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Bike trail to Elk Rapids will hurt farmers, says legislator

Aaron Selbig
The TART Trail winds its way through downtown Traverse City.

A group in Antrim County has been working for more than a decade to connect a bike trail between Suttons Bay and Harbor Springs. But now, a northern Michigan legislator says the path could harm the agriculture industry.

Last week, Representative Triston Cole of Mancelona took a road trip along the section that would extend Traverse City’s TART Trail north along U.S. Highway 31 to Elk Rapids. He brought with him Representative Tom Barrett – the chair of the House Agriculture Committee – and they heard from local farmers.

Cole says those farmers are worried that a paved bike path running along their orchards raises questions about security.

Rep. Triston Cole [left] and Rep. Tom Barrett [right] listen to Kewadin farmer Nels Veliquette discuss the path of a proposed bike trail.

“If someone is traveling along there and decides that the cherries look really nice and they should taste one, or the apples look really good and they should pick some of those, which honestly … that’s private property and that would be trespassing and stealing,” says Cole. “It’s like going to the grocery store and saying, ‘hey, I think I’ll take that basket of cherries off the shelf.’”

Cole says the route may be bad for trail users, too, especially when farmers are spraying chemicals on their crops.

“You’ve got products that protect from mold and mildews,” he says. “You’ve got weed control products. You’ve got insect control products. You’ve got a lot of different things.”

Trail planners have been holding meetings in Elk Rapids to advance the project. The group is made up of government officials, representatives from TART Trails, Incorporated and concerned citizens.

Antrim County Commissioner Ed Boettcher has been working on this for seven years.

“It’s government. Nothing happens fast,” says Boettcher.

After years of discussion, the group still doesn’t have a preliminary design of the trail. Boettcher says that makes Cole’s complaints premature.

“We don’t know where this trail is going to go for sure,” he says. “We want to get to the preliminary design. We want to raise some money, and then if there are specific concerns, which we’ve heard concerns, we want to deal with concerns because this has to work for everybody.”

Caroline Kennedy is assistant village manager in Elk Rapids. She says the group has been working with the local agriculture community. Some of the issues raised by Cole – like chemical spraying and the people stealing fruit – are legitimate concerns, says Kennedy, but they’re also solvable.

“This is not a new concept, where there are trails in agricultural areas,” says Kennedy. “So there is the ability to mark for that and to account for that.”

Boettcher points out that people already walk and bike along orchards on county roads. He thinks a few signs would take care of any problems.

“Some of the signage can talk about what agriculture is doing for the area because it’s doing a lot of great things,” says Boettcher. “Our area thrives on agriculture. We have to be good partners with agriculture.”

These planners believe in the long-term vision of a trail connecting Grand Traverse Bay with Little Traverse Bay. They say it’s a benefit to public health, and it attracts tourists.

Chris Cushman with TART Trails says trails provide connections.             

“I think it offers enhanced ability to connect to all the different conservation properties, the different parks, so there’s just a whole lot of connections to be made,” says Cushman.

Triston Cole doesn’t want to scrap the bike trail entirely – and he isn’t talking about any legislation that would derail it. He wants the trail re-routed further inland, perhaps through Rapid City and Alden.

He says following along U.S. 31 is just a bad location.

“That is an extremely busy highway,” says Cole. “I can’t imagine having a multitude of cyclists and people jogging along there mixed in with farm equipment, all trying to cross 31 during July, for example.”

Ed Boettcher doesn’t necessarily disagree.

“My first option is to ride a bike through the woods,” he says. “That’s everybody’s utopia but unless we can find 150 property owners that all want to give us access to their property, or an agricultural community that wants to let us carve a path through their cherry orchard, we have limitations.”

The trail group hopes to raise $50,000 to pay for the preliminary design.

Ed Boettcher says his goal seven years ago was to see this trail built before he dies. And now, he’s starting to think that might actually happen.