St Marys Cement Company responds; St Marys Press Release: misreading or obfuscation?

st marys web

Benjamin Gohs

News Editor

Was St Marys Cement’s Nov. 10 claim that its citizens advisory committee voted for some form of land swap simply misinterpreted?

Last week, the company responded to controversy surrounding what it called a “thank-you” letter to its Fisherman’s Island State Park Land Swap Citizens Advisory Committee.

“St Marys Cement regrets that our Nov. 10 press release regarding the completion of a Citizen Advisory Committee’s (CAC) discussion of a potential land swap was misinterpreted by some in the public as the CAC having formally endorsed a proposed land swap,” stated St Marys Cement Environmental Manager Cortney Schmidt in a Nov. 18 press release. “When read in its entirety, the intent of the press release was to thank the CAC for their time and effort, and to provide factual information regarding some of the broader aspects of proposal. It was never intended to announce results of the process. As was noted in the press release, a final report has yet to be written and issued. That report should be released before the end of the year.”

The document that started this all was originally entitled, “St Marys Cement thanks Citizens Advisory Committee for thorough examination and debate of possible land swap,” and it expressed St Marys’ gratitude to the committee of 21 people, which privately convened six times over four months.

“CAC members met six times to examine the possible land swap, discussing potential benefits to the park and community, their concerns with the project, and how FISP might be protected and improved if the project should move forward, it stated in the release. “By an 11-1 vote, the committee agreed that ‘Some form of swap is best for the community.’ The committee also created a list of priority improvements it would recommend for the park if the land swap occurs.”

Some CAC members and members of the public immediately bristled at the notion that anyone in the 11-1 vote did so with the notion that “Some form of swap is best for the community.”

“It was totally inaccurate,” said CAC member Anne Zukowski of Charlevoix—the lone “no” vote. “They made it sound like everybody agreed to the land swap, and that wasn’t the case.”

Despite repeated attempts to interview CAC member, and newly-elected First Ward Charlevoix City Councilman Luther Kurtz, he did not return phone calls by press time.

Newly-elected Charlevoix County Commissioner and CAC member Nancy Ferguson (R-District 6) also did not respond to the Boyne City Gazette’s requests for interview on the matter.

According to the Nov. 10 document, St Marys will decide within the next year whether it will apply to the DNR for the land swap.

“Clearly, committee members want FISP protected and improved as a community and state resource,” stated Schmidt in the Nov. 10 release. “The committee proposed specific ways to protect and improve the park, and we are grateful for their diligence, thoughtfulness and work.”

A final report summarizing the CAC’s actions is expected sometime in 2015.

Despite claims that no specific proposal has been made, St Marys Nov. 10 document detailed several possibilities if a land swap were to occur.

“Under the proposed land swap, St Marys Cement would trade some un-mined land it owns at the south end for some un-mined land owned by the state at the north end of the park,” it states in the Nov. 10 release. “The state park and the cement plant share a border along Bells Bay Road, with the main entrances to the plant and the park within a few hundred yards of each other.”
St Marys has repeated emphatically that no beach, shoreline or campsites will be negatively affected or lost if the swap were to occur.

“There were a bunch of bullet points about how campsites weren’t going to be taken and that the trail would still be there,” said Zukowski. “Those, in my opinion, are pretty much false. They might not lose any campsites and part of the trail but who wants to walk or camp by a berm with a big industrial operation right next to it? Even the beach would be impacted.”
She added, “Once you clear cut and quarry the area, it will disturb the whole integrity of the park.”

St Marys’ tentative proposal would also include the following:

• With MDNR approvals, improvements including modern facilities would be added to some of the camping areas.

• There are no changes planned to the 81 rustic campsites in the park.

• All trails would be preserved.

• New trails—including bicycle trail—could be added.

• Under the current land swap concept, the existing entrance to FISP on Bells Bay Road may be re-located.

• One or more new entrances might be built. However, any changes to the park, including to the entrances, would need MDNR approval

• The park would gain access to 4,000 feet of trout stream/McGeach Creek.

• The park would realize a net gain of about 40 acres of land.

• The park would gain natural wetlands and critical habitat.

• Wear and tear on nearby roads would be reduced because SMC trucks would be traveling shorter distances.

• Groundwater impacts from mining operations would decrease.

The Nov. 10 release closed with Schmidt stating that St Marys Cement would not support a land swap that didn’t benefit the community, park, environment and his company.

In the wake of the Nov. 10 missive, Schmidt argued that there was consensus, at least in principle.

“The 11-1 consensus was garnered with the verbal understanding that the participants were agreeing that, in principle, ‘some form of a swap has the potential to be good for the community’ versus completely ruling out a land swap,” he stated in the Nov. 18 response. “Like all other ‘votes,’ this was done by a show of hands. It was noted throughout the proceedings that the CAC did not want to endorse a land swap, because there was not a specific, formal proposal available for the committee’s review.”

Save Fisherman’s Island citizens group spokesman JoAnne Beemon said Schmidt’s explanation is pure obfuscation.

“What he’s not saying in there is there was no formal vote—the committee did not vote for any form of land swap, and they (St Marys) tried to spin it to make it look as though they had support,” she said. “Democracy is built on a free, open and transparent press, and an uninformed public cannot be free.”
Beemon added, “When they started to do the whole committee behind closed doors, they were asking for trouble. And, this is what they got. Now they are dancing a jig as people are firing at their feet—as they should be.”

According to Zukowski, she has attempted numerous times, to no avail, to contact St Marys Cement concerning the Nov. 10 press release and subsequent follow-up statement.

“I don’t think it was a fair characterization to say they (CAC members) would have voted for it if they saw a specific proposal,” she said.

Schmidt did offer one clarification to the Nov. 10 press release, in that there were 13 members of the CAC present at the final meeting.

“One individual on the CAC participated in the process with the understanding that they would serve in an advisory capacity only, and would refrain from ‘voting’ on any issue that exceeded their particular area of expertise,” stated Schmidt. “For that reason, this person did not participate in the consensus noted above.”

The day before Schmidt responded to the press release kerfuffle, Charlevoix City Council voted unanimously on a resolution to protect access to Fisherman’s Island State Park in direct relation to the land swap exploration.

“The City of Charlevoix has shown leadership, financial commitment and cooperation with Charlevoix Township by committing $40,000 in matching funds for development of the Lake to Lake multi-use trail, which will be accessed by the Bells Bay county road,” the Nov. 17 ordinance stated. “The City of Charlevoix wishes to maintain the existing safe and convenient access to the park and to preserve the campgrounds, trails and recreational land in the northern end of the Fisherman’s Island State Park within Charlevoix Township.”
It further stated, “The City of Charlevoix hereby supports the continued access to Fisherman’s Island State Park on Lake Michigan, from Bells Bay county road and the retention of the 416.3 acres of Fisherman’s Island State Park as forest and wildlife habitat within Charlevoix Township.”

Third Ward City Council member Shirley Gibson said the resolution was merely intended to show the council’s support of maintaining public access to the park.

“Nowhere does it say ‘land swap’ or ‘St Marys,’” said Gibson.

The city is expected to send the resolution along with a letter of support to the DNR and likely to Charlevoix County’s state senator and representative.

Gibson, who had wanted to sit on the land swap advisory committee but said her request was ignored, said she has only heard from people who are either neutral or opposed to the land swap concept.

Zukowski, who was thrilled with the city’s resolution, said she was skeptical of the entire citizens committee concept.

“I think this committee was a way for St Marys to try to have a pretense of public support when public support was not there,” she said. “Numerous meetings had been held, and the community had pretty much already spoken against the swap.”
Zukowski added, “St Marys said they would not go ahead with the swap if the community was against it, and I think they are using the committee to try to show that the community was in favor of it.”

Cortney Schmidt, who was on vacation at the time, said via phone on Friday Nov. 21, that he needed to get approval from his bosses before responding to questions the Boyne City Gazette had posed to him on the matter.

The questions are as follows:

• What metrics must St Marys reach before it decides to apply for the swap?

• Is there anything in the Nov. 10 press release that you feel needs to be corrected or retracted?

• What significance, if any, does the City of Charlevoix City Council resolution carry?

• It has been said by some that, if the majority of Charlevoix County citizens/residents do not support the land swap idea, St Marys would not seek it further. Is this true?

• And, if it is, then what percentage of the people would have to oppose it?