Plans to refurbish a portion of West Bay beach should go ahead even if the city can't get permission from state and federal environmental agencies to restore a historic beach that would serve the Slabtown neighborhood and the city's west side.
The Slabtown Neighborhood Association has for years pushed for a restoration project that includes a Tart Trail extension and elimination of a 200-foot patch of vegetation along a spit of land that juts into the bay about a quarter-mile west of West End Beach. The neighborhood group wants to create a small bathing beach just off Grandview Parkway at the foot of Elmwood Avenue.
But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appear to agree with the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, which opposes the plan.
Watershed Center executive director Andy Knott said the city's "beaches are not overcrowded; there is no need for this."
Knott also said vegetation that has grown up there helps prevent erosion and will serve as important fish habitat when lake levels rise again. The Watershed Center also opposes extending the TART Trail as a paved surface.
Whether the city already has enough beaches is a matter of opinion, and the city has refuted Knott's claim that 75 percent of the city's shoreline already is improved or groomed. What really counts here for Slabtown residents is having a neighborhood beach, a place families and kids can walk to and enjoy the bay. Whatever else happens, the city should go forward with other upgrades planned for the site.
While West End beach is just down the Parkway, it's small and gets crowded during peak summer days. For Slabtown residents the Elmwood beach would be like a private getaway.
The city wants to not only remove the vegetation but some of the huge concrete slabs that were deposited at the site when the Parkway was built to protect the road from the water. The beach had been groomed until the 1980s.
Other work would include removing the remains of a wooden breakwall, covering the hard, riprap surface with sand and planting it with dune grass, fixing two stormwater drains to capture oil and debris and building a universal access ramp down to the beach.
That would be a big improvement that would allow the area to be used for walking the beach or having a picnic. Dealing with the stormwater drains is a must.
There is a lot of history at the site that should be considered.
Historical photos show there were both a marina and bathing beach at the site. The marina was moved when the state built the Parkway, but the beach remained and was groomed by the city up until high lake levels in the late 1980s pushed the water up to the road, said Sandra Cartwright, chair of the Slabtown association's beach committee.
If the city had resumed grooming when the water receded, it's unlikely we'd be having this debate. But it didn't, and that decision has now come back to haunt the neighborhood.
This may all prove to be moot at some point. The Army Corps of Engineers wants the city to address the Watershed Center's questions about the need for more beach and appears to have opened the door to a reversal.
"It's up to the applicant to prove its current beaches are inadequate," said James Luke, the Army Corps' project manager "They need to provide proof to us there is a purpose and a need for this project."
The city commission has instructed city engineer Tim Lodge to respond to that request. Lodge has already calculated that, contrary to the Watershed Center's assertion that 75 percent of the city's shoreline already is improved or groomed, the city currently grooms 28 percent; adding the Slabtown beach would increase that to 29 percent.
Either way, the city appears ready to proceed with everything but removing the vegetation, a wise compromise.
And who knows; in another 25 years it could all be under water again anyway