Tuesday, June 30, 2009

McCoy Creek – Mill Race – Pears Mill Controversy Simmers in Berrien County, Michigan

Discussions about restoration of the Mill Race—which was constructed about 160 years ago by diverting water from McCoy Creek—to provide water sufficient for the continued summertime operation of Pears Mill, a historic attraction in downtown Buchanan, Michigan, have continued off and on for the past four years. Proponents (notably the Buchanan Preservation Society, property owners along the Mill Race, and a majority of local residents) claim that the mill race can be restored and the mill operated without affecting the quality of McCoy Creek, while opponents (notably Trout Unlimited, St. Joseph River Valley Fly Fishers, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality—which agency must issue a permit before any restoration work can begin) claim otherwise. And there the standoff remains.

On June 11, 2009, the Buchanan City Commission held a special work session to receive comments from the public on the future of the Mill Race and Pears Mill. Subsequently, an article by correspondent Debra Haight appeared in two local newspapers under different headlines and slightly different opening paragraphs:
Some Want More Water for Pears Mill—-Plans to dredge and improve mill race remain under discussion
South Bend Tribune – Tuesday, June 16, 2009, pages B1 and B2

If Buchanan city officials and many local residents had their way, something would be done right away to get more water into the McCoy’s [sic] Creek mill race that feeds water to the historical Pears Mill in downtown Buchanan.

Unfortunately, the decision on taking action to bring more water from the creek to the mill race isn’t up to the city, as city commissioners and City Manager Meg Mullendore were quick to point out at a recent work session on the issue.

[NOTE: Remainder of article is continued below…]

Millrace is Hot Topic at Special Work Session
Berrien County Record – Thursday, June 18, 2009, pages A1 and B8

The millrace was once again the topic of discussion at a special work session held last week by the Buchanan City Commission.

While many of those in attendance asked the city to act to get more water into the millrace so that historic Pears Mill can operate during the summer months, it looks like the decision isn’t necessarily one the city can make on its own.

City Commissioners and City Manager Meg Mullendore were quick to point out that bringing more water from the creek to the millrace isn’t up to the city.

[NOTE: From this point on, the text of the article is identical in both papers...]

"I’ve lived with this controversy for several years," Commissioner Patricia Moore said. "Many times we have come up with solutions and the state is there to put up an obstacle.... We’ve come up with solutions and been stonewalled."

Mullendore said that ultimately whatever happens is up to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials since they would have to approve a permit to dredge and make improvements to the millrace.

She said the DEQ would also have to approve a permit for replacing part of the dam structure damaged by vandals earlier this spring. That vandalism apparently caused less water to go into the millrace this spring and summer.

The work session was attended by over 40 people, many of whom spoke out in support of getting more water into the millrace. The issue isn’t a new one for the city, officials and residents have debated what to do for the last few years.

Two years ago, a city proposal to replace the dam-like structure that diverts water from the creek into the millrace on the south side of the city was rejected by DEQ officials.

Also in 2007, a plan the DEQ approved calling for a well to be dug to provide water for the mill was rejected by some local residents who wanted to see not only more water for the mill but also the preservation of the millrace.

The focus of Thursday’s meeting was on the most recent proposal—as mentioned above—that would dredge the race and make improvements to the millrace and creek.

That proposal was prepared by a consulting firm [Wetland and Coastal Resources of Lansing, Michigan] last fall. Their cost estimate of $65,400 would cover getting designs, permits, endangered species studies done as well as the work itself.

A majority of the dozen or so speakers at Thursday’s meetng as well as four letters received at city hall favored doing more to help the millrace and spoke of its historical value, its importance to Pears Mill and to local tourism in general.

Buchanan Preservation Society President Tom Fehlner said the proposal won’t harm McCoy’s [sic] Creek, a coldwater trout stream, but will help the millrace which was constructed around 1850.

He said the community can’t depend anymore on industry to provide jobs and must look to tourism and history to attract visitors.

"We’re very lucky here to have a mill site with a building, machinery and a race to drive it," he said. "That distinguishes Buchanan from other communities in a 30 to 40 mile radius. The mill will never make a lot of money itself but it can help other businesses."

"This is my seventh year as president of the Preservation Society," Fehlner said. "The plan was proposed in 2005, the DEQ public hearing was in 2007 and the consultant was hired in 2008. I’m now 72 years old and would like to see this finished before they plant me in the ground."

Others hit on his themes of preserving history. Marjorie Foster said history is important to the social make-up of the community and that Pears Mill gives people a reason to stop in Buchanan and visit.

Randal Peart moved here from Chicago a few years ago and is a licensed engineer. He said he’s studied the consultants’ report and thinks it would work. As for the history, he said if people "forget the past, they won’t have any future."

John Trapp is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and urged action to restore the water levels in the millrace.

"Downtown Buchanan without a functioning mill is like the Washington Monument without the reflecting pool," he said. "It’s a no-brainer, it helps the mill and brings tourists to town with no damage to the creek."

Sending letters of support were Dick and Mae Proud, Shirley Roti Roti, Jerry Flenar and his family, and Jeff Antisdel and his family.

The Prouds said that tourism could be a lifeline for the community to grow and spoke against closing off the millrace. "Once you tear something down, you can’t get it back," they wrote.

On the other side, resident Larry Elliot presented a letter from the Michigan Trout Unlimited chapter in opposition to the dredging plan and what they see as its negative effect on the creek. He also pointed out that state official are against having dams in waterways.

Elliot said the consultants’ report was not comprehensive and did not consider the millrace’s imact on the creek, a point supported by another resident, Peter Hartz. "If I go to the doctor and he says I have cancer, I’ll go to another doctor and get another opinion," he said.

Hartz noted that the city has made environmental mistakes that have helped create the situation such as not clearing out sediment traps at locations on the creek. "If the city stepped up its stewardship, we could have both the creek and the millrace healthy," he said.

"What strikes me is that the people who are so gung ho for the mill act like we (fishermen and creek supporters) want to torch the mill," he said. "That’s not case. We can have a viable mill and a viable cold water trout steam and together they could bring in 10 times more money than just the mill."

The meeting ended with comments from the four commissioners in attendance. Bill Norton thanked people for coming, said he wanted to see both the millrace and the creek prosper but noted that the city is restricted by what the state will allow it to do.

Warren Weaver said he hoped the city would get cooperation from the state all the parties involved to find a solution including possibly constructing a well to provide water to the mill.

Moore spoke in favor of providing more fishing opportunities as well as protecting history. Carla Cole said the city needs to come to a conclusion on the issue and said she’d like to see a reward established to find out who blocked the millrace off earlier this year.



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