Island Voices Intent To Own Coal Dock
The City of Mackinac Island wants to own the Coal Dock, and its intent to do so has now been announced officially to the dock’s owners and others with a vested interest in it. The city says it will make an offer to buy the dock outright and settle any riparian rights claims, but, if such a purchase cannot be negotiated, it could take it by eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the right of a government to take private property for public use and to compensate the owner for it. The public use envisioned by the city would be as a freight dock for the use of all freight haulers, and possibly as a passenger dock, if needed. More likely than not, the city will need to tax property owners to help pay for the purchase, but the city could also find a way for the dock to pay for itself.
The city announced its intent to own the dock to its owners, Mackinac Island Ferry Capital, and others claiming riparian rights to the area at a mediation session in Grand Rapids Wednesday, January 25, and reported its action to the public at a city council meeting Wednesday, February 1. Council members promised the public would be able to weigh in on the matter in the weeks and months to come, after it determines what it will offer and how to finance the purchase.
The dock was built in 1818 and has had a series of owners, but a lease for the lake bottom on which it is built was never obtained from the state. Because of that, current owner Mackinac Island Ferry Capital has had a hard time getting clear title to sell it. It needs to lease the bottomlands, but must convince the state it has legal access to them from the shore, known as riparian water rights. And in addition to Ferry Capital, those rights are claimed by four other land owners, including the city. All the claims are being contested in a mess of legal entanglements, some of which go back 200 years.
Council has made known its interest in acquiring the Coal Dock since 2014, and offered to buy it that year for an undisclosed price. More recently it has been trying to establish a legal claim to the dock, and last February it filed suit in circuit court against Mackinac Island Ferry Capital over ownership of the filled bottomlands at the end of Astor Street, to which the dock is anchored. Mackinac Island Ferry Capital followed with its own suit. Beginning in 2015, other adjoining property owners, claiming riparian rights, have applied to lease state bottomlands under portions of the dock.
To avoid a lengthy and expensive legal battle, the 11th Circuit Court asked all the parties to mediate the various issues out of court and, since last September, the parties have been meeting with attorney John Muth of Grand Rapids to resolve the various claims and come to an agreement everyone can live with. Three mediation sessions have been held to date, in September, December, and late January, attended by the attorneys of all the parties involved, which include the Rippe family of Mackinac Island Ferry Capital, the City of Mackinac Island, Sandra and Debra Orr of Seabiscuit restaurant, Nancy Nephew of Mighty Mac restaurant, and Anthony Trayser and family of the Trading Post gift shop. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which manages the bottomlands, has also attended.
At the February 1 city council meeting, city attorney Tom Evashevski told citizens that, while the proceedings of the mediation sessions are confidential, he can report that the city has told the other parties it intends to own the dock.
“We are pursuing the direction given by the council to pursue a purchase,” he said, and the city has been asked to submit a proposal within the next couple of weeks.
“We haven’t talked about prices yet, or terms, or any of those details, which we have to do,” he said of the city council. Those discussions began that very evening in a closed session at the end of the open council meeting.
In the meantime, the mediator is meeting with the interested parties to try to find a solution that everybody can buy into. For the city, Mr. Evashevski said, that would be buying the dock.
“And whether we can do that,” he added, “is going to take cooperation of the other parties, as well.”
Councilmember Steve Moskwa outlined the council’s position.
“We are looking for input, as well as to inform the people who live here and vote here to understand that this is an opportunity for the city to own a dock,” he said. “But to do so it’s going to cost. We’re trying to establish a number; it’s been appraised a couple times at around $2 million. We’re trying to find out if we can just purchase or take the dock or how to move forward, with the Rippes or otherwise.”
He said the public dock would also be available for passenger service, if needed.
The Coal Dock was last appraised in October 2014 for $1.97 million, but it is unclear whether the city will seek an update.
Councilmember Jason St. Onge told the audience the city believes it owns about one-third of the dock, based on its survey of the end of Astor Street.
The city generally believes that the Orr sisters can also claim about a third of the bottomlands, while Mackinac Ferry Capital owns upland property that gives it claim to the remaining third. The Trayser and Nephew properties have lesser claims.
“The reason we’re trying to get the coal dock is to ensure that the Island will always have a dock to bring in freight,” said Councilmember Andrew McGreevy. “We want to make sure that dock is going to be used for freight for everybody on the island.”
He noted that the city does not intend to get into the freight-hauling business itself, but rather wants the dock to ensure commercial haulers have an adequate facility available.
Councilmember Dennis Bradley concurred, saying the property would be available to all freight companies to load and unload freight at any time, and that, hopefully, its use could clear up some of the congestion at the south end of town, where Shepler’s and Star Line have used their docks for both freight and passenger service.
City concern about congestion and adequate dockage came to a head in 2014 when financial troubles at Arnold Transit caused a shift in freight business to Shepler’s and Star Line. Concerned about congestion and adequate docking to accommodate freight, the city worked out an agreement with Mission Point Resort to lease its Beaver Dock for freight deliveries. That was a temporary fix and resulted in legal complaints from adjoining residents, but, to the city, it underscored the growing problem of congestion and inadequate freight facilities downtown.
At about the same time, another Arnold Transit issue resulted in an easement dispute at the head of Arnold’s main passenger dock, resulting in all traffic being blocked from entering or leaving the dock. The city stepped in and resolved that issue, too. In November 2016, Star Line purchased Arnold’s passenger operation and the main dock, but not the freight operation or Coal Dock, which are still for sale by Mackinac Island Ferry Capital.
Said Mayor Margaret Doud at the February 1 meeting, “The city doesn’t want to be in the position that we were in before, when the main dock was blocked off and we couldn’t use that dock.
“We don’t want to be choked by somebody telling us we don’t have a dock. We’re an island, and the city needs to own a dock.”
In a call for questions at the meeting, Anthony Trayser told the city his claim to riparian rights is not about money, but for the betterment of the community.
“Our interest is not money,” he said. “Our intent is what we can do with this harbor to make it a better place.”
He said the harbor is cluttered and unsightly and he has ideas to beautify it, which he proposed to share with the mayor.
But he said he is concerned that the city council will make decisions about the Coal Dock before citizens have an opportunity to weigh in with other ideas.
“There will be plenty of opportunity for folks to address the council,” Mr. St. Onge assured him.
“I want to make it clear that any final decision by the city to purchase the dock will be made at an open meeting,” said Mr. Evashevski. “We can figure out how to negotiate or plan our strategy in closed session, but before we make any commitment on behalf of the council and taxpayers, there will be a public meeting where that is discussed in the open and a decision, whatever it may be, voted upon.”