Letter From Director Brian Price Re: Clay Cliffs Project Update

Readers of the Conservancy publications often tell us that they truly enjoy reading about conservation efforts on the Leelanau Peninsula precisely because we are one of the few reliable sources of good news. That is because we generally have good news to share: cherished land protected, volunteer efforts worthy of celebration, just the sheer beauty of the Leelanau landscape that we share with our members.

But there is another reason that we share primarily good news. Setbacks in complex negotiations occur in private settings, and usually a setback is just that, it isn’t the end of the road. If we hit an impasse, we reset, rethink, and find a way to start over. Often there is a lot of hard work, and occasional setbacks, that can’t be shared.

This past Wednesday Leland Township, with the Conservancy as its partner, suffered a very public setback when the township’s application to acquire the 104.5 acre Clay Cliffs property was not selected for funding in 2010 by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The property is one of only a handful of sizable privately-held coastal properties left along the Lake Michigan coastline in the lower peninsula. It has the virtue of connecting Lake Leelanau to Lake Michigan, has panoramic views over both lakes, and is home to a rare remnant of hardwood forest that has not been logged in nearly a century.

So what happened? First, the Trust Fund process is highly competitive. Applications are generally made by April 1, but there is a secondary application window on August 3 this year. From the time applications are received, the staff of the Recreation Grants Section of the Michigan DNR must evaluate each and every project, applying a set of scoring criteria that is established by the Trust Fund board. Shortly before the final Trust Fund board meeting of the year, a list of applications and scores is published. A project that scores well enough to be above the “cut line” will generally be funded, while one that scores below that line will not.

Sometimes a project that has tremendous value to the public simply does not score particularly well. The scoring criteria established for 2010 favored urban projects over those that came from rural areas, disadvantaged communities over wealthier communities, applications that came in at the April deadline rather than those that came in at the August deadline. Nevertheless, given the wonderful qualities of the Clay Cliffs property, we felt that the Township’s application would outweigh these problems. As it turned out, staffing shortages in the Recreation Grants Section resulted in potential grantees receiving their scores only a week before the final meeting of the Trust Fund, and two days before the long Thanksgiving weekend. When Clay Cliffs fell just short in some crucial scoring areas, it was too late to fix the problem.

Nevertheless, Leland Township sent Supervisor Harry Larkin, Clerk Jane Keen, and board member Susan Och to Lansing to make a final pitch for the project. Since Trust Fund board members make final decisions, and they routinely depart from pure scoring to try to make sure that good projects are funded, Leland Township’s contingent asked that the board find a way to fund this very deserving project. When the Board announced and passed its resolution including the list of funded projects the next day, our project was not funded.

Where do we go from here? Leaving Lansing in the early afternoon, I was able to deliver the bad news in person to the Clay Cliffs property owner. She wants to see this wonderful land protected and enjoyed by future generations of residents and visitors to Leelanau. While no decisions were made at this meeting, we were encouraged to continue to work to acquire the property. The following day, long-time Trust Fund board member Keith Charters spoke specifically about the Clay Cliffs property on a local radio program. He encouraged the Township to apply again in 2011 and acknowledging that the Clay Cliffs is “an incredible piece of property.” (Listen to Keith Charter interview with talk show host Ron Jolly here.)

We are sharing this disappointing news with our members because many of you know how important this land is to Leland Township and to the Conservancy. We thank our partners at Leland Township for doing a wonderful job to bring the project before the board and make the case for funding, and the owner who will continue to work with the Township and Conservancy. What do I think? While profoundly disappointed for the moment, I am, along with our staff and board, determined to find a way to get it done.

Brian Price, Executive Director, Leelanau Conservancy.

P.S. The Trust Fund’s list of approved projects for this round can be viewed

at http://www.michigan.gov/dnre/0,1607,7-269–247830–,00.html