TRAVERSE CITY — Small crowds can pose big questions, as was the case at a session aimed at gathering input for planning the future of the Boardman River in Traverse City.
Fewer than 10 people came out for the second of two focus group sessions Wednesday, intended for community development, business-focused organizations and similar groups to weigh in on the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan.
The focus groups are part of an input strategy for a long-term plan for the river, leadership team member Tim Ervin said. It’ll be wide-ranging, from policy questions like planning and zoning to environmental issues like improving water quality and aquatic habitat, he said. It’s focusing on the river from Boardman Lake to West Grand Traverse Bay, Downtown Development Authority CEO Jean Derenzy said.
Those who attended Wednesday afternoon asked piercing questions about how best to preserve the river as a natural asset while improving access.
Bob Doyle, a facilitator with Smith Group helping planners gather input, told the crowd that people voiced those same desires at a mid-June, rainy debut that drew 130 people and 350 comments.
“One overriding sense that I got from the community input was, we really need to maintain what we have and encourage more natural resource development along the river, because while we want to use the river and have access to the river, we also don’t want it to look like a highly urbanized or a canal,” he said.
Doyle’s comments came after riverside resident Ellen Corcoran told him about the herons, otters and other wildlife she and her neighbors routinely see along the riverbanks.
She wanted to retain the river’s existing natural beauty that makes it such a good experience for residents and visitors, she said.
Corcoran also said river setback and flood zone zoning issues have to be a part of the planning.
Plans to reconsider riverside setbacks are on hold while the river plan forms, city Planner Russ Soyring said.
Audience and city Planning Commission member Tyler Bevier said parking between the river’s south shore and Front Street businesses could be turned into more green space.
Corcoran and Doyle pointed out the need to retain delivery access there, and Bevier suggested temporary seating areas in a few parking spots to test public sentiment.
There are opportunities to soften up river edges, as commenters requested.
Soyring said a 30-year-old engineering study identified a need to fix failing walls along the river in downtown. They could be repaired or replaced, but removing them would require relocating a large sanitary sewer line, he said.
“There are ways that we can move that sanitary sewer, is’t jut a matter of big dollar numbers to move it,” he said.
Paddle for Pints owner Troy Daily said the river gets far more recreational use than envisioned five years ago. He suggested adding more public bathrooms and trash cans along the river, having earlier noted the lack of access points.
Punitive measures to handle issues with people who use the river probably wouldn’t work long-term, while more proactive approaches like providing more trash cans could manage those issues better, Doyle said.
Corcoran said she thought the focus group was very informative, and thinks the planning process is going well so far.
Daily echoed this, and said he enjoyed hearing the feedback on a variety of topics.
“It’s cool to continue the process to see really how everything turns out and what they’ve listened to and what the river’s going to look like here in a couple of years,” he said.
Those behind the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan don’t want it to gather dust on a shelf, Ervin said.
Planners will create some specific recommendations for how to implement the plan, and how to manage and maintain those improvements, Doyle said. Draft recommendations for the public’s review could be ready by the fall, he said.
Elise Crafts, another leadership team member, said the team will convene next week to consider unconventional ways to gather more input. She asked for ideas on who and how to ask — Ervin said afterward they’re already setting more meetings based on earlier suggestions.
Ervin said one always hopes for a higher turnout, but he thought Wednesday’s focus group brought good ideas. Those who showed Wednesday afternoon were a part of the now hundreds of people to take part in the process, he said.
“We’re going to try everything we can think of to reach out to people and to get their ideas and opinions and get them engaged with the project,” he said.