she had done.
What was happening concurrent with this in Petoskey?
Petoskey and Traverse City were in parallel. The roots of Traverse City’s opposition went back to 1987 and a referendum when the public voted it down. Petoskey also had a bypass proposal that surfaced and disappeared a number of times. And that bypass was kept alive with a lot of Michigan Department of Transportation involvement and coordination. They were in concert.
The character of the Petoskey and TC projects were overlapping, but also distinct. With TC it was about a nature preserve, a beloved river, threatened wetlands, and it still is. In Petoskey, there were very clear issues of historic farms and productive and active family farms that would bear the brunt of a three- and four-lane highway through farmland and bisecting roads that were important to people farming there in Resort and Bear Creek Townships.
What was the public reaction in Petoskey at the time?
The local people knew innately that visitors came to see Little Traverse Bay, and see the big lake and see the downtown, and that a bypass would not pull traffic magically out of Petoskey but instead would just be a sprawl corridor and would sacrifice the region.
Where did local government stand on the bypass?
The head of Bear Creek Township was a farmer, and he reflected the heritage of that culture. But in Resort Township, the supervisor thought he had the pulse of the community, and he led the effort to build the bypass, but they did a survey, and he found out that he was out of step. For their part, the locals never gave in and never gave up. And at the same time, word was getting around that traffic was not something you could just make
go away. It’s something you need to manage and build a mix of alternatives for and you need to manage traffic growth in a way that has something for everybody. It might have sounded pie in the sky, but it wasn’t. And the people of those townships knew that there were options that didn’t involve sacrificing them.
What pivotal moments float to the top when you think back on this?
In Traverse City, a powerful moment was going to TC West Junior High for the DEQ wetland meeting. There was a sea of people. The DEQ guys basically said, ‘We don’t want to hear about how you love water.’ But the law for wetlands includes recreational value. And so author Jerry Dennis got up there, and he blew the crowd away. And then the DEQ pushed back on a woman who brought a kayak paddle. And then I got up and read the law, and the public went nuts. The DEQ was running it the way they thought they should, but their view was too narrow.
Did you have any champions on your side in government?
A gentleman was dispatched from Lansing to come up and take a look, and he took a hike with Hans and me, and we stood on the spot where the bridge would go if it were built. We explained to him that a biologist from University of Michigan had described the unique nature of the wetlands and that they cannot be re-created. And the DEQ guy said, “but the bridge would arch over the wetlands.” But we pointed out that this is a fill bridge, And when we described that to him his expression changed. That man was Skip Pruss, who had a very distinguished career in state government.
How did the Petoskey bypass end?
There was a big public meeting in the high school auditorium. And the MDOT director had come out of his lair to attend the meeting. And in this packed auditorium, he stood up and said the bypass was dead as an idea. “We don’t just willy nilly build bypasses all over the state and force them on the locals,” he said. And it was clear the locals around Petoskey had a different vision for the region, and it did not include a bypass.
What were the good things that came forward, the better alternatives, after the bypasses were shelved?
In Traverse City we were able to repurpose the money and did the Grand Vision [a citizen-led regional planning exercise]. Sometimes it gets criticized for not finding “the answer,” but I feel it did. It said the landscape and the water is where the hearts are. And it’s better to fix things, like fix South Airport and put in roundabouts, and look for ways to not blow out the corridors and make sprawl strips. And in Petoskey, they ended up with a smart roads plan that had a similar purpose.
How about a lesson that you learned?
There is power in saying yes. And it is a power that will pull in people of all political stripes. You can’t just be Mr. No. To get a broader coalition, you need to be a group that is trying to make something happen. That gets a lot more people listening. It opens people up more to you. It’s hard for some environmentalists to say build this or develop that, but there needs to be compromise and flexibility all around.
How did you celebrate when the TC bypass went down?
We went out to the Vasa Trail and we had a big roll of anti-weed cloth and we ran a strip of yellow duct tape down the middle, like a road line. And we unrolled it on the Vasa Trail to show what it would have looked like if the bypass had been built. Then we rolled it up and kicked it off the trail!
Now the Grand Traverse Road Commission is again promoting building a bridge over the river. We’re reminded of that saying, “Environmentalists need to win every time, but developers only need to win once.”
Correct, it is being discussed again. I definitely see the constraints on traffic that the river presents. But those constraints are a good thing. We are better off with the river. When you think of it that way, it’s not a burden. But it does require you to develop a relationship with the river and navigate it rather than try to fill it in and fly over it as fast as humanly possible.
When it comes to “place,” either you define yourself or you will be defined. It’s true of individuals and it’s true of communities. Traverse City and Petoskey are not magnets by accident. But it’s the case that when people come to see what’s special, they can trample out what they came to experience. It’s a challenge to those places that are magnetic. They need to define themselves: What is your essence and define that as you are growing.