Oxford Twp. forms committee to look into raising Maloney Bridge and limiting Squaw boat access
By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Oxford Township is mediating a complex dispute around the Stringy Lakes concerning the Maloney St. Bridge and the DNR boat access on Squaw Lake.
At its virtual Oct. 14 meeting, the township Board of Trustees nominated Supervisor (now trustee) Bill Dunn, Clerk Curtis Wright, and Trustee Jonathan Nold to investigate the possibility of raising the Maloney St. Bridge and various issues surrounding it. They are to report back to the board within six months.
The matter involves the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC), the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the residents of the Stringy Lakes (the interconnected Squaw, Clear, Long, Tan, Cedar and Michelson lakes.)
The Road Commission of Oakland County is looking into rebuilding the aging bridge on Maloney St. that divides Clear Lake from Long Lake and prevents most boats from passing between the lakes because of its low clearance. The bridge wasn’t always like that though.
Longtime residents recall easily boating under the bridge before it was rebuilt in the early ‘70s. “I remember water skiing under that bridge, the original bridge. Not this one here, because you can barely walk under this one here without hitting your head,” said Larry Dudley.
Another lake resident, Gail Tomko, disputed this possibility however. “I’ve lived on this lake for 50 years and I’ve never water skied under that bridge, and I guarantee if it was raised three feet, it wouldn’t allow water skiers to go under that bridge.”
The clearance has become even worse over time, according to Catherine Ovenshire. “Even in the 20-plus years that I’ve lived here, whereas I used to be able to fit a very shallow ski boat underneath that bridge, I can no longer do that because of the land that has been washed in because of the poor design,” she said. “When they reconstructed the bridge they added soil so that the approach would be longer and the bridge under clearance would be limited. That soil now washed in is filling in that area as well, so it’s not just the bridge is much too low, it’s also washed in due to the poor design.”
Now that the road commission is planning to rebuild the bridge, some lake residents want it raised back to its original height so they can once again connect to all the lakes. “That bridge has become a barrier wall and has created hostility amongst the community that we grew up to love, and I want to see that come back” said Yvonne Dudley.
“The bridge as it stands makes it so that the people who live in this community can’t enjoy all the lakes either,” said Ovenshire, who also pointed out, “It’s not just the residents who live on the lake that enjoy the lake, it’s the entire area that surrounds all of the streets on the other sides that have access points enjoy the lake as well. It’s not just us lakefront owners.”
The 24-foot-long bridge is crucial infrastructure since it is the only access for about a dozen residences on the peninsula at the dead end of Maloney St. The road commission is working with Livonia-based Orchard, Hiltz and McCliment (OHM) engineering firm to survey the bridge and assess the cost and design of reconstruction. Township Engineer Jim Sharpe estimated construction would begin in 2023, or 2022 at the earliest if funding becomes available.
Part of the assessment is looking into what the additional costs would be to raise the bridge. The project has no funding allocated yet. “This is only very preliminary work to see what would be needed and begin to come up with some cost estimates for the construction at which point we would start to look for actual construction dollars,” Craig Bryson, the Road Commission’s senior communication manager, told The Oxford Leader in July. “We know the bridge is in poor shape and will need to be replaced and we want to begin that process.”
Bryson said the road commission was not anticipating raising the bridge, at least on its own, “simply because doing so would likely have a significant impact on the cost.” The engineering assessment might even find that raising the bridge is not practically possible because of physical limitations on either side of the bridge.
If raising the bridge is feasible, residents have another option: a Special Assessment District (SAD) to cover the extra costs. The residents of all the String Lakes would need to have a 51 percent majority vote to establish an SAD to fund the additional cost of raising the bridge through a tax.
“My own opinion is that this is more of an issue for Road Commission for Oakland County because the township doesn’t own any roads,” Clerk Wright said.
“We’re going to have people for and against it,” Dunn said. “The problem with the township is we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” He suggested the SAD route to “let democracy take over.”
Trustee (now Township Supervisor) Jack Curtis said he was asked by a couple people to put the issue on the agenda. “It’s more of an educational process to help these residents either get the bridge raised or not get the bridge raised. We don’t own the road, we don’t own the bridge, we don’t have any monetary value in either or.”
Township officials had received conflicting information as to how to properly go about establishing an SAD for this project. Some thought it should be through the township, while others thought it should be through the road commission.
“This does not meet the statutory requirement for the RCOC to be able to do a special assessment,” Sharpe said a road commission official told him. “Any special assessment would have to be brought forth by the residents and brought to the township board for consideration.”
However, Wright said that was contrary to what he heard from another representative at the road commission. “I don’t know how high up the hierarchy they were of disseminating information, but they indicated to me it was an option between if the township wanted to initiate an SAD or whether to allow the road commission to take on that task. And for us if it comes out of the township to handle an SAD, that can be accomplished, it’s just a long tedious process. It will be expensive from our end, from an administrative and a management standpoint.”
Wright added, “I’m not discounting what Engineer Sharpe said, I’m just indicating what I heard.”
Some residents are opposed to raising the bridge due to concerns about overcrowding from the public DNR boat launch on Squaw Lake. The boat launch is the only public access on the chain of lakes. And because of the bridge, the public is currently only able to access Squaw and Clear lakes.
The lakes are already crowded with residents alone. “If everybody who lived on these lakes put their boat in the water and got out there at the exact same time and five people came into the boat launch, you could almost walk across this lake without getting wet,” said Larry Dudley.
Opponents of raising the bridge are worried that if the public access issue is not fixed, the overcrowding will just spread to the rest of the lakes. Lake residents tend to agree that the boat access is too large for how small the lakes are. Both opponents and supporters of raising the bridge say that the boat launch needs to be addressed first.
The residents say there are too many parking spaces at the DNR access site for how small the Stringy Lakes are. They cite the DNR’s own guideline for determining the number of parking spaces at a boat launch: one parking space per 15 acres of water surface area.
The boat launch, located on 133 acres of state-owned property, has 55 parking spaces. The Stringy Lakes altogether are 164 acres, according to a 2013 DNR survey. That is only about three acres of surface area per parking space. But Squaw Lake (28 acres) and Clear Lake (32.5 acres) only add up to 60.5 acres, which is barely an acre per parking space. The Stringy Lakes should have no more than 11 parking spaces, according to the ratio.
“It’s ridiculous the number of spots for the number of acres,” Ovenshire said. “But given the limited access, it shuts everyone down to two of the lakes, which is 60 acres. It really becomes very, very dangerous and it becomes a public safety risk. This entire community over here is a lake community. And it is meant to be as such and have the access site. No one is asking it to be closed, we would just like it to be reflective of the amount of acreage that’s available.”
Residents point to nearby Lake Orion for comparison. The DNR public boat launch on Lake Orion only has 34 parking spaces, but the lake is 470 acres (about 13.8 acres to 1 space). Similarly, Lakeville Lake has 29 parking spaces for 460 surface acres (15.8 acres to 1 space). When parking fills up for those lakes, they start directing people to Squaw.
DNR officials are quick to point out that the 1:15 ratio is not a strict rule. In an email, DNR Waterways Development Program Manager Jordan Byelich said the ratio “is not a state regulatory rule or standard, but a guideline we use to begin the conversation for how we lay out public boating access opportunities on inland lakes. While the ratio begins at 1 parking space per 15 surface acres, it does not always end there. We have many lakes where we are at more than 15 acres per space. And we have some where we have less.”
Byelich listed a number of factors they consider when planning new sites: The size and shape of the access land; the size, shape, and depth of the water body; connections to other navigable waterways such as lakes or rivers; expected launch use (based on surrounding population); number of registered boats in region; potential for recreational opportunities; proximity to public road system; geographical distribution of boating opportunities in the area; proximity and amount of other publicly owned boating access sites on the water body; funding; maintenance and operational involvement.
Byelich suggested if it is a safety or enforcement issue, that DNR law enforcement or Oakland County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol be informed. If the issue is the number of boats on the lakes, he suspects the bulk of the traffic is from lakefront owners or their guests, not the access site.
“Based on my experience it is these folks that aren’t parking their trailers at a boating access site, but at their homes. By this logic, they are supporting a substantial amount of vessels on the lake. If a response to number of boats on the lake was looked into further, it would seem establishing limitations on boats from lakefront homes may need to be part of the discussion.”
The 2013 survey counted 232 dwellings around Stringy Lakes Chain with 180 small docks (1 to 2 boat slips) and 42 large docks (3 or more boat slips).
Wright pointed out another issue with enforcing limits through the public access. “The other locations locally here, Lake Orion, Lakeville, they have a gate guard. This location doesn’t have a gate guard, and that’s something that in order to enforce the limitation of people on the lake, that’s probably what it’s going to take from the DNR, to actually supply a body to regulate the amount of vehicles that can get on the lake.”
Adam Lepp, a local DNR parks supervisor told this reporter the Squaw access has been an issue over the years, and there have been numerous complaints.
A December 13, 1995 article in The Oxford Leader titled, “DNR limits lake hearing” said lake residents were frustrated when the DNR limited the scope of a public hearing where they wanted to discuss the access, speed and traffic on the lakes. They complained that jet ski traffic was out of control. They also said too many outsiders were entering the lake through the public access site and they would like to see someone controlling the number of boats and watercraft per day allowed through that access.
The issue came up again in Sept. 2003 when the DNR held another meeting to hear resident concerns about watercraft safety on the Stringy Lakes. During the meeting, 27 area residents came forward to speak on topics including “overcrowding, especially of Squaw Lake, due to extensive public access,” the Leader reported in an article titled, “Grievances aired on Stringy Lake issues.”
Residents complained of lack of enforcement of existing rules. “Almost every resident who spoke commented on the large amount of public access available to the lakes. A majority asked for some solution to cutting back on the number of users beyond property owners.”
Ultimately, nothing was done to resolve the issues. After an investigation of area safety reports, the DNR concluded in December of that year that no new ordinance was needed for the regulation of boating on the lakes.
Unhappy about SAD
Paul Beebe, whose property is adjacent to the bridge, has been a strong critic of raising the bridge before the public access issue is corrected. He also has concerns about what the footprint of a new bridge might be on or adjacent to his property.
Yet, if they fix the access issue, he isn’t necessarily against raising the bridge. “I’m not particularly against it, but then I also don’t want a Special Assessment District. I don’t want to pay any extra money to have it done. If it is something (the road commissioners) are budgeting for, and it happens that way, then you know it happens. Can’t stop progress I guess, but I don’t want to pay any extra money for it.”
Even strong supporters of raising the bridge aren’t happy about the prospect of an SAD. “Years ago, they lowered the height of the bridge,” Larry Dudley said. “But at that time no one was notified and they didn’t ask for permission to do it, so that’s why I don’t understand why now all of a sudden we’ve got to go through all this SAD stuff saying we want it back to where it originally was and we’ve got to pay to have that done. That makes no sense to me whatsoever.”
At any rate, there’s still a lot of confusion about what the SAD process would be. “I think first off we need to straighten out with the county who’s going to be in charge of this thing and who can guide us in a correct manner,” Jack Curtis said. “You have conflicting talks about SADs. So we should work with at least determining the ground rules as to where we go from here.”
Dunn pointed out that the road commission is not going to have much to do with the parking lot/DNR access issue, “so we should probably work on the state first, but include the road commission.”