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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hancock's Swedetown Creek "issues" include mineral rights

By Michele Bourdieu

Swedetown Creek flows into Portage Lake in mid-April, 2008, as the snow melts. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

HANCOCK -- Whether or not Hancock's Government Lot 5, including the recreation area at the mouth of Swedetown Creek, will become a city park remains undecided. The issue may be discussed at the coming Hancock City Council meeting, to be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 21.

One question concerning the City Council is a 1980 agreement between the City of Hancock and Superior Sand and Gravel (Thornton Construction Co., Inc.), which allows the company to remove sand and gravel from part of Government Lot 5.

This photo, taken about 150 yards north of the southeast corner of Government lot 5, looking south along the survey line marking the eastern boundary of Government Lot 5, shows Government Lot 5 to the west (right) and the a gravel pit apparently dug by Superior Land and Gravel on their property to the east (left). Portage Lake is in the background. A survey (note pink survey marker) of Government Lot 5 was taken recently at the request of the City of Hancock. (Photo © 2008 and courtesy John Slivon)

A recent letter from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) states, however, that the State of Michigan still owns the mineral rights to Government Lot 5.

At the Apr. 16, 2008, Hancock City Council Meeting local residents again expressed their wish that the Council approve the Swedetown Creek Ad Hoc Committee's recommendation that Government Lot 5 be recognized as a park.

Susan Burack, who spoke to residents who had attended the March 19 meeting of the Council, said those citizens came away from that meeting with "a sense of unreality," an impression that elected officials were not paying attention to voters' input.

"In a democracy," Burack said, "we hope that there's communication between elected officials and constituents. We're trying to get citizens involved in the community, and we hope that you will be responsive to citizens' input and communicate back."

Hancock resident Susan Burack addresses the City Council concerning Government Lot 5 at their Apr. 16, 2008, meeting. Also pictured is Councilman (and Mayor Pro Tem) William Laitila. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

Burack noted the Ad Hoc Committee formed to look at Government Lot 5 did a lot of work, but their efforts seemed to be ignored by the other members of the Council. (They studied the 1941 Deed in which the area was given to the City of Hancock by the State of Michigan for recreational purposes, a 2003 deed, the City Charter and other documents and concluded that legally the area is still a park, although not listed in the City's list of parks.) The committee, made up of Council members Tom Gemignani, Lisa Mc Kenzie and Ted Belej, recommended at the March 19 meeting that the Council vote to make the area a park; however, a tie vote of 3-3 prevented the motion from passing.*

Allyson Jabusch of Hancock commented that she and other citizens feel the purpose for giving Government Lot 5 park status is to protect it from future moves to sell it. Jabusch said she is in favor of keeping just as it is -- in its natural state.

Allyson Jabusch addresses the Hancock City Council during the public comment period of their April 16, 2008, meeting. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

Jabush referred to the fact that the Copper Country Audubon Club has offered $1000 and volunteers to maintain the area near the mouth of the creek, which has potential as a bird sanctuary. She noted that, while she is not an Audubon member, she would be happy to help clean up the area in the summer. She also mentioned a neighbor, born and raised in Hancock, who remembers large numbers of people smelting in the area in the past.

"I was really disappointed in that vote last time," Jabusch said. "I hope that this issue stays in the forefront somehow."

City Manager Glenn Anderson then replied to a question from Jabusch on the results of the tie vote at the March meeting.

"The motion didn't pass so the land remains as is," Anderson said.

Hancock resident Ann Pace asked for a clarification of the meaning of "as is."

During the April 16 meeting of the Hancock City Council, Ann Pace (standing, left) addresses the Council on the status of Swedetown Creek and Government Lot 5. Council members pictured are, from left, William Laitila, Ted Belej, City Manager Glenn Anderson and Mayor Barry Givens. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

Anderson mentioned the City has owned Government Lot 5 since 1941 and added that, like much of City-owned land, it has many uses for a lot of people.

Joe Kaplan, who owns property in Hancock, spoke of "two facts" that he believes the Council needs to recognize in discussing Government Lot 5:

1. The 1941 deed from the State of Michigan giving the City ownership to Government Lot 5 says the land is to be used "solely for the purposes of park and recreation."

2. Section 14.3 of the Hancock City Charter of 1988 states that cemetery and park land cannot be sold without the approval of the voters.

Kaplan noted facts that occurred after the Charter's adoption in 1988, such as the State (Department of Natural Resources) releasing the reverter clause in 2003 or opinions of the Recreation Commission, are not relevant since they occurred after the Charter's adoption in 1988.

Kaplan said he appreciated the fact that the Ad Hoc Committee made the connection between these two facts in their recommendation to confirm the park status of Government Lot 5.

"They've done a great job," Kaplan said.

Kaplan noted also that "park is not synonymous with spending money."

The fact that in 67 years the City has not spent a penny for upkeep or maintenance of this area, he said, is testimony that protecting natural areas does not add a financial burden on the City or the taxpayers.

"Voting to recognize Government Lot 5 as a park means only one thing: that the Hancock City Council respects the citizens of Hancock enough to seek approval by their voters before selling the land for private purposes," Kaplan said. "I don't think it's a lot to ask for the Council to respect the citizens, and the citizens have been speaking about this unanimously for the last eight months."

Councilor Bill Laitila, who was absent from the March City Council meeting, said, "The Lot 5 issue is one that I guess we're going to have to deal with sooner or later."

He said he trusted the Ad Hoc Committee's judgment on the issue of the park.

Laitila mentioned hearing Michigan Tech alumni fraternity members recently reminiscing about smelting at the mouth of Swedetown Creek. He also said he had spoken to a number of people in favor of preserving Swedetown Creek. Laitila pointed out, however, that Councilor James Hainault, who has had different views on the issue, was absent from this meeting.

"If we do make any further resolution, we should have a full Council here," Laitila said.

Mayor Barry Givens said he still had unresolved issues, including a 1980 contract between the City of Hancock and Superior Sand and Gravel (Thornton Construction Co., Inc.). The contract, which included a property exchange, also stated the following: "The City agrees to sell and Thornton agrees to buy gravel which is located in Government Lot 5, Section 28, Township 55 North, Range 34 West, more particularly described as follows:
All gravel which lies above the 730 foot contour line and which is located to the East of the said contour line extending to the East line of the said Section 28, and adjacent to property owned by Superior Sand and Gravel Inc."

City Manager Glenn Anderson said the issue of the contract came up after the Swedetown Creek Ad Hoc Committee meeting last March.

Councilor Lisa McKenzie asked, "Did the City have authority to sell gravel from land designated at that time for park and recreation use only?"

McKenzie noted designating the area as a park first could solve the "issues" Givens said were unresolved. (Another is a house located on Government Lot 5.)

Givens, however, indicated he wanted the "issues" resolved before voting on the park status. He asked the Ad Hoc Committee members to "keep working on those issues."

When asked whether he thought the 1941 deed (designating Government Lot 5 for park and recreation purposes only) made the 1980 contract for gravel extraction illegal, Anderson replied, "That's a legal issue -- for courts to decide."

Givens acknowledged that asking the City attorney to study the issue might be the next step, in order to avoid a potential lawsuit should the City not honor a valid contract.

In a phone conversation with Keweenaw Now on May 16, 2008, Patrick Thornton, president of Superior Sand and Gravel, said he was aware of residents' concerns about the Swedetown Creek area.

"I'm not saying that we would mine our property that crosses Swedetown Creek," Thornton said. "We like having the creek there, and we realize people like to hike and bike there. We try and work with the organizations that like to use our property for hiking, biking, skiing and other (recreational) activities."

Thornton mentioned his support of the Maasto Hiihto Trails used both for skiing and the annual Chain Drive Bike Race.

"We're happy to work with the community in that regard," he said. "But I won't come out and say that I'm in favor of a park that's going to prevent us from mining on our property."

Thornton said that while he couldn't promise it, he didn't think the company would mine near the creek.

"We like that area, too," he added. "I'm perfectly aware that the DNR/DEQ would have to approve mining near wetlands. We presently work with the DEQ in our operations."

Lori Underwood, Land Use specialist for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), wrote to Councilor Tom Gemignani, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee, on May 6, 2008, concerning the mineral rights for Government Lot 5.

In her letter, Underwood states, "The State of Michigan retained the mineral rights for this parcel, including sand and gravel, as described in the enclosed (1941) deed. In 2003 when the reverter clause on the public use deed was released, the minerals were not included. As such, any sand and gravel, or other mineral extraction, will require approval from the Department of Natural Resources."

Thornton said he wasn't aware of the DNR letter.

"I have to assume that the City owned what they traded us," Thornton said. "We traded land for the rights to mine."

* Editor's Note: See our Apr. 15, 2008, article on Swedetown Creek.

MTU students honor earthquake victims with vigil, fundraising

Michigan Tech students, faculty and staff members gather in front of the Memorial Union Building (MUB) at noon on Tuesday, May 20, for a candlelight vigil in honor of the thousands of victims of the 7.8 M earthquake that has erased several cities and towns in the Sichuan province of China since it struck on May 12, 2008. The speaker is Chao Zhong, vice-president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). The group is raising funds to help the earthquake victims. (Video clip by Michele Bourdieu)

HOUGHTON -- Strong winds on the Michigan Tech campus today did not discourage students, faculty and staff from lighting candles for moments of silence and prayer to honor the thousands killed, injured and missing since the May 12, 2008, earthquake hit the Sichuan province of China.

Vigil participants hold lighted candles during a moment of silence in honor of the earthquake victims in China. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

Michigan Tech's Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), International Programs and Services and a number of Black students' organizations sponsored the vigil and offered refreshments afterwards to participants.

Chao Zhong, center, CSSA vice-president, leads the vigil participants in some moments of silence and prayer to honor earthquake victims in China. CSSA, MTU's International Programs and Services and several Black students' organizations sponsored the vigil. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

MTU's Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) is collecting donations for the earthquake victims. They will have a donation table in the MUB Commons from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21, the third day of their donation event. Those who wish to donate off campus or at another time can write a check made out to CSSA 2008 Earthquake Donation and deposit it in their account at the Wells Fargo Bank. Visit the CSSA Web site for more details on how to donate or email

CSSA volunteers Guang Zhang of Hunan province, not far from the earthquake site, and Jiesheng (Jason) Wang of Auhui province volunteer at the CSSA donation table in the MUB on the Michigan Tech campus Tuesday, May 20, after the vigil. (Photo © 2008 Michele Bourdieu)

Donations can also be made directly through the Embassy of China Web site or by phone at 202-328-2500 or 202-328-2574.