Saving the Cunningham Tract
The gravel mine deal is finally official.
by Margaret Engle
From the July, 2018 issue
Greater Chelsea breathed a collective sigh of relief in late 2014 when word got around that a deal had been struck to stop a proposed sand and gravel mine in Lyndon Township. As early as January 2015, then-state rep Gretchen Driskell announced that an agreement was in the works. And then the community waited--in vain--for an official statement.
In October 2016 it was announced that McCoig Materials had withdrawn its application for a special land use permit for the mine. But closing the deal to save the property, known as the Cunningham Tract, took another year and a half. Papers were finally signed on May 8.
The roughly 155-acre parcel on M-52 is being conveyed to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in exchange for a lease giving a McCoig subsidiary, Spring Mill Reclamation, the rights to mine sand and gravel at Island Lake State Recreation Area. The Cunningham property will become part of the Pinckney State Recreation Area.
"It's a beautiful piece of property," says park manager Chuck Dennison, with glacial hills and pothole wetlands. It will remain largely undeveloped. Dennison anticipates "bird watchers, hunters, and people who want a quiet walk in the woods" will all be happy. "I've already had someone calling me wondering about mushroom hunting on that property."
At first, the proposal met with opposition in Green Oak Township, where Island Lake is located. "Nobody was happy that a mining operation was coming in," township supervisor Mark St. Charles told the Community Observer in January 2017. But when the plan was presented to the Green Oak supervisors and community, St. Charles says, they saw an opportunity to get the park cleaned up.
The huge, history-rich recreation area includes a former sand and gravel mine that was never appropriately closed, explains Karen Maidlow, a former property specialist with DNR's Office of Minerals Management. When the agency held a sealed-bid auction for the site, its aim was to permit renewed gravel mining as a way
to repair the damage while also earning revenue to fund park improvements.
The old mine had left "deep slopes, which are a concern for public safety," says Maidlow (who has since moved to another post with the DNR). As Spring Mill Reclamation "pulls out the sand and gravel, they'll contour the land and cut down the slopes."
As part of the project, old spoil piles and mining debris left behind by the previous mining operation will be removed, and most of the site will be planted as a prairie. According to the DNR, the deal will reclaim 540 acres of the 4,000-acre park--while earning as much as $10 million in royalties over the ten-year lease.
Much of the opposition to the Lyndon site centered on the specter of sixty to eighty tandem gravel trucks a day rolling through downtown Chelsea. Truck traffic was also a major concern for Green Oak residents. "I'd say initially they were 100 percent against it," says St. Charles. But after people learned that the mining company would use a northerly route to get to I-96 rather than go south through residential areas, he says, there was fairly broad acceptance. The township approved the mine in December 2015.
In Chelsea, a range of allies, from environmental groups to the Chamber of Commerce, united in opposition to the mine. Thousands signed online petitions, and hundreds came to community meetings. Some of that energy has since shifted to working on a non-motorized trail that will link Chelsea with the Pinckney Recreation Area and other parts of the county.
Trail construction is well underway. The DNR's Dennison says that they plan to "run the loop trail a little bit off the road and into Cunningham property--it's going to be one of the best sections of that trail."
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