Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 6, 2014

Empire plans make waves

By MICHELLE MERLIN mmerlin@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY – Village of Empire officials are considering charging visitors as much as $10 to park along the Lake Michigan beach, an effort to underwrite the community’s beach maintenance costs, supports said.

But such a move potentially could violate an agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources and jeopardize future state funding.

Trustees in the Leelanau County community last month voted to have lawyers review their agreement with the DNR. Village officials hope a parking charge would recover some beach maintenance costs now footed by the village and its 400 or so residents.

“We need to somehow come up with a means to maintain the beach without putting all the pressure on the village tax revenue,” said Gerry Shiffman, a village trustee.

Council members hope to charge $10 a day to park in one of the village’s 87 parking spots closest to the beach.

Charging for parking could violate an agreement with the Department of Natural Resources. The village’s beaches received two DNR trust fund grants, one for $60,000 in 1990 and another for $356,600 in 2005. One of the stipulations of the 2005 grant was that Empire officials cannot charge visitors a fee more than what’s charged at comparable local public recreational facilities.

Sleeping Bear Dunes charges $10 per vehicle per week, and Lake Township’s Flat River Area Park and Campground, in Benzie County, charges $4 a day.

“We would consider it a fee,” said Steve DeBrabander, who manages the DNR’s grants management section. “When you get a grant from the Trust Fund, the land that’s either acquired or developed is committed to public outdoor recreation in perpetuity.”

Violations of the agreement could jeopardize the village’s ability to receive future grants, DeBrabander said.

“Our goal here is, because these are state grants, that non-residents are not discriminated against,” DeBrabander said.

Shiffman estimated the village spends between $65,000 and $80,000 to maintain its beach each year, and charging $10 could bring in about $30,000 in revenue.

Shiffman said he doesn’t think charging for parking would violate the agreement.

“We are not charging an access fee. We are charging simply for the privilege of parking right there at the beach,” Shiffman said.

Village President Susan Carpenter said she worries about the message that pay-to-park would send to the DNR. She views charging $10 as a contract violation.

“I’m not in favor of breaking a contract,” Carpenter said. “If we sign a contract to do something, I believe it’s in the best interest of village not to add that liability. It’s not fair, not honest.”

Shiffman said board members are thinking about installing one machine in a centrally located area that would accept credit and debit cards. Village and township residents would have free passes, but no one is guaranteed one of the 87 spots.

“When they park there, they’re going to want to leave their vehicle there for the day and walk up into the village and shop and walk back down to the beach,” Shiffman said.

He said the village already hires someone to greet visitors and monitor parking, so he doesn’t foresee needing to hire an additional person.

Some local residents also voiced opposition to the parking fee idea.

“I’m concerned that it’s going to be a big stay-away sign for tourism if they have to pay 10 bucks to park at a parking space; that’s 10 dollars that’s not going to come to our business or local businesses,” said Jeremy Houghton, a manager at the Empire Village Inn.

Others who rely on business are less concerned.

“The majority of my customers are astonished that it’s actually free,” said Paul Skinner, who owns the antiques and gifts shop, the Misers’ Hoard, in downtown Empire. “Anyone who doesn’t pay for it through their taxes should have to pay for it.”