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Northport community divided over proposed RV park

RV parks signs
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Lawn signs like these are posted throughout Northport.

It’s not too crowded in Northport’s town center on a drizzling weekday evening in October.

But Campbell McLeod, the president of the Northport Omena Chamber of Commerce, says the town’s sleepy fall charm could look more active during the tourism season’s shoulder season.

“[There’s potential] gain that’s going to spread widely,” he said “It’s just not the restaurants. It’s just going to be a lot of more impact on businesses, the hardware store, fruit stands, maybe more housing.”

A company has proposed an RV campground and resort in a wooded area at the southern edge of Northport at the site of the old Timber Shores RV park, which operated from the early 60s to late 80s. The 80 acre resort has 1,723 feet of Grand Traverse Bay shoreline, and developers say it could host 334 RV and 15 tent camping sites.

The proposed RV park would be located on 80 acres within a 213-acre property off Grand Traverse Bay in Northport.

Northport has about 500 year-round residents, so the new campground alone could potentially bring a lot of people to town. 

The proposed development has drawn a lot of local interest. Driving around the area you see yard signs that either say “Support Timber Shores,” or “Save our Bay.”

RV parks and campgrounds are growing in popularity in northern Michigan, especially over the last 19 months as Michiganders looked to escape their homes for a safe getaway during the pandemic. Besides Northport, large scale RV parks have been proposed in Rapid City and Gaylord.

Northport businesses really want a big RV park, says McLeod, who surveyed them. He says they had a tough pandemic and the township didn’t give them a break on expensive bills.

Resident Bobbie Ditzler, whose now-deceased father owned a grocery store in Northport for 53 years, says her father told her the park was “the best thing that ever happened to the town.”

“He had a good feel for what went on in town at [the park’s] high point. [The township officials] appreciated all the business and all the good times it brought,” she says.

But today, a number of community members are opposed to the park. Letters published in the Leelanau Enterprise and submitted in public comment at local township meetings reveal residents' concerns about traffic issues, the environment and Northport becoming a town that caters more to tourists, like Leland or Suttons Bay.

“We have a certain quality of life in Northport and we’re putting that in some jeopardy to reach for financial gain,” McLeod says. “I think there’s a little bit of are [the visitors like] us? People are just a little afraid of the unknown.”

Timber Shores
Courtesy Timber Shores
/
The proposed RV park would be located on 80 acres within a 213-acre property off Grand Traverse Bay in Northport.

Elmwood Township resident Alison Heins worries about the park’s potential impact on the environment and congestion. She takes her husband to cancer treatments and says traffic can be bad.

“I certainly observed this summer the large boats and I guess a few RVs going up [Michigan highway] 22 and it was very slow. And there’s no passing on 22, it’s narrow and windy,” she says.

Heather Smith who works at the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay also has concerns about the site’s plans, which she says call for filling in some wetlands, removing vegetation near water streams and altering the natural lakeshore.

She recommends the developers don’t artificially sand the beach and that they move the campgrounds away from the wetlands, which filter the water and support the ecosystem.

“The impervious surfaces like roads and parking areas and some of the amenities and structures if some of those were moved out of the wetland network and placed in the less environmentally sensitive upland areas we think that would better respect our water,” Smith says.

Walter Johnson, the Project Development Coordinator for Timber Shores, says he’s looked at Smith's concerns and they’re not needed at that site.

“She states positions that are generally accurate in the broader sense but when you start to look at the specifics of this property they don’t apply,” he says.

In an Oct. 20 letter to Smith, that Timber Shores shared with IPR, a consultant to the company says they kept the development of natural areas to a minimum with the most recent site plan limiting the wetland impacts to only about half an acre, and only about 30% of shoreline will be a maintained beach. They say they are complying with state rules regarding wetlands.

Johnson says the Timber Shores team answered the community’s questions at an open house in July, including those concerned with increased traffic.

“[The Michigan Department of Transportation] has reviewed this project many times and has told us they have no concern about traffic on M22 from an RV park as we described it,” Johnson says.

The Timber Shores proposal is on pause right now as Leelanau Township is considering updating its ordinance for resort areas. The developer and the township are also embroiled in a lawsuit over a moratorium on RV parks and claims of a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, McLeod says there’s things he’d like to see come out of the park. He’d like cabins for workforce housing. He’s hopeful if the project is approved it might lead to more people finding Northport is a place where they’d like to settle down and enroll their kids in its schools.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.