2014-07-17 / Front Page

County offers no support for DNR purchase

Hiawatha Township parcel sought by agency

MANISTIQUE – A possible land acquisition by the DNR has been met with resistance by the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners. Representatives from the DNR attended the commission meeting Tuesday to make their case about acquiring the land, located in Hiawatha Township.

According to Robert Burnham, unit manager of the DNR’s Cusino office in Shingleton, the DNR has adopted a new process for land acquisitions meant to engage local units of government. He explained the DNR approaches governmental bodies to fill them in on what the purchase plan is, to get input, and to “hopefully” obtain the support of the local government.

Burnham said the parcel being considered for purchase by the DNR is located by the “s” curves, in the Sturgeon Hole deeryard. The land consists of an 80-acre chunk that is completely surrounded by state-owned land, he added.

While the DNR has attempted to acquire this parcel in the past, they had been unsuccessful until recently.

“The current owner contacted us about wanting to sell it to us,” Burnham said.

The main reason the parcel is attractive to the DNR, he explained, was the deeryard. Beyond that, Burnham said the property includes access to the Haywire Grade Trail, which could pose “big time land use issues” if a private landowner was to develop on the parcel.

The property also boasts the Sturgeon Hole creek, which runs through it, giving it potential fishery value for the DNR.

Burnham said that he recently met with the Hiawatha Township Board and that board voted to “remain neutral” on the purchase. He noted that group’s main concern was the state already owned enough land.

“We do have a land plan and we are well aware that we do own a lot of land and we’ve got to be diligent about managing it,” Burnham said.

Commissioner Craig Reiter questioned what parcel the DNR would be placing for sale in exchange for acquiring a new one, since it was his “understanding” that when the state makes a purchase, they are supposed to sell the same amount of land they acquire.

“That’s not part of any policy that we have currently,” Burnham replied, adding that Reiter may be confusing himself with the DNR’s land cap, which the department is currently operating under and has yet to meet.

He also noted that the state has a plan to review the land it owns – approximately 240,000 acres throughout Michigan – and to weed out what it doesn’t need.

Burnham acknowledged that the state owns a significant portion of Schoolcraft County, but that there is also no guarantee that it will acquire the parcel in question, as there are many steps to take in the process.

He also pointed out that the DNR owning land in the area can actually be construed as a positive attribute.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Burnham said. “That public land ownership is part of who we are. It’s part of the economy – timber industry, hunting, fishing, tourism.”

Kevin Swanson, wildlife biologist in the Cusino office, agreed with Burnham’s point of view.

“I’m very cautious, because I feel the same way, as a citizen of the U.P., that the DNR, the state, owns a lot of land throughout the Upper Peninsula, but that’s really what makes the Upper Peninsula great – both from the tourism aspect and from an aspect of the forest economy,” he said. “This is really the first one (parcel) that I’ve been extremely interested in because of the deeryard values … if the DNR owns it, we are able to ensure it’s managed properly for game species, deer hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts in Schoolcraft County.”

Swanson also noted that the deer population in that area would have better chance of thriving with the DNR’s assistance, since the agency continually plans around the herds to ensure what they need is available, while the land and certain tree species are preserved. He again pointed out that the current owner contacted the DNR to ensure the land’s protection.

Burnham seconded Swanson, adding that the county should consider the rights of private property owners.

“A private party came to us, it’s their desire to sell to us,” he said.

When asked about the PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) plan, which the DNR uses when purchasing land, Burnham said a new law requires these payments to be made in full and on time. He also noted that the funding for the purchase will come out of the DNR Trust Fund, which is comprised of oil and gas royalties – further ensuring the PILT payments. Future payments would come from this fund as well, Burnham explained, meaning the purchase or PILT would not be reliant on tax funds.

Reiter again said he would like to see the DNR offer a piece of land to replace the one they intend to purchase.

Burnham pointed out that the parcel will be sold regardless, and that, in most cases, the county would receive far less than what they would with a DNR PILT payment.

“This parcel – it’s like most other land in Schoolcraft County. It’s rural – it’s hunting land,” he said. “A business isn’t going to open there … If you’re looking at it purely from a revenue side, our PILT is up (increased).”

Grimm said that, although he knows the DNR representatives have nothing to do with the decisions made by the legislature, he would like to voice his concerns. He went on to say that he is trying to follow the will of the people, and that they have told him the state owns enough land.

“You reach a point when you say enough is enough. Maybe that’s where some of us are right now,” Grimm said.

Commissioner Sue Cameron mentioned that PILT payments are guaranteed now, but that laws frequently change.

Commissioner Dan LaFoille said that, while “it’s hard not to support you guys as another state entity”, the board could be persuaded if the DNR considered Reiter’s proposal to give land up when acquiring new parcels.

“I think kind of what we’re looking for, is an opportunity to gain something, when we lose something, so we stay relatively neutral,” he said.

LaFoille did acknowledge the fact that a private property owner has made the request, and that it is a piece of property surrounded by state property.

Reiter, taking yet another opportunity to reiterate his proposal, said the DNR is taking away from a potential private owner and that the county would like land in return.

Burnham took time to once again remind Reiter that the state is running two parallel processes in which they are acquiring this parcel, and at the same time, working to evaluate other land to determine which should be discarded.

“The land strategy is held up in the legislator … it’s not our decision (he and Swanson), it’s a collective decision and it goes all the way up and the director makes the final decision,” Burnham said. “I get what you’re saying, and it would be great if it was that way, but we’re going through a process.”

Burnham added that the county would likely see land turned over to them once the process is complete.

“I would feel comfortable saying that, when we get through with this process, I am certain that we are going to be getting rid of at least 80 acres in Schoolcraft County, but it’s just a larger process,” he said.

LaFoille mentioned that DNR Director Keith Creagh would be visiting the county soon and by sticking with the decision not to support the sale, commissioners would likely be granted the opportunity to discuss it with him.

Commissioners voted unanimously to not support the DNR’s attempt to purchase the land parcel.

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